The Arab Spring – A Potential Challenge for American Diplomacy

Beginning in December 2010, there have been constant revolutions in the Arab world. Activists have overthrown regimes in Tunisia and Egypt; there have been major protests in Israel, Algeria, Iraq, and Morocco; and civil war has engulfed Libya. These events, which have come to be known as the Arab Spring, have caused oppressive governments to fall and have created new opportunities for American diplomacy. However, according to a recent article in the New York Times, “the tumult has also presented the United States with challenges – and worst case scenarios – that would have once been almost unimaginable.”

It is still unknown how new governments in countries such as Egypt will affect American foreign policy. However, officials in Washington are wondering “what would happen if Turkey, a NATO ally that the United States is bound by treaty to defend, sent warships to escort ships to Gaza in defiance of Israel’s blockade, as Prime Minister Erdogan has threatened to do?” Or, if Egypt responds to anti-Israeli sentiments on the streets by abrogating the Camp David peace treaty? (Egypt’s prime minister Essam Sharaf recently told a Turkish television channel that the Camp David treaty is “not a sacred thing and is always open to discussion”, raising the prospect that Egypt could break the peace treaty with Israel).

Or, what if the Muslim Brotherhood, which has had limited influence in Egypt over the years, becomes the new dominant force in Egyptian government? History has shown us that radical Islamist groups gain widespread support and popularity in unstable countries by appealing to people’s dislike for previous regimes and by providing what the government essentially cannot. So, the present instability in Egypt could be the opportunity the Brotherhood has been waiting for.

Regardless of the potential outcomes, the Arab Spring “has unleashed powerful and still unpredictable forces that the United States has only begun to grapple with and is likely to be doing so for years.” Do you think the Arab Spring will ultimately have a positive or negative impact on American diplomacy in the Arab world?



  1. Obama’s speeches still give me the chills. Maybe he missed his calling as a motivational speaker…

    Anyways, his point about the world currently being at a “crossroads of history” this morning at the UN was extremely apt. Trying to predict what sort of government will arise out of the revolutions of the Arab Spring is, as Peter Drucker says, “like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.” Even so, I am confident that, as Obama insinuated this morning, the course of world history for many years to come will be traceable back to the intial decisions and systems of governance that arise out of the ashes of the Arab Spring.

  2. While I agree that the “Arab Spring” presents some foreign policy issues for the United States, I strongly believe the long term benefits vastly outweigh any short term risks. It seems that the vast majority of the protests in the Arab world have been predicated on the overthrow of authoritarian leaders (i.e. Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi, etc.). The seeds of a democratic form of government, which the United States has desperately tried to plant in the region, may finally be taking root.

    The New York Times article makes a valid point about the power vacuum which many of these countries will experience in the wake of their revolutions. Many in Washington have expressed concern that radical extremist groups will gain power in the interim and undermine any potential progress to be had as a result of the demonstrations. Despite the validity of these arguments, I highly doubt that any of them will come to fruition. Why would the citizens of Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, etc. fight and die battling oppressive regimes and governments simply to hand over control to Islamic radicals?

    Hopefully this insatiable thirst for freedom and liberty will force other countries, particularly Iran, to reassess their policies and make changes. If they don’t I’m sure that their citizens would be happy to do it for them.

  3. I think Christopher hit the nail on the head. Arab Spring, has been felt all over the world and has posed a challenge not only for the rebels and newly created governments but also for all of the countries that depend on the region for trade (oil), or had ties with the former governments. As we’ve seen in Tunisia and Egypt, the overthrow of a dictatorship is only the tip of the democracy iceberg. The interim governments have had their hands full in trying to establish order while organizing elections, drafting new constitutions, dealing with humanitarian abuse allegations of the existing military, and quelling continued violence. On top of those issues, the governments are also engulfed with the economic troubles and international uncertainty.

    How to respond, from the perspective of countries like the United States, is not always straight forward. This was exemplified in President Obama’s statements and retractions during the Libyan revolution. There is a balancing act between supporting democracy, maintaining foreign relations, and ending human rights violations. As Christopher describes, the “challenge” is that in a good faith effort to support one front, we may offend another.

    Demonstrating the delicacy of the balance was the turning over of our forces to the control of the U.N. in the Libyan revolution. The American Armed Forces are the best in the world. One reason for that is the command structure that is ingrained into every soldier from day one. Transferring command to an authority that is not accustomed with our military system is not a popular move with our troops. However, joining forces under the U.N.’s flag, instead of leading the charge on our own authority, allowed the U.S. to support the movement towards democracy without risking international political fallout.

    Going forward, the U.S. will have the potential to make some very valuable ties with the region if the approach is calculated, consistent, and balanced.

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