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‘Huge Step up for Democracy’ in Arab World Revolts: Who’s Next?

April 5, 2011 at 7:13 PM EST
How will the unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa impact the wider world? Margaret Warner discusses the political turmoil with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Jessica Mathews, Time Magazine's Romesh Ratnesar and former United Nations official Mark Malloch Brown.
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MARGARET WARNER: And how will these Arab revolts affect the wider world?

For that, we turn to Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — she served in the Carter and Clinton administrations; Romesh Ratnesar, a columnist for “Time” magazine and fellow at the New America Foundation — he is the author of “Tear Down This Wall”; and Mark Malloch Brown, a former deputy secretary-general of the United Nations and a minister in the last British government. His new book is “The Unfinished Global Revolution.”

Welcome to you all.

Jessica Mathews, beginning with you, this has been so dramatic, these events, dramatic enough in themselves, in the Arab world. Do you think they’re going to have an impact on the broader world?

JESSICA MATHEWS, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I do.

I think everything — eventually, everything will be different as a result, because the relationship — what they really mean is, the relationship of people to their governments has changed. And in this world, it will spread. There’s — eventually, I think there will be no part of the world that will — will be untouched by it. It will take time.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Malloch Brown.

MARK MALLOCH BROWN, former United Nations official: I think that’s right. I mean, I think Jessica is correct, that in that sense, things won’t be the same again.

And it’s been a huge step up for democracy, which had been lingering a bit in the — you know, we had had a period when, just a few months ago, you started to hear people saying, well, maybe the Chinese way of government, with its firmness and its strategic planning, has it over the confusion of American democracy.

Well, it’s been a very good few months for democracy. But I don’t think you’re going to see a simple contagion, where, you know, the Arab spring becomes the Chinese spring or the Russian spring. But I think, as Jessica says, things will be different, even if, in many ways, it will take a little time for it to work through, and it will work through in these slightly more indirect ways.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that this will — that discontented publics everywhere in the world and their governments are taking notice, and — and will be affected?

ROMESH RATNESAR, “Time” Magazine: I think so.

I mean, it’s clear that the genie is sort of out of the bottle. And I think it’s going to be very hard to put it back in, certainly in the Arab world, probably in other parts of the world as well.

But I do think that the direction in which this goes is still unclear. And I think it’s going to be a bumpy ride. We have already seen the transition to democracy in Egypt and Tunisia, it’s going pretty well, about as well as we could hope. But clearly, the response in other parts of the region has not been as encouraging.

And we could see a very uneven and very unstable situation going forward. And I think that that is something that we have to be prepared for.

MARGARET WARNER: What we see now — and certainly in China, it’s widely believed that this latest, tougher crackdown is related to this. In other words, what you have got is a government moving preemptively to try to head off any hint of this.

Where else do you think that might happen, Jessica Mathews, or flip it around, where the publics might be inspired in some way?

JESSICA MATHEWS: I — it’s very hard to tell.

I think you — where you look is in the countries that are worst-governed around the world. And certainly at the top of my list would be Pakistan, another Muslim country also. I’m not making any predictions. But you — if the core meaning of this has to do with a sense, as your setup piece said, of dignity and of governments that fulfill their basic job of delivering reasonably good governance, Pakistan’s governments haven’t done that for decades.

And I think those would be the places. I — look, I think it may very well also have impacts across Africa, because, of course, Libya, we think of it as part of the Middle East and as an Arab country, but it’s an African country. So, there will be that effect as well.

MARK MALLOCH BROWN: I think, Jessica, it’s interesting that you are picking on countries which are democratic. There have been elections, very imperfect ones, in Pakistan. And in most of Africa, there are now elections, which I — I think that goes to the heart of the issue, which is elections are not enough.

JESSICA MATHEWS: Yes. Right.

MARK MALLOCH BROWN: That doesn’t necessarily give you a government that is trusted and representative and legitimate, which again takes us back to why this is going to be a difficult transition, because an election in a country which has no history of pluralism, no real middle class to be the kind of bedrock of a new system, well, you wonder, in Syria, Yemen, particularly Libya, just how easy it will be.

I think it’s a very good point. We all know where we want to go, but some of these journeys are going to be very difficult. And I think it’s also worth pointing out, The New York Times today had an article which I have been waiting for, which is, oh my goodness, there’s al-Qaida inside the opposition in Yemen.

And, you know, this is going to be a tough period, where the risk that Washington or governments in the region flip back to preferring security and stability over democracy and choice.

JESSICA MATHEWS: And Yemen is the obvious case.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Romesh, so, that is the question. If this world — if these relationships are going to shift, how does the U.S. and its allies in Europe have to adjust, picking up on what Mark and Jessica have been saying?

ROMESH RATNESAR: Yes.

Well, I mean, I think the — it’s an enormous challenge. And I — it’s a puzzle. And I don’t think it’s one that we have figured out how to put the pieces together on. And, you know, I do think that the sort of old bargain that dominated our thinking, you know, vis-a-vis the Middle East is being re-evaluated, the idea that we spoke about being for democracy and supporting democratic values, but because we had to protect our vital national interests, we ended up supporting regimes that were far from democratic.

I do think that that narrative, as the president has said, is changing. And I think that evaluation is changing. And I think it probably should. But I think we also have to recognize that we have real limits on what we can do and how much we can influence events. We don’t have very strong, reliable partners in the region right now who can work with us, the way you had after the revolutions in Eastern Europe.

You had Mitterrand and Thatcher and Kohl, all these people who — who could help us manage the transition. We don’t have that right now. And we have to, to some extent, wait to see what happens. I mean, we don’t have a great deal of influence to shape the environment.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that does suggest that these — I mean, we have seen in this example that the U.S., certainly, has not had huge influence. I mean, President Obama has been calling on different governments to essentially do the same thing, some of…

JESSICA MATHEWS: In the Libyan case, of course, the military case, it’s only we that have the military capability.

So, one aspect of this that needs to change that I think that will change as these movements, revolutions spread across the region will be, we have to reach some understanding with our British and French allies that they don’t take us to war, depending on our capability, without our agreement.

You know, it’s — there certainly was an element of that with the French in this case.

MARK MALLOCH BROWN: Well, I think so, although I think that, in Europe, there’s a slightly cynical observation that the reason they did this in Libya and not Cote d’Ivoire is their rather elderly warplanes could reach Libya but couldn’t have reached Cote d’Ivoire.

(LAUGHTER)

JESSICA MATHEWS: Well, but they couldn’t…

MARK MALLOCH BROWN: Well, no, but I think there is — that there’s another point worth saying, which is say, from outside America, to those of us in Europe, we actually think Obama has had a pretty — President Obama has had a pretty good crisis, that he showed a pretty deft touch with both Egypt and Tunisia, pressure, but without being too overt about it, bravely getting on to the side of change.

You know, Libya — kind of American and European leaders always break their knuckles on Libya.

JESSICA MATHEWS: Yes.

MARK MALLOCH BROWN: It’s a very, very difficult one. But I hope it’s the exception and that thereafter, we’re not going to see military intervention; we’re going to see diplomatic pressures to encourage people to make change themselves. I think it’s terrible if we get into…

MARGARET WARNER: But, Romesh, do you think that, militarily, though, that Libya may be something of a new model? Or do you think it’s a one-off, that is, the U.S. does put its military muscle at work on behalf of something, though, that actually countries are more eager to do, and the U.S. essentially lets others take the lead?

ROMESH RATNESAR: Well, I think Libya is a very unique circumstance, for all the reasons you just pointed out. I mean, you had an imminent threat, or what we viewed as an imminent possibility of really sort of horrible ethnic — or horrible slaughter of civilians.

You had a general international consensus. You had the Arabs asking us to intervene. It’s hard to imagine that those conditions are going to be replicated elsewhere in the region. But I do think it’s a template, in the sense that, clearly, what the administration, philosophically, wants to promote is this idea that the United States needs partners, and that we cannot carry the burden for these kinds of missions alone.

And that goes to this bigger issue of the kind of constraints on American power, and I think the desire that the administration has to persuade other countries that it’s in their interest to take on some of the burdens that, in the past, we assumed ourselves.

MARGARET WARNER: And brief final thought, what do you think this does to the relationship the U.S. and the West have with, say, allies in the near neighborhood, Turkey or Israel, or managing an adversary like Iran?

I know I put way too much on the table there for a final minute, but…

JESSICA MATHEWS: Well, I will try it very quickly.

I think there’s a big challenge for Israel, which will no longer be able to rest on its laurels, so to speak, as asserting itself as the only democracy in the region. This poses — this series of revolutions, this Arab spring, poses real challenges for Israel to rethink a frozen domestic political situation.

For Turkey, I think — of course, Iran is perhaps a little simpler, right? I mean, the pressure will be on a huge push to — for change domestically.

Turkey, it’s — I think it’s hard to tell. It’s not quite so obvious that Turkey will benefit, as it thinks it was — because Egypt will reassert itself as the leader of — in this part of the world, I think.

MARGARET WARNER: Unfortunately, we have to leave it there, at least for our on-air audience.

Thank you, all three, very much.

MARK MALLOCH BROWN: Thank you.