The Russian-Ukrainian war has brought up a question that was earlier raised during the world financial crisis of 2008, namely is there now a recognisable world order? If there isn’t such an order, how best can global security and the regional security of international sub-systems such as the Arab regional system be preserved?
Any world order, whatever its format, has five preconditions or fundamentals. It has to exhibit a structure of states, non-state active parties, and active international organisations. It has to have a leadership, either unilateral, bilateral, or multilateral one. It has to have objectives that it seeks to accomplish and that its parties must acknowledge. Finally, it has to have a clear identity.
However, the world today is going through a turbulent phase that indicates the absence of such an order. Anxiety prevails, and there are threats of a looming major war. The international order does not have a clear identity, and there are doubts regarding its leadership. There is even conflict between Russia and China on the one hand and the US and Europe on the other.
The UN has laid out clear objectives, but these require funds before they can be realised and they heavily burden many states and especially the countries of the Global South. Most importantly, there is no agreement about who should be the leader of the world order, and there is dissatisfaction towards that order’s fragile shape.
This turbulent situation has drawn renewed attention to the issue of regional security and how to realise it. The world is moving towards the establishment of many regional sub-systems with a view to maintaining security, seen in the growth of NATO, for example, with new countries joining its 30 member states. The Organisation of American States (OAS), the African Union (AU), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Arab League, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are all equally active. Perhaps other regional organisations will emerge made up of countries that are close geographically and in terms of interests.
The question that should preoccupy all Arab minds is how to realise Arab national security in a turbulent world that seems incapable of mediating in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Despite the importance of the Joint Defence and Economic Cooperation Treaty signed by the Arab countries in 1950 and the institutions that it set up such as the Higher Military Committee and Joint Defence Council, when there was a proposal in 2015 to sign a Joint Arab Force Protocol this was not even submitted to voting.
The protocol stipulated that any act of aggression against one Arab country or more than one would be considered an act of aggression against all, with all the Arab countries bound to confront any such aggression. It thus repeated article five of the NATO Treaty that similarly binds members of that alliance.
However, the huge difference between the collective Western and European and Arab security systems that meant that the 2015 Protocol was not voted upon was that while the former has military forces that are advanced, equipped, trained and ready to address any act of aggression against any member state, the latter lacks these things and depends upon individual member states sending their own troops to repel dangers. It has also performed poorly in military conflicts.
But within the framework of the current international changes, from global to regional and until a new world order can be set up that will maintain Arab national security on a collective basis, there are steps that can be taken to ensure that an effective Arab security system can be built.
Non-Arab neighbouring countries, especially Iran with its dream of a new Persian Empire, Turkey with its illusion of a renewed Ottoman Caliphate, Israel with its swallowing up of Palestinian and Arab land, and Ethiopia with its plans to reduce the amount of water reaching the downstream Nile Basin countries all constitute main threats to Arab security.
Various attempts to set up Middle Eastern security systems comprising some of the Arab countries and some of the neighbouring countries have been halted by the Arab countries, which are all too aware of how these could impact Arab national security. Joint Arab interests require an effective security system that provides protection and sustainability, and this means the setting up of an Arab Strategic Alliance (ASA) that will replace the Joint Defence Treaty and be independent of the Arab League. It would be set up on the model of NATO regarding structure, arms, training, and the choice of headquarters.
This new ASA would be a tool to ensure Arab national security on a regional basis in the present phase. It would be founded on an agreement about the sources of the threats to security in the Arab region and on their degree and ways in which they could be handled. It would be an alliance that would seek to ensure the security of the Arabian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and Arab territorial waters. It would be an alliance comprising all the Arab states, at the core of which would be Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Algeria.
It would be an alliance that would aim at repelling aggression if it took place or deterring it before it occurred. It would present the Arab world as a robust and active regional system to the rest of the world. In the light of the absence of an international collective security system, one in which the UN, born out of the circumstances of the Cold War, has proved ineffective, the new ASA would be an Arab collective response to the danger of the present world order’s uncertainty and turbulence.
* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly