Cooperation as a way out of turmoil for the Middle East

Cooperation as a way out of turmoil for the Middle East

In his recent book, Henry Kissinger traces the origin of what he called “world order” back to the famous peace treaty concluded in the German region of Westphalia in 1648, after a century of sectarian and political conflicts, and 30 and 80 years of religious wars in Europe. The “Westphalian Peace” relied on a system whereby sovereign states refrained from interfering in each other’s domestic affairs through a general balance of power. No single claim to truth as universal rule had prevailed in Europe’s contests. Instead, each state was assigned the attributes of sovereign power over its territory.

Let us reflect on the genesis of the Middle East countries from a balance of power perspective. Pax Ottomana, which prevailed in the region until the beginning of World War I, was replaced by the mandate system, which divided the region into areas of influence of European powers, thus laying the foundation for later wars and civil wars. Each of the entities created included multiple sectarian and ethnic groups. In reality, these newly established countries were an extension of the European Westphalian order in the Middle East.

The Middle East states born in the aftermath of World War I had lived the past century hanging between the imperatives of the former European Westphalian order and the subsequent Cold War order, and the whims and caprices of selfish leaders. Subsequently, the region was engulfed by the Arab Cold War, which characterized Arab politics for decades. 

So, how should the people of the region build peace? Do they need to wait for 30 years of wars to have their own Westphalia agreements? 

I will allude to several key parameters of a new vision for the region’s future. The first is the aspiration to secure a better future that is built on two pillars: mutual acceptance and peaceful coexistence. The second parameter is embracing the spirit of moderation and modernization: the panacea against radicalism and the misuse of Islam for evil ends. Without ensuring human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the rule of law, Middle East societies will never have a secure future. The vision’s third parameter, which relates to political stability, contains two important factors that reinforce each other: the strong rejection of state disintegration in the region and the development of policies toward integration. 

Today, the objective is not to redraw the borders in the region, but to transform these borders from being sources of problems into meeting points and convergence zones and promoting economic cooperation. 
This is where the fourth parameter, that is, the economic dimension of the vision, comes into play. Increasing commercial ties among Muslim and Arab countries can break the vicious circle of political instability, so that socioeconomic and political factors will start functioning in the right direction. 

The European cooperation/integration process has provided a success story of the creation of a prosperous European society. In a nutshell, we can state that regional economic cooperation/integration groupings not only provide strong growth and development within community members, but also prevent political competition and crises among members. 

A successful example from the Muslim world is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). At the end of 2013, intra-OIC trade reached 18.5 percent of total trade; in absolute terms, it increased from $271.5 billion to $767.6 billion. This shows a significant increase, despite all political problems and crises. Actually, the figures cover 57 member countries of the OIC, but I believe that the case for the Middle Eastern countries would be much better. 

A better future for the region hinges upon developing an effective regional strategy in accordance with inter-regional and international cooperation linkages, which is not hostile to any party within or outside the region. This can also assuage the societal nostalgia for the glory of the past and help the region’s people come to terms with today’s sufferings. 

In conclusion, the process of developing this vision should start immediately through regional dialogue, which is the only way to build a political consensus. 

*Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu is a member of parliament for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). He was also the former secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) from 2004 to 2013. This is an abridged version of the original article published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Spring 2015 issue.