Though the outbreak of conflict in the Middle East region between pro-democratic forces and authoritarian governments has primarily impacted the nature of the political make-up of the area itself, it has also shed light on the evolving relationship between this part of the world and the global community at large. The nations of the world, rather than refraining from involving themselves in the conflict in a show of respect for Westphalian sovereignty, have made it clear that they hold stake in the conflict and are willing to use political, economic, and military capital in order to affect the outcome of the regional upheaval in a way that suits their own strategic objectives. In short, the Middle East has become a sort of arena in which the ambitions of nearly every major world power are being played out.
Why is it that the eyes of the world are turned upon this part of the globe as opposed to Southeast Asia, Africa, or any other region in which regional and ethnic strife has erupted into sustained armed conflict? The answer is of course complex, as are most explanations in the realm of international relations, but one based on intuition and common sense. For the West, the two critical factors in the region are the continued flow of oil trade and the existence of the state of Israel. For China, the major concern is placed exclusively on the access to oil, which fuels their rapid economic growth, without regards to the internal political affairs of the area. For Turkey, Brazil, the European Union, and other secondary major powers, it is a chance to establish their diplomatic and political reputation in a large way on the global stage. And of course, for the peoples of the region itself it is a struggle to create a new identity, one increasingly based on pan-Arabism and a sense of religious solidarity.
Any attempt to predict the course of global affairs will be imprecise by definition of the social sciences, but it is generally agreed amongst scholars in the area of international relations that the bilateral relationship with the most potential to systemically shape the international system is the Sino-US relationship. While much debate has occurred as to the nature of the relationship (whether it will be one that fosters conflict or cooperation), until now the discussion has been based mostly around either economic or theoretical issues. The policies which the United States and China are choosing to pursue (or not pursue) during the course of the Arab Spring represent the first time since China’s economic “miracle” that the two countries have stood head to head on a major political development outside of their own direct spheres of influence. While the United States has a well-known policy of full-spectrum intervention in events that occur outside of its own borders, China has shown a predisposition for aggressively defending a policy of non-intervention and a respect for the territorial sovereignty of a state. Therefore, while the United States has been directly involved in the conflict through its political bearing on the emergencies in Egypt and Syria, its application of economic sanctions against Iran, and its military intervention in the Libyan conflict, China has unwaveringly disavowed any sort of sanctions or application of force in the region. The loose coalition of Beijing and Moscow has been able to effectively prevent any sort of strong action against the governments of the Middle East (Iran in particular) by the United Nations Security Council. China, dependent on Middle Eastern petroleum to sustain its economic growth, is extremely cautious of biting the hand that feeds them, but is also wary of Western attempts to intervene in the internal decisions of regimes it does not agree with, amongst which China (along with Russia) finds itself at the moment.
The question of Israel is also a vital component to understanding the actions of the United States in the Middle East, Israel being the largest recipient of US foreign aid of any nation in the world. As the nations of the Middle East manage to successfully topple their own anciennes regimes, a wave of political Islam (most notably manifested in the election of several members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian Parliament) has seen a resurgence in the countries of the region. Though these political parties have not shown any tilt towards any extremist philosophy, their dominance of the politics of the region represents a threat in the minds of the Israelis (who themselves are coming under intense criticism from many parts of the world) and therefore also in the minds of the United States government. President Obama’s pledge of a revival of the relationship between the Muslim world and the United States may be put to the test should Israel decide to launch an unsanctioned military excursion against Iran or Lebanon.
For smaller powers such as Brazil or Turkey, the conflicts in the region give them a chance to translate some of their soft power influence into actual political results. Unfortunately for these countries, their attempts at reaching diplomatic solutions to the conflicts in the area have so-far been unsuccessful, demonstrating the real limits to their power and the distance they still have before they are able to influence large international occurrences. For the people of the countries of the Middle East, international support has been a valued commodity, one that both gives them increased tangible capabilities as well as ideologically legitimacy. However, they also risk being swallowed up by an even greater conflict, one that extends beyond their own borders and issues and includes the entire international system. Should Israel decide to react militarily, should Iran decide to officially launch a nuclear enrichment program, or should the access to oil be unexpectedly cut off, the democratic movements of the Middle East could find themselves in a conflict that is no longer of their own choosing. The way the global powers handle these developments could very well set the precedent for the world order of the next century.