Ferment in North Africa: A Guerrilla Diplomacy Take

Stand-off in Tunis.

Riots in Khartoum

Cairo burning.

In the erstwhile global village, which today looks more like an island patchwork of  heavily guarded, gated communities surrounded by an angry sea of seething shantytowns, the relentless forces of globalization continue to transform world politics. Cairo is the current, and increasingly turbulent epicentre, but many countries in the region are susceptible to similar rebellions.

In Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan and elsewhere, change is unfolding very rapidly. The reactions of the USA, EU, UN, and certainly Canada have positioned the international community well behind the curve. Developments on the ground have outpaced responses by a wide margin, and an anti-Western backlash, which could carry major economic and political implications, cannot be ruled out.

What, then, are the the broad strategic considerations which decision-makers could usefully take into account?

Several of the principal arguments advanced in Guerrilla Diplomacy may offer insights useful in interpreting the larger meaning and impact of these breaking events. The following thematic survey is offered to that end.

Globalization has become a driver of instability and a major contributor to insurrection.

As the defining historical process of our times, globalization generates wealth and creates opportunities, but not for all. The benefits tend to be uneven, which can result in increasing inequity and polarization within and between states. A few beneficiaries are squeezed upwards, while those less fortunate are forced down. Some win, more lose, and few are left untouched. Under certain circumstances, such as rising unemployment or food and fuel price increases, this volatile combination can trigger the collective release of anger and disaffection, often expressed through revolt. That dynamic, destabilizing response to globalization is one of the major forces animating today’s news.

Science and technology is a two-edged sword which cuts all ways.

In previous postings I have noted that even as science and technology (S&T) provide solutions to some of the world’s most difficult problems, they can also generate new ones. This has been illustrated clearly in the case with the WikiLeaks revelations. In North Africa, technology has until now allowed for ever more efficient repression, but today is fuelling and abetting resistance. Negative perceptions have been exacerbated and protest planning facilitated by widespread and relatively inexpensive access to information and communications technologies, such as cell phones and the internet. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, for example, are said to have figured centrally in the Tunisian uprising; efforts by the Mubarak regime to forestall similar developments in Egypt by shutting down network access have not been entirely successful. In the age of globalization, S&T makes possible the formation of virtual communities almost instantly and represents a critical new variable.

Underdevelopment breeds insecurity.

Development is a somewhat amorphous concept, but it occurs where individuals are able to attain some semblance of their full economic, social and political potential without undue or unjust constraint. From development flows security, which flourishes when people are able to meet their basic needs in the absence of want and fear. Security and development, therefore, are joined at the hip, two sides of the same coin. In North Africa, however, growing income disparities, an expanding youth demographic, and skyrocketing unemployment have conspired to ensure that neither are much in evidence. This combination of underdevelopment and insecurity, as we are witnessing,  can be explosive.

Religious fanaticism and political violence are symptomatic mainly of deeper problems

To date, most of the action in the streets has been non-violent in nature and secular in orientation. Given the chance, and particularly if strides are made towards democracy, good governance, respect for human rights and the rule of law, it is my experience that most people would rather pursue economic and educational opportunities than resort to jihad or seek violent retribution. But if already pronounced conditions of exploitation and injustice are ignored or exacerbated, then desperation may grow, especially if disorder spreads and shortages become epidemic. Should real reform be thwarted or material circumstances worsen, everything could change, with those offering extreme solutions moving into fill the void.

Western military power is largely irrelevant

In many underdeveloped countries, the bureaucracy is reviled and the military is respected, if not revered as one of the few national institutions that functions. In the industrialized world, however, although the civilian agencies of government work passably well, what really sets the armed forces apart from other international policy instruments is their receipt of the lion’s share of available resources. Given that bombs and guns can’t be used to address the variety of real threats and challenges facing the planet – climate change, pandemic disease, poverty, environmental collapse – this represents a serious misallocation. We seem to have forgotten the main lesson that should have been learned from the Cold War, namely that armies work best when they aren’t used.  Similarly, today in the southern Mediterranean, sending in the marines, blockading the ports or calling in an air strike will not encourage the desired outcomes. Besides being costly to maintain, hard power is of very limited utility in a heteropolar world.  Nuanced understanding and effective civil assistance are more likely to produce laudable results.

Diplomacy could make a difference

In Washington, Brussels, Paris, London and elsewhere, the current crisis underscores the difficulties  inherent in trying to balance values and interests, and in expressing that balance through the articulation of coherent international policy. When autocratic regimes have been supported for decades, and even when the status quo becomes obviously untenable, it is difficult to know how best to respond. This is precisely where engaging the negotiating, knowledge-based  problem solving, and complex balancing capacities of diplomacy should be invaluable. Conventional, state-to state representational mechanisms can be used to help ease former friends from office and into exile. Public diplomacy may be used to support peace and progress, and to communicate the views of concerned governments directly to foreign populations. Guerrilla diplomacy is ideally suited, among other things, to the cultivation of ties with the emerging resistance leaders, and to generating intelligence at the grass roots level. Unfortunately, guerrilla diplomacy remains next to non-existent, and foreign ministries most everywhere, under-funded and struggling to adapt, are ill-equipped to perform.

Looking ahead? A demonstration effect is roiling the region, and more extensive turmoil can be anticipated.  The events unfolding in Tunis, Cairo, and Khartoum illustrate that in the age of globalization, governments need desperately to find a better way to deliver international policy. In that respect, a focus on diplomacy and development could be used to address the root causes of insecurity, and in a way that works without the manifold costs associated with the threat or use of armed force.

Security, after all, is not a martial art.