This project evaluates how the Arab Spring has affected US and EU policy towards regional allies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The events in one country after another were viewed from across the West with a mixture of awe and hope. There was great respect for the bravery of individual citizens who seemed to be willing to risk everything for a chance to topple existing authoritarian regimes, and this was coupled with a genuine desire to see personal political freedom extended to those people who had previously enjoyed very little of it. At the same time, though, as the wider population in the West was watching with great anticipation the efforts of indigenous democracy campaigns to cast off their existing political shackles, it must be noted that the Arab Spring itself serves as direct repudiation of the democratisation policy previously being conducted in the region by both the US and EU.
The project seeks to understand this tension by exploring how strategic calculations which attempt to balance democracy promotion by external actors with the security of other interests in the region are being transformed by events. Encouraging democratic transition in the MENA has been the stated aim of US and EU policy-makers since September 11 2001 in the name of national security at home, on the assumption that the socialisation of individuals to democratic norms will lessen the chances of the MENA becoming a breeding ground for terrorist organisations. Significantly, though, the one model of democracy promotion which does not appear to have been on the agenda of policy-makers in Washington and Brussels was the type of bottom-up demand for democracy from civil society groups which animated the Arab Spring. Western policy-makers instead have always preferred a policy of gradualism which tried to work with the region’s existing autocratic regimes. The Arab Spring challenges such a strategy in the most dramatic way imaginable, as it does the assumption that autocratic regimes will provide regional stability. This has fatally undermined existing policy, leaving US and EU foreign policy establishments struggling to create a new grand strategy of engagement with the region. The project explores this gulf in policy making, charting: (i) the new initiatives which have emerged from Washington and Brussels to replace the now largely defunct policy which dominated before the Arab Spring; and (ii) the tensions which remain from the failure so far to remove all remaining vestiges of the original policy.
Arguably the biggest challenge which continues to face Western policy-makers is the need for the US and EU to discover whether they have the foreign policy-making capacity to cope with the new regional realities on the ground. In particular, this might mean having to challenge the vested interests which have become embedded in their own security cultures if they are to promote that capacity successfully. The debate is currently in a continual process of reframing, as events are ongoing. This project seeks to trace that process of reframing in an attempt to show just how flexible the US and EU might now be to respond successfully to upcoming developments in the transition movements which were first activated during the Arab Spring. After all, it is not clear what the region will transform into: will the end result of the uprisings be more peaceful and stable democracies, a reversion back to autocratic rule after a temporary pro-democracy hiatus, the seizure of power by Islamist-dominated governments that are openly hostile to the “West”, or a complex combination of all three when viewing the region as a whole?