A good time to close divisions between friends
At the conclusion of last week’s NATO summit, US President Joe Biden noted that the alliance’s unity in the face of Russian aggression toward Ukraine had perhaps been a consequence unexpected by President Vladimir Putin. Just like with Europe and the EU, which also seemed to be at odds and fractious, Putin’s misreading of outdated briefs might have given him the confidence to believe his strike against Ukraine would sow confusion among weakened partners, leading to inaction.
This has not been the case. Not only have the liberal democracies simply pulled together in terms of their opinion, but they have actively aided Ukraine militarily and financially, promised to be there for the long haul and, in the cases of Sweden and Finland, revised generations of neutrality to declare themselves unequivocally opposed to what they consider to be a mortal threat on their doorsteps.
This may, astonishingly, have been the easy bit. The Middle East well knows that the longer conflict goes on, the more difficult things become and the more tensions rise. It now appears as if Ukraine will go the same way as other modern conflicts — a distressingly long period of attrition and atrocity, which will form a backdrop to diplomatic conversations for years to come.
While this will test the unity of Europe, NATO and the West, the protracted nature of the conflict will also impact on relationships with the Middle East, where the conflict is not seen in quite the same way. It has become commonplace to recognize, as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in his closing remarks at the NATO conference, that “not every country takes the same view of Putin’s invasion or sees it in the way that we do.”
Good friends in the Middle East and North Africa have explained their point of view. Their region has been riven by war for decades; wars in which the West has played no small part. Our interventions have yielded mixed results and our willingness to listen to our friends’ advice as to what was really going on has appeared limited at times. For the best of reasons, perhaps, we have made agreements and deals with some, while leaving others in the corridor outside.
The protracted nature of the Ukraine conflict will impact the West’s relationship with the Middle East.
On occasions, our unwillingness to act when we had promised to do so, as in Syria, has led to dismay and uncertainty over our long-term interest and engagement. And too often our concerns for those affected by war have appeared to center on the impact it might have on us, in terms of migration, rather than on the impact on them. And now, suddenly, when it is “war in Europe,” we expect everyone to see it our way.
These are tough words for the West to hear and, while we might not agree with all of them, we must not make the mistake of dismissing them.
At the European Council for Foreign Relations annual council meeting in Berlin last month, we discussed the impact of the situation in Ukraine on ourselves and our neighbors beyond Europe. We all recognized that conflict is more than just the physical. Sowing doubt and division among the allies of the enemy is part and parcel. If Putin expected division in Europe or NATO, then he has currently been foiled. Russia will now have to seize with renewed determination any opportunity to prise open such divisions elsewhere, so as to seek justification and eventually acceptance of a territory-seizing ideology, with few boundaries, based on the subjugation of sovereignty.
Europe and the Middle East share too much to allow this to happen to them and should be taking steps to close any gaps. Europe should directly tackle the sense that the region has become of less importance to it and the US and demonstrate less self-interest and short-termism. We should recognize the acute crisis over food, especially wheat and bread, and do all we can to unblock supplies at source, as well as help prepare for the emergencies in the region ahead.
We should ensure our compassion for refugees is not confined to migration issues — the forthcoming UN Security Council vote on access to Syria will sharply contrast those who support humanitarian corridors and those who do not. We should increase investment and support for energy diversification and encourage the success of the upcoming UN climate change conferences in the region, with Egypt hosting COP27 this year and COP28 being in the UAE in 2023. We should be reacting more to the droughts, dust storms and climate crises in the region and work together on solutions. We should continue to note the economic and employment pressures facing states with rising young populations and encourage direct investment and support the reforms needed.
The interests of Europe, the US and the Middle East and North Africa region remain closely aligned. Ukraine is changing much in how the world will be shaped — we should all take the opportunity afforded to note the divisive dangers facing us and our need to combat them.
• Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK