West must rewrite playbook on dealing with North Africa
Although the Maghreb is not exactly a top priority in the policymaking corridors of Brussels or Washington, this subregion retains great potential for successful engagement and closer cooperation and collaboration for a troubled transatlantic partnership facing a global, multi-front geopolitical onslaught.
Setting the US aside, Europe and North Africa are intrinsically linked by more than just a rich history and unique geographical proximity, affording both regions plentiful opportunities to foster shared values and pursue similar strategic interests.
There was hope just over a decade ago when a revolutionary wave swept through parts of North Africa, ushering in a tense period of unprecedented change and uncertainty; creating a near-perfect chance for the West to seize the moment and step up its engagement in this part of Europe’s vast “neighborhood.” Today, however, the landscape is a far cry from the now-forgotten aspirational lunge for citizen-led democracies and the preservation of civil liberties.
This year alone, North Africa stands at a precipice vis-a-vis Libya’s quarrelsome political quagmires and heightened uncertainty over Tunisia’s back-sliding democratization, as well as escalating tensions between regional rivals Algeria and Morocco. These daunting scenarios and a persistent record of failure (see Libya and Tunisia) should not dissuade critical engagement, but should rather underwrite more of it. This is not least for preserving Mediterranean and European strategic security, but also stemming migratory surges, while backing sustainable political, socioeconomic, institutional and other reforms across the region. However, the reality is, frankly speaking, quite disappointing.
The European view on North Africa remains a victim of Brussels’ usual knack for contorting itself around meandering bureaucratic maneuvering that prizes consensus-building among the divergent interests of its members over decisive engagement that meets the urgency of the moment. It is no surprise that, even when each North African country is grappling with a slew of domestic challenges that have eroded most of the gains made in the last decade and fueled public antipathy against painful democratization processes, Brussels has still not been able to define a coherent set of policies toward the subregion.
Instead of skillfully establishing pathways for cooperation on, for instance, shared geopolitical interests, Europe has allowed member states to pursue their own narrow interests, damaging prospects for regional collaboration on challenges like stemming migratory surges from sub-Saharan Africa.
For the US, on the other hand, North Africa is too far down its list of priorities to even attempt meaningful engagement beyond pushing for closer counterterrorism and counterinsurgency cooperation — deferring the laborious effort at developing a thorough understanding of each North African country’s highly complex, hyper-localized dynamics and demands to a distracted Europe. Washington’s view on North Africa naturally evolved from an unchanging perception that the region only has a few, manageable threats to American interests.
Daunting scenarios and a persistent record of failure should not dissuade critical engagement, but should rather underwrite more of it.
Thus, it warrants a less involved approach in a part of the world technically viewed as Europe’s backyard, even when a few of the countries are hobbled by destabilizing elements, wayward external influence by known adversaries, the resurgence of authoritarianism or are undermined by open-ended political processes.
For decades, the US and Europe have had complementary, not necessarily shared, approaches to North Africa. Where Europeans sought to probe its southern neighborhood, seeking opportunities to promote European norms, values and priorities via trade, soft power, security cooperation and dialogue, the US simply cleaved the Middle East and North Africa into two, focusing its attention on the former while severely limiting its diplomatic and military outreach across the latter.
This may have “worked” before, but the 2011 uprisings more or less decimated that old order, leaving permeable, fragile and collapsed states in its wake. These are now overrun by alternative forms of government, armed non-state actors, aspiring despots and meddling foreign powers, exacerbating regional and global rivalries, fueling even more conflict and instability.
In turn, like a vicious cycle, the heightened prospects for extraterritorial conflicts, especially using energy as a proxy or motivation for confrontation, has led to greater instability, intensifying transnational challenges that are a mix of local anxieties, regional competition and global geopolitics. One dramatic consequence that has brought North Africa back to the fore in European policy discourse since 2011, at least, is migration.
Prolonged fragility, poverty, illiberalism and conflict have created swells of desperate migrants, who are increasingly becoming a tool for origin and transit countries to extort concessions from Europe. In response, Brussels has tried a variety of approaches that are yet to effectively stem migratory tides, since most of those solutions are knee-jerk attempts at resolving a perceived problem on their doorstep, instead of the more effective method of dealing with the underlying causes.
This reluctance to engage meaningfully or focus laser-like on underlying fragilities to preempt crises before they cross the Mediterranean or begin to pose a direct challenge to US interests may save Western politicians from scathing polls or electoral wipeouts, but it only delays the inevitable. Europe and the US must rise to the moment and harness transatlantic cooperation, beginning with working out near-precise ratios for risk-bearing and responsibility-sharing for the challenges emanating from this part of the Arab world.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach, nor would it be wise for either Washington or Brussels to take on both the risks and responsibility for North Africa’s myriad challenges, since this would incur significant political costs at home and complicate what is already a messy situation in the region. In addition, even if the West did get around to coordinating engagement in, for instance, pursuing Libya’s stabilization, it must not be a repeat of the efforts in past decades that ignored persistent realities on the ground in favor of erudite excursions to find a way forward in gilded closed-door affairs with all the pomp and none of the circumstance.
At a time when the aspirations of most average North Africans are hollowed out by despair and strife, the US and its European allies must rewrite their playbook on how best to navigate the region’s complex dynamics. The focus of any new approach should be on alleviating the burdens on publics that still firmly believe in, despite pressing challenges, the promise held in stable, democratic futures. After all, the tried and exhausted practice of appeasing harmful actors or settling for open-ended diplomatic or political dialogue with no remedies, red lines, enforcement mechanisms or effective means of dispute resolution only fuels intransigence, allowing corrosive elements to metastasize.
Thus, before promoting so-called shared values or calling for greater cohesion and cooperation, the West must also do away with the usual folly of viewing the MENA region as a whole and acknowledge North Africa as a heterogeneous space, replete with unique internal conflicts and dilemmas that often guide the national will, interests and priorities. Failure to do so risks further destabilizing the region, affording opportunities to actors and elements that are hostile to the West and intolerant of any efforts to tackle some of North Africa’s ills through a reenergized transatlantic alliance.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also a senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington, and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell