The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s led to an optimistic period in international relations.
It would seem that American philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” is materializing and that human history, which was previously characterized by struggles between ideologies, has indeed reached its end.
From this point on, the advocates of this approach argue, we shall be living in a world in which liberal democracy has prevailed, with no ideological challengers.
The 9/11 attacks in 2001 shattered those optimistic forecasts. All at once, it seemed that the opposing “clash of civilizations theory” of American political science professor Samuel Huntington, which holds a pessimistic view of the struggle between peoples and civilizations, was more suitable.
Thus, before the dust from the collapsing World Trade Center settled, US foreign policy sharply turned toward neo-conservatism, according to which US military and economic power were to be used to impose liberal democratic regimes as a means of disseminating world peace. This was put into practice by president George W. Bush in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
The Afghanistan and Iraq wars had two significant regional consequences.
Firstly, they shattered the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, leading to the rise of Iran. It was Washington that eliminated the ideological threat against the ayatollahs’ regime from the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and later the military threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Thus, its former adversaries eliminated without it having to lift a finger, Iran soared to a strong, threatening regional status, resulting in an increase in the historical hostility between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
Another influence of no lesser effect was the democratic “bang” that president George W. Bush wished to instigate throughout the Middle East, which eventually worked, but only after he left office and with unintended consequences.
The voting of Barack Obama into power in January 2009 gave new spirit to seekers of peace and freedom worldwide.
The Cairo Address that Obama gave in June that year talked of the need to spread democracy and human rights in the Arab and Muslim world.
The Arab Spring, which broke out about a year later, expressed the ambitions of many residents of the region to replace oppressive regimes with more open and liberal political systems.
The political about-turn of president Obama and his abstention from military involvement in the Middle East led to a great degree to the deterioration of the Arab Spring into a serious regional crisis, which instead of leading to the welcome change of “spreading democracy and human rights” had many adverse consequences. Obama relinquished his Egyptian ally Hosni Mubarak, resulting from which Egypt entered a chaotic period that included two coups; US and Western operations in Libya eventually led to the downfall of the Gaddafi regime and the breakdown of the state; following the civil war, Syria became a failed state with no effective government, in which many radical forces, such as Islamic State, armed rebel groups and Hezbollah fight alongside regional and global powers including Turkey, Iran, the United States and primarily Russia.
However, the war in Syria has also caused one of the worst humanitarian crises of modern times, leading to the deaths of about half a million people.
Obama’s “sit back and do nothing policy,” which did not change even after Assad used chemical weapons, contributed greatly to the influx of refugees that is sweeping over European countries.
The ironic result may be interpreted as a kind of unintentional “historical justice.” The Europe that had left the Middle East at the end of World War Two after decades of financially plundering the region and its residents now has to accept the descendants of its former subjects.
The 9/11 attacks led to a broadening of US influence in the Middle East, disrupted the regional power balance and caused the Arab Spring to break out.
However, the consequences were not confined to the Middle East. It would seem that the attempt to spread liberal democracy in the Arab-Muslim world has not only been unsuccessful, but to a great extent may be identified as one of the factors that have resulted in the decay of these values in the Western world itself.
The “Western Winter” that is developing in the mostly rich, free and democratic northern hemisphere is characterized by a comprehensive liberal movement that is transforming into a right-wing fascist direction and a leftwing anti-global direction. The plight that Western liberal democracy is facing is disrupting the existing order, as demonstrated by the rise of rightwing powers and xenophobic parties in Europe, and Brexit, the United Kingdom’s secession from the European Union. The echoes of this bang have also crossed the ocean to the United States, and are manifesting in a hateful struggle between opposing factions in the US presidential election campaign.
To complete the picture, two other important changes in the international scene should be mentioned. The first is the rise of non-state entities on the international scene, whether terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida and ISIS, or individuals, such as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and NSA whistle- blower Edward Snowden.
The second significant change is the transition from traditional, slow and regulated media to new, rapid and universally accessible media. The Arab Spring events proved that social networks are capable of mobilizing large crowds and can even lead to the overthrow of regimes. The abortive coup attempt in Turkey also demonstrated that regimes may use social media in order to retain power.
Going back to the Middle East reveals that the region, which has been managed in the past hundred years based on the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the principles of the European nationstates that developed after the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, also includes many areas that lack governability.
In Syria, Iraq, Libya and Sinai, state mechanisms have been replaced with pre-state or non-state mechanisms that involve control by gangs and horrific violence against civilians.
In the previous century, there were three wars that led to systemic changes – the two world wars the Cold War.
Although the current century is only in its infancy, it will probably be identified with the 9/11 attacks, which while limited in terms of destruction and death toll have certainly made the world a different place, and to a great extent a much more dangerous one.
The author teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. During the years 2009-2011 he was a visiting researcher at the Center for Peace & Security Studies (CPASS) in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service (SFS). His postdoctoral research is in the field of international relations. This article was first published in Hebrew in Maariv