For all the handwringing at the time, Nato’s assault on Muammar Gaddafi came off pretty well. In the end, the allies pushed Libya’s megalomaniacal strongman from power without a single US or European casualty and compared with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it didn’t cost very much.
The US and European search for a new, more cost-effective approach to managing turmoil abroad makes sense, particularly in the conflict-prone Middle East. In America, troops are only beginning to return home from two of the longest wars in US history. The federal debt continues its rapid rise. Historically high numbers of economically insecure US voters are telling pollsters that, when it comes to other countries and their problems, America would do better to mind its own business.
In Europe, the fight rages on to restore confidence in the eurozone — and in the entire European project. Whether today’s focus is on Greek public anger, Spain’s austerity plans, Italy’s labour laws, French campaign promises, or Germany’s local elections, policy makers know well that markets are watching for signs of weakness — and that Europe’s governments are in no position to accept new risks and burdens abroad.
Complicating matters further, emerging powers such as China, India, the Gulf states and Brazil are too focused on the next stages of their own delicate development plans to accept a significantly larger share of global leadership. In fact, for the first time in many decades, there is no single country or durable alliance of countries ready to lead on the international stage. This is not a G7 or G20 but a G-zero world.
Nowhere will this lack of global leadership allow for more near-term turmoil than in the Middle East. In recent years, for good and for ill, self-interested outsiders, mainly Americans and Europeans, have imposed a stable status quo across the Arab world. They have promoted and protected autocrats, but they have also helped maintain a sometimes tenuous balance of power.
But today, foreign powers have less leverage across the region than they’ve had in many years. Outsiders remained mainly on the sidelines during last year’s Arab world upheaval. Libya proved an exception, but only because Gaddafi had no real friends to help save him. Nato won’t receive many more Arab League invitations to drop bombs on an Arab country.
If Libya is the exception, Syria proves the rule. President Bashar al-Assad probably won’t survive, but his government has more than enough loyalty from the country’s military and support from its political and business elite to kill many more of Syria’s citizens before damage to its economy forces his supporters to cut him loose. The west will make offers and issue warnings, but this fire will burn a lot longer before it dies.
Nor are US and European governments likely to force Iran to renounce its nuclear ambitions. Sanctions have imposed considerable pain on Iran’s economy — and will inflict plenty more. But China and India will continue to buy Iran’s crude oil, albeit at a discount, and Tehran’s best insurance against Israeli airstrikes remains the reality that the western allies won’t support strikes that will drive oil prices higher and sink their still struggling economic recoveries. The diplomats will continue bargaining and the centrifuges will continue to spin.
In addition, outsiders don’t have much leverage with the Egyptian generals and Muslim Brothers who will shape that country’s near-term future and reorient its approach to the region and the west. Across the Middle East, growing competition among Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran will heighten the risk of proxy conflicts—in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain.
Will even Libya be remembered as a success? For some time to come, this violence-plagued country will remain a loose collection of semi-independent local strongholds where militias and tribal leaders provide what passes for governance. In fact, in the context of the Arab Spring, only Tunisia is maintaining a definitively positive trajectory — a country of little importance to the region at large.
As Washington refocuses its attention on Asia and Europe’s leaders struggle with political pressures at home, this is the region where the G-zero will be most obvious — where hotspots will get hotter and problems are most likely to become crises