Most know George Soros as either the world’s most consistently successful investor or as a philanthropist — but more should know him as a philosopher and strategist about complex systems. Soros thinks that mankind is constantly working to establish points of equilibrium and while these may hold for a while, particularly through the efforts of people and governments to hold things in balance, eventually that balance is eroded and things shift. This is a small part of what he refers to as “reflexivity.”
Soros once said at a Council on Foreign Relations meeting that central bankers do their best — but ultimately, their fate is to lose control of things. This is an inadequate and too brief description of part of Soros’ thinking on ‘reflexivity,’ but I think he has a very valuable insight into the eruptions we are seeing in the Middle East.
To a certain degree, America’s longstanding investments in Egypt as a peace partner for Israel and in various other totalitarian regimes either as friends or even as managed foes is part of keeping order and balance in the West’s national security portfolio. But the equilibrium has collapsed and everything is shifting.
Former Senator Chuck Hagel, now co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and Chairman of the Atlantic Council, has an important tour de force article out that captures this point: there is no one size fits all doctrine for the complex realities of the world today and American strategy needs to work on that premise.
Hagel writes in a piece that should be read in full:
This unprecedented rate of change in the Middle East will require careful and deliberate planning for peaceful and politically sustainable transitions. There is no one model to apply to how this wave of unpredictability and reform will affect each country of this region, or how the U.S. should or will respond in each specific case.
The Middle East of 2011 has many of the same problems as the Middle East of 2010. The demands for reform take place as some see U.S. influence in the region waning, evident by setbacks in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the influence of Iran in Iraq, and the role of a more assertive China, at least economically, throughout the Persian Gulf and internationally.
The uncertainty of the months ahead may, however, bring with it the chance for the U.S. to regain some of the credibility that it has lost as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the continued stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
U.S. diplomacy must continue to actively engage our Arab allies to seize the initiative and begin a dialogue and program of reform with the next generation of Middle East leaders in their parliaments, universities, businesses and civil society sectors. The U.S. should encourage but not interfere. The Arab ruling elites should consider this dialogue and encouragement as a partnership for the future, not a vindication of the past or a threat to the present.
There is a historic opportunity in the Middle East to bridge the gap between rulers and citizens. This is the time for wise, visionary and steady statecraft. These U.S. diplomatic initiatives cannot be considered as optional or secondary. They are vital to U.S. interests and for the peaceful process of change and reform in the Middle East.
Reform and change share the ledger with stability and security; there is no longer a trade-off — and never really was. The U.S. and its allies in the past got away with “transactional relationships.” Dictators and authoritarian governments were accepted and tolerated because they fulfilled the basic criteria which defended our interests.
We were often caught — and still are — in the hypocrisy zone standing for democracy but supporting dictatorships. A distinction between reform and stability is now a false distinction. Democratic transitions are as exciting as they are complicated — but always unpredictable. We must remember that democracy is more than an election. In a region where many governments for decades have tolerated little or no space for political thought, debate or opposition, reform will not come quickly, easily or without setbacks.
I’ve been thinking about how the Obama administration’s steps taken during this fluid time will become to be known — and think that the emerging Obama doctrine will include a mixed bag of approaches to problems to match the mixed bag realities of the international order today — some mix of US interests, US values, and a message to regimes that they are on their own if their social contract between the governed and those who govern explodes.
— Steve Clemons