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Coping with A Fractious World

November 16, 2018
By Senator George J. Mitchell

Fear of the future and complaining about the current state of affairs are as old as human civilization.

In 1968 the Vietnam War was raging; President Johnson withdrew; Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Riots tore through many American cities.

In the 1930’s, during the great depression, unemployment in the U.S. reached 24 percent and a frightened nation struggled to survive.

Much earlier in history, a thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Greek city-states went through a long, slow transition from dictatorship, to oligarchy, to an early form of democracy. The word “democracy” is derived from two Greek words: “demos,” the people; and “craci,” the rule of.  Democracy was seen as a radical departure from past tradition and a danger to the whole society.

Today, twenty-five hundred years later, democracy still faces challenges. And the world is dangerous, as it always has been.

In the twentieth century, an estimated one hundred million people were killed in wars, in a world in which the population was a third of what it is today. Each death in conflict is a tragedy. But today the deaths are in the dozens or scores. In the 20th century, and before, they often were in the hundreds and the thousands.

That could happen again if another world war erupts. But that is not likely in the foreseeable future because of the military dominance of the United States and its allies. However, local and regional conflicts will continue, with devastating impacts on those directly involved.

In the coming decades, it will become increasingly clear that the long period of relative stability that followed the second world war has come to an end. Across a wide swath of the globe, from South Asia to the Indian subcontinent, from the Middle East across Africa, populations will grow rapidly in the coming decades.

Human beings first appeared on the earth an estimated 300,000 years ago. But it was not until about 200 years ago that the world’s population reached one billion. The most recent billion, the seventh, was added in thirteen years. Although the rate of increase has since slowed, the absolute numbers continue to rise rapidly. Much of the growth is taking place in countries already not able to meet the basic needs of their people, many struggling with widespread corruption and the absence of an effective rule of law.

Middle East Upheavals

The political history of the Middle East provides insight into recent and future problems. For more than four centuries, what we now call the Middle East was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, based in Turkey. When that empire collapsed in the aftermath of the first world war, Britain and France effectively divided up control of the region. Some of the political boundaries they created did not reflect the history, or the interests, of the people who live in the Middle East. That order lasted nearly a century but has now collapsed under the weight of population growth, drought, mistrust, and violence.

All of these factors are magnified by religious differences. Islam is now torn by internal conflicts, some of which overlap and intersect. Some date from the colonial and post-World War I periods. Others go all the way back to the seventh century and the political competition to succeed the prophet Mohamed, which led to the division between Sunni and Shia.

That division has been marked by alternating periods of remission and violent expansion. It is now intense and expanding. Saudi Arabia and Iran, the leaders of the two groups, are increasingly hostile.

Conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen have inflamed the Sunni-Shia split, with catastrophic consequences for the people of those countries. Radical extremists like ISIS sought to impose a rigid form of Islam as they claim it was practiced during the life of the prophet Mohamed in the seventh century.

One result has been massive upheaval in the region and the greatest movement of people across national boundaries since the second world war. But as the flood of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa demonstrates, what most people there want, is what most people everywhere want: a stable and secure society, a decent job, a home, and especially the chance to get their children off to a good start in life.

The current upheaval is likely to continue for decades, and likely will have uneven results. The results of the Arab Spring are disappointing, but there are some exceptions: In Tunisia democracy has a fragile foothold. In Morocco the royal family is charting a course for what some call democratization within monarchy.

To those in the West who are impatient or condescending to the pace of change in the Middle East, we should not forget that Europe was shaped by centuries of conflict. In France more than a half century elapsed from the time of revolution to the modern republic. In England it was hundreds of years.

The Middle East is, and always has been, complex. Consider the tangle of the United States’ relationships there: we oppose the Assad regime in Syria, but we also oppose ISIS, which is fighting the Assad regime. The Syrian Kurds join us in opposing ISIS, but the Kurds are being attacked by Turkey, one of our allies. We also combat ISIS in Iraq, where we are joined by Shia militias who are supported by Iran, whom we oppose. In Afghanistan, we oppose the Taliban, who receive support from Pakistan, one of our allies. Pakistan meanwhile has fought several wars with India, another of our allies.

We are allied with Israel, but we also are allied with many Arab and Muslim countries. For decades, the U.S. has had close relationships with Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and others.

Of the seven and a half billion people on earth today, nearly one in four, about 1.8 billion, are Muslim. Sometime after midcentury the total population will be close to ten billion, and about a third will be Muslim. To put that in perspective: 3 billion was the total world population as recently as 1960.

So, in the twenty-first century what happens in the Muslim world inevitably will affect everyone, in particular the dominant world power, the United States. The United States has a clear and compelling interest in remaining involved in the Middle East and in doing all we can to help reduce violence and upheaval.

Inevitably there will be many more years of disruption, and no single policy or action can solve all of the region’s problems. But a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a significant step that might enable some of the countries, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, to cooperate in opposing their common foes: Iran and Islamic terrorist organizations, those supported by and those opposed to Iran.

There is little reason to be optimistic at this time about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  For the first year and a half of his Administration, the President has been promising a new plan to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But no plan has been presented and it is unlikely that one will be presented any time soon. My hope is that Israelis and Palestinians will themselves weigh the risks of delay and inaction, against the benefits of an agreement.

I believe it is important for the United States to try to create the right incentives to encourage the parties to enter serious negotiations and reach an agreement. I believe there is no such thing as a conflict that cannot be ended. How the U.S. responds to these challenges will have effects all over the world.

In the 75 years before 1945, Europe was devastated by three major land wars; in the last two the U.S. decisively intervened.

In World War II alone, an estimated 63 million people died, in a world in which the population was less than half of what it is today. Led by the U.S., the western democracies helped Germany, Japan and Italy to rebuild and become durable democracies, and created international institutions whose goal was peace, stability and prosperity: The United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary fund, and, crucially, the European Union (EU).

They sought to prevent a repeat of the past by promoting increased trade and collective security. They have been largely successful.

But in little more than a year in office, President Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris Accords on climate change; from the Agreement with Iran on its nuclear program; and from the Trans Pacific Trade Agreement. He initially rejected the Obama Administration’s effort to reach a trade agreement with the European Union but has recently resumed that effort. And the President has sought to resolve trade disputes with China, Canada and the European countries through tariffs, rather than through the trade-dispute mechanisms of the World Trade Organization.

I believe that cooperative efforts with our historic allies are not harmful to U.S. interests. To the contrary, these recent agreements and the post-World War II institutions have been beneficial to those who participated in them, including and especially the U.S.

Any American who thinks the world is unsafe now should contemplate a world in which there was no NATO, no European Union, no World Trade Organization, no UN. In that world constant trade wars could lead to real wars, and the U.S., as the dominant power, invariably would be called upon to lead alone.

Our ties with Europe predate the establishment of our country. We gained our independence from England by revolution, but we retained England’s language, laws and customs. Although our early relations were hostile, over time the two countries formed what remains a “special relationship.”

As our nation grew to settle a vast continent, we welcomed millions of immigrants from all over the world, and especially from Europe. As a result, we have deep bonds of blood with Europe, not just legal relationships. While we compete in many ways, we should not think of them primarily as adversaries. They also are our partners and our allies. Although they do not always agree with us, or even among themselves, for the most part they admire our country and they share our values and our interests.

The U.S.’s Vital Role

Because it is in our interest, and theirs, we should do all we can – politically, economically, militarily, and otherwise – to help the people of Europe and of Canada to remain democratic, united, free and prosperous.

I have confidence in our country and our people. I believe that our democratic institutions remain strong and that science and reason will prevail over fear and looking backward. I believe we must, we can, and we will devise the policies to deal effectively with these and the many other challenges that we will confront in the coming decades.

To do so, we must be true to our principles. Our democratic ideals distinguished our nation from the very beginning, and they always have appealed to people all around the world. They still do. Our economic strength and our military power are necessary and important. But our ideals have been and are the primary basis of American influence in the world.

They’re not easily summarized, but surely, they include: the sovereignty of the people; the primacy of individual liberty, our highest value; an independent judicial system; the rule of law, applied equally to all citizens, and, crucially, to the government itself; and opportunity for every member of our society.

We must never forget that the United States was a great nation long before it was a great economic or military power. We recognize that all human beings and all human institutions are imperfect. We acknowledge that we are not always right, and we can never be perfectly consistent, but we can and must work harder and better to live up to our principles, as individuals and as citizens of our countries.

Finally, we must especially work to more fully realize the aspirations of opportunity for all peoples. No one should be guaranteed success, but everyone should have a fair chance to succeed.

From the experience of our daily lives we know that opportunity for all remains an aspiration.  We must make it a reality. We must raise our actions to the level of our aspirations.

Our goal should be to live in a society that encourages striving and celebrates success, is conducive to innovation, and enables us to benefit from the talent, energy, and skill of every citizen. That’s our challenge. We must make it our destiny.

The views and opinions in these articles are solely of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Teneo. They are offered to stimulate thought and discussion and not as legal, financial, accounting, tax or other professional advice or counsel.

This article appeared in Teneo's Vision 2019 Book.
To access more insights from this book:

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