Strategic Optimism and the Arab Spring

Early October saw more violence against Egyptian Christians. Although reports are still murky (see 1, 2, 3), security forces and men in civilian clothes – perhaps rioters, perhaps undercover police – attacked Coptic Christians protesting against the interim military government, after which some Muslim Egyptians took the streets to fight the Copts while others joined to protect them. Hundreds were wounded and at least two dozen killed.

These bloody events are tragic and ominous – but they are not a reason to give up on the Arab Spring. The popular protests that swept the Arab world this year are still the best news for human freedom since the Berlin Wall came down.

The media focuses on the dark side: sectarian violence in Egypt, missing anti-aircraft missiles in Libya, massacres in Syria and pervasive fear that the new Middle East will be more hospitable to Islamic extremism and more dangerous for Israel.

This pessimism is partially rooted in the natural human tendency to focus on bad news and partially in the prejudice that nothing good can emerge from the Arab world. But the ugly truth about revolutions is that they do get ugly, regardless who is making them. Just Google “tarring and feathering” for some shameful facts about America’s own Revolution, or read about how it was less a revolt against foreign oppression and more like “America’s first civil war” across much of the South. Even the revolutionary wave of 1989 had its brutal manifestation in Romania, with Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife shot by firing squad. And anyone familiar with Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities will remember that revolutions can collapse altogether into nightmares of violence. The Arab revolutions now underway may do that too. But I am optimistic that they won’t.

In fact, I would argue that the best foundation for American foreign policy is strategic optimism – not pessimism, not cynical realpolitik and not hubristic nation-building, but a profound confidence that the world is changing for the better. In 1783, after America’s own messy revolution, there were only two democracies on the planet, and they didn’t like each other very much. Of course, given the property qualifications to vote in both the US and UK, they also weren’t fully democratic by modern standards. For a time it seemed as if stable representative government was a uniquely Anglophone achievement, but after generations of seesawing between monarchy, tyranny and anarchy, the French settled on democracy by 1870. After World War II, democracy took root in Western Europe andJapan. By 1989, it was securely established inSouth Koreaand erupting acrossEastern Europe.

The latest global survey by democracy watchdog Freedom House estimates that three billion people – 43 percent of the world’s population – live in countries rated as fully “free.” Another 1.5 billion live in “partly free” countries, mostly troubled democracies like Mexico, Turkey, Thailand and Pakistan. Another 2.5 billion people are “not free,” more than half of whom are in China. If you total up the “free” countries by Gross Domestic Product,[1] they together control two-thirds of the world’s wealth, the truest measure of international power. In terms of military power, the balance is even more lopsided because of the inclusion of the United States. The balance of both population and power is decisively in favor of the democracies, and it keeps shifting further. Those Freedom House ratings all predate the Arab Spring: Now many countries in the Middle East which were once “not free” are, at least, democratic question marks. Even if one of them succeeds and the others fail – even if all of them fail, for now – the Arab world will never be the same.

Democracies is progressing, however unevenly, not because of what policymakers do  in Washington, DC but because of what ordinary people are doing in the Arab world. We need to keep faith with them and follow their lead.


[1] Adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP). Freedom House doesn’t do this calculation, so I cross-referenced their ratings with GDP PPP data from the CIA World Factbook.

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. is the founder of Learning from Veterans: National Security Insights from Afghanistan and Iraq, a project to inform policymaking and public debate by injecting the experiences and insights of US military veterans of Afghanistan in Iraq.

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1 comment to Strategic Optimism and the Arab Spring

  • Betty Smith

    Really, did anyone consider that this is a food shortage? once the system is ripped out, and then these people find out that there is still a food shortage, what exactly are you going to write about, how wonderful the civil wars that these angry starving people are?? What are you going to say when the next American is taken as a POW, and is treated as Qathafi?
    I wish one person would use their brains, last year the rebels in Libya were Al-Qaida, now they ‘oppressed people’ who are now, executing whom ever they feel like, stealing, setting houses on fire, torturing, etc- great, democracy in action…