Hassan Hami
10 January 2024

Regional Security Complexes in a Transitional Stage of International Politics

Regional organizations present a chance to handle political and security issues, but they cannot solve any when security complexes are shaped to achieve conflicting goals or interests.

Over the last three weeks, political analysts in the Middle East and Africa have tried to assess at least three important events. The first was the normalization of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, thanks to a successful mediation by China. The United States said this normalization was not a surprise. Washington had been informed of all steps taken and had subsequently given its approval. Other Arab countries in the Middle East and also Israel were obviously worried, but they had no say after the announcement of the deal.

The second event was that Saudi Arabia approved a memorandum to be granted “the status of a dialogue partner” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This was a surprising announcement given the fact that granting such a status is a process that takes time. Applying countries go through dialogue partner status and observer status before getting full membership. In the past, countries in the MENA region would traditionally wait for a long time to get a chance to even present their candidacy. 

This also applied to Iran. Teheran had been granted observer status in 2005 and waited until 2022 to be granted full membership. But Saudi Arabia’s admission is understood as a reward for accepting Beijing’s mediation between Riyadh and Tehran. And Russia’s blessing is another reward for Saudi Arabia’s energy policy, despite the United States’ warning and smooth anger.

The third event was the announcement that Morocco had joined Spain and Portugal in bidding to jointly host the 2030 FIFA World Cup. This happened amid the political and diplomatic maneuvers Algeria have been conducting against both Morocco and Spain. Algeria was unhappy with Spain‘s favorable diplomatic stand with respect to Morocco’s Autonomy plan to resolve the regional conflict over the Sahara.

We might add two non-events. The first non-event was the Columbian President’s proposal to grant the separatist Polisario Front observer status at the Ibero-American Summit. He did it on the occasion of the 28th Summit held in the Dominican Republic two weeks ago. And he ultimately failed because only United Nations-recognized states are entitled to be granted  such a status, not to mention the controversial notion of a national liberation movement that the separatist group cannot by any means claim.

The second non-event happened three weeks ago on the occasion of the first-leg match played in Algeria between JS Kabylie, an Algerian football club, and Wydad AC, a Moroccan football team. During the game,  the host club failed to abide by an elemental rule of football matches by refusing to raise the Moroccan flag. They even preferred not to raise the Algerian flag. Indeed, since severing all diplomatic ties with Morocco, Algeria has banned all signs, words, songs, and symbols that remind Algerians of Morocco in their official and independent outlets. Thus, the flag as a symbol of Moroccan sovereignty irritated the Algerian organizers.

We may also mention the news that Saudi Arabia will extend an official invitation to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to take part in the Arab League Summit to be held in Riyadh in May 2023. This is serious information to take into consideration. Here again, the fight would be about reestablishing geopolitical balance and sending a message to other Arab countries that Syria’s file is a Saudi-exclusive matter.

What would be the correlation between all these events? These stories are brought up to elaborate on the way regional organizations are built up. How the balance of power is shaped. And how geopolitics change so that it imposes that state actors are permanently in need of security and survival.

Regional Organizations and Regional Security Complexes Overlapping

Decision-makers’ perceptions of security and insecurity are caused by internal, regional, and international political and diplomatic factors. They depend on the role and hierarchy of state actors in the regions where there is a mixture of major state actors, dependent strategic actors, and proxy state actors.

Scholars who deal with regional subsystems put regional organizations at the top of their lists. Generally, they examine the factors leading to their inception. They also elaborate on the means and ways states resort to in order to make them last, sustain, or disappear. They all insist on determinant variables such as shared cultural and civilizational values, aspiration to unity and integration, and the need to face foreign ostracism and enmity. They also emphasize shared goals with respect to economic progress and development.

However, the main concern is always to understand the state actor’s perception of security and insecurity. They are measured by their vulnerabilities and sensibilities. Yet, it would be safe to make a clear cut between regional organizations and security complexes. The first are deemed to last and get stronger. Security complexes are meant to fill a strategic void or thwart a hegemonic temptation intended by a major regional state actor.

Insecurity perception was the main drive to establish regional security and economic complexes. Let us examine these arguments with respect to a few subsystems located in the Arab Gulf region, the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, Central Asia, Russia, and its geostrategic neighbors.

First, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was established in 1981 with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as full members. The GCC sought to take security steps against Iran. Indeed, Iran had witnessed the triumph of the Iranian Islamic Revolution two years earlier. The members had in mind that Iran had not lost hope of being the main actor in the regional security complex that had been initially proposed in 1975. This security complex failed because Saudi Arabia and Iraq opposed it.

In the same year, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, and Jordan established a security complex in the form of the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC). These countries suspected that the wealthy neighboring states sought to exclude them from the new geostrategic game that the Iranian Islamic Revolution brought about in the region.

In North Africa, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia established the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) in 1989. The aim was to assess perceptions of insecurity and a biased move to play new political and diplomatic cards in the region and in a broader space, including the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa. 

The international system was undergoing serious changes, and the AMU’s five member states were aware that the East-West rivalry card they used to play was being torn. They also needed to not lose ground with respect to their endemic issues, both political and diplomatic, not to mention the interpersonal hatred that some were nurturing against each other.

In Central Asia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was established in 1992. It included Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The CSTO’s members intended to organize security and smoothly monitor pending issues inherited from the Soviet era. However, its members were just gaining time because many issues dated back in history and were put on hold after the URSS took over. This organization has not been able to solve endemic ethnic and border conflicts between Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.

The same observation might apply to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), established in 2001. It included China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Belarus. However, China and Russia had a strong hold on this organization. They still do. This factor seems to be the main obstacle (or fence, depending on who’s talking) to the United States, the European Union, and Turkey expanding in the region.

The international system has drastically changed. Security issues in all their components have been raging as a result of the hegemony of the market economy, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the irruption of frozen conflicts. Some regional subsystems clearly understood it and undertook steps to adjust; others did not.

This is the case with the European Union, which was established in its new format in 1993. Indeed, the European dream has always been to be emancipated from American hegemony. The idea of building a strong economic structure was based on this dream. The so-called Franco-German couple was intended to shape a free Europe that would bargain its position between the former Soviet Union and the United States. This did not work as planned.

This seems to be the reason France was so enthusiastic about the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), which it helped establish in 2008. This was also meant to curb Germany’s ascendency on the Baltic States and foster close cooperation with Russia through the European Oriental Partnership toward some former Soviet Republics such as Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, launched in 2009.

Why do regional subsystems experience ups and downs and fail to resolve endemic conflicts? Independent observers share a few explanations that, theoretically, sound accurate. Yet, when they are assessed through tangible facts, these arguments prove to be limited.

First, one of the biggest issues that regional security complexes are facing is that their members belong to different political and cultural spaces. They are loaded with historical rivalries and unsolved psychological survivals. This applies to the Arab League of States established in 1945, the OAU-African Union (1963–2002), and the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (Cen-Sad, 1998). This may as well apply to the Union for the Mediterranean (2008) and the Oriental Partnership (2009).

Second, as much as the need for establishing a security complex grows, as behind-the-scenes schemes and maneuvers become transparent. In North Africa, Algeria, which was established in 1962, played a despicable role in poisoning the relations between Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, and Libya. Known for nesting a culture of violence as a result of its fight for independence and an identity dilemma, Algeria managed to wage war against its two main neighbors, Morocco and Tunisia.

One year after Algeria and Morocco signed the agreement on borders, Algiers provided weapons and logistical support to a group of Moroccan insurrectionists in 1973. They were caught in Khenifra while preparing to overthrow the monarchy. Algeria blackmailed Spain to stop Madrid from going ahead with its plan to negotiate the future of the Spanish Sahara with Morocco and Mauritania.

Algiers was not pleased with the Madrid agreement signed in 1975. It retaliated by giving more support to the separatist Canary Island Movement, which sought independence from Spain, and to ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), a dissident movement in the Basque Country. Algeria even intervened militarily in Amgala in the Sahara in 1976 to prevent Morocco from recovering this territory. The Algerian army was defeated.

Algiers did the same with Tunisia. The plan was similar and aimed to force Tunisia to refrain from claiming to recover parts of its territory that France had annexed during the French colonization. With the help of Libya, Algeria gave logistical support to a group of opponents who attacked Gafsa in 1980.

Algeria, confused and submerged by conspiracy theory and the “identity syndrome,” doesn’t accept criticism but feels legitimized to intervene in the affairs of other neighboring states.

Missing Links in Regional Security Complexes

In the Middle East and the Arab Gulf, Yemen can be a case study in this respect. Given its historical background and strategic location, Yemen would have been a crucial element in cementing the Gulf States’ unity and cooling down Iranian hegemonic temptation dating back to the 1950s. On the contrary, through its different civil wars, Yemen served as a backyard struggle for regional power between Saudi Arabia and Egypt between 1962 and 1970, and as an ideological theater splitting the north and south of the country in 1986, 1990, and 2010. The instability resulted both from the Islamic internal rebellion in 1997 and from the Houtis insurrection in 2004.

Since the Arab Spring in 2011, Yemen has been in a permanent state of chaos because of foreign interest involvement. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates are the main countries accused of interventionism in Yemen, but there are many others. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia and Iran have normalized their diplomatic relations, it is unlikely that we will witness a breakthrough in Yemen’s civil war. Therefore, the political and existential future of Yemen is uncertain. There are a lot of untold stories in Saudi-Iran relations.

Third, a security complex is always based on two pillars. If it does happen that a third pillar is included, this does make the structure more viable. The GCC illustrates this case well. It was built on the assumption that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would lead. Bearing in mind Oman’s tradition of neutrality, it was also assumed that Masqat would not interfere and would let it go. Further, Kuwait was thought to not dare challenge them because of its fear of being swallowed up by Iraq. Yet, Qatar proved to have a different interpretation of CCG interdependence.

Fourth, the case of the European Union is quite interesting. After a short cycle of enthusiasm in the aftermath of the Maastricht referendum in 1993, the bold reality came to curb it. Shortly after the Maastricht Treaty, Germany sought a different strategy while remaining the genuine leader of Europe. It based its strategy on three pillars: strong military security within NATO, a vital energy policy with Russia, and a progressive, privileged economic policy toward China.

France found itself alone, even abandoned. And this has gotten worse after Brexit and the change of rules of the game with respect to the hierarchy of actors on the European strategic chessboard.

The European Union is in trouble, so to speak. Russia and China are strengthening their relations, as confirmed by the recent visit to Moscow of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Beijing in November 2022. And President Emmanuel Macron rushed there last week. Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, visited Beijing at the same time as Macron.

Fifth, trade is not always the main driver for establishing security complexes. The most salient example would be the Free Trade Zones that burgeoned as a result of complex interdependence in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. They were based on asymmetrical dependencies, where major economic actors would get all benefits from all FTA formats. Hence, the bigger they have evolved, the more problematic these structures have become. The reason is that trade is mostly meant as a political and security instrument and not as a means to achieve permanent peace.

In this respect, the BRICS states (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) soundly explain that the security complex might be global and far-reaching, even though their main goal is limited in time. The member states seek to undermine the United States’ hegemony in the international system.

Russia and China have been working since 2008’s international financial crisis to weaken the US dollar’s role as the primary reserve currency for the global economy. They have learned from the European Union’s failure to reach monetary parity through the euro.

The Latin American organizations can also be cited. Even though their main objective, hypothetically, is promoting economic development and regional integration. Behind-the-scenes, border conflicts and ideological rivalries are the main drivers of their diplomatic behaviors.

Sixth, there is also an issue pertaining to “observer status” that undermines the viability of regional organizations and regional security complexes. Normally, this issue is dealt with in the charter of every organization. Yet, the dichotomous nature of states bidding to be granted observer status is less troubling than the one pertaining to entities that claim to be national liberation movements.

In the past, depending on the balance of power in issue areas, observer status was subject to a harsh bargain, and some had the chance to enjoy the privilege of getting a room. “Observer status,” which self-proclaimed national liberation movements claim nowadays, is very difficult to obtain and secure in well-structured regional and international organizations. Not only have these entities become suspicious given their connection with international criminal organizations, but they cannot be dissociated from separatism and terrorism; some of them combine both characteristics.

Seventh, as a result of the abovementioned cases, it happens that countries are faced with “the flag and the seat problem.” Three cases can be cited. First, Syria’s participation in the Arab League meeting: the flag is raised, the seat is empty. That is why the upcoming Arab League Summit in May is crucial to understanding the Arabs’ perceptions of new changes in regional geopolitics and the need or not to readmit Syria, regardless of what has happened since 2011.

Second, the Colombian President’s proposal to grant “observer status” to Polisario at the recent Ibero-American Summit: as strange as such a proposal sounds, it shows that some leaders in Latin America are still clinging to an outdated ideological perception of issues far away from their geopolitical space. 

Surprisingly, Columbia is still an unstable country. Despite the peace agreement signed in 2016 between the Central government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), which has become a political party, peace is still an ongoing, at-risk enterprise in the country. The FARC’s new version, the National Liberation Army, remains active and has shown resilience since 2019.

Third, Algeria’s behavior on the occasion of a football game between JC Kabylie—Algeria and WAC—Casablanca is another example of an outdated perception of regional politics.

In this respect, there is a pamphlet a high school philosophy teacher used to tease his colleagues. One day, on the occasion of a heated meeting, he asked his other colleagues what would be the factors that push people to establish nations and states. He received no satisfying answer. He said that he would propose a sound answer starting the next day.

The next day, everybody noticed that this professor, instead of entering the classroom, preferred to sit under an abandoned tree in the courtyard. He gave no answer, though. He kept going there every day.

The third day, two colleagues joined him. The fourth day, more did the same until the tree became a sort of meeting room. Then on the tenth day, the teacher asked them what would be the factors that push people to establish states. No answer. So, he pointed at the tree. He said that people everywhere need to get together, provided they find an alibi, a need, and a sense of common sense. And above all, a root and an umbrella.

This is very true: when it comes to statehood, nothing starts from scratch. Over the last two years, debates have raged between scholars and the general public on the accuracy of historical archives and documents that sustain claims for sovereignty. Some do have these documents and use them whenever needed. Some do not have any, and they bring about noise and disorder.

The battle for national identity is not an easy task; it is even harder for those who have no records to prove it. A few former colonial powers took steps to make amends for documented crimes and injustices they caused during the colonial era. The Netherlands is one of them. Other countries, such as France and Belgium, have made it clear that they intend to do no such thing.

In France, for example, the debate is about the existence or not of ethnic groups and tribes before the French invasion of Africa. More hilarious is the idea that Morocco did not exist as a state before General Hubert Lyauty became French Resident-General between 1912 and 1925. Centuries of Moroccan history are thus ignored by those who espouse such a ludicrous reading of Morocco’s history. Instead of consulting archives, which are abundant in this matter, biased scholars resort to speculation and lies, making them seem ridiculous.

Regional organizations present a chance to handle political and security issues, but they cannot solve any when security complexes are shaped to achieve different goals, which generally are not those of full peace. The problem with security complexes is that the balance of power changes as well as the hierarchy of actors.

Conflicting interests and geopolitical orientations can prevent countries from meeting diplomatic commitments. An example of this is the GCC’s inability to handle political rivalries between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain on the other hand from 2013 to 2021. The AMU’s impotence to impact the status quo in Moroccan and Algerian relations is another salient failure.

The European Union’s impotence to handle the Balkans’ endemic conflicts as well as the CSTO’s attitude toward dealing with the ethnic and border issues between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan can also be cited.

Mistrust and distrust are a paramount shared feeling by most of these organizations’ decision-makers. The Organization of American States (OAS), established in 1948, the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), established in 1994; and the Latin American and Caribbean Economic System (SELA), established in 1975, to name but a few, have not been able to use the economy as a drive to solving crises or building peace mechanisms. The ideological divide is evident in the Bolivian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, established by Cuba and Venezuela in 2004.

Independent analysts share the view that the new shift in the relationships between China and Russia, the stiff misunderstandings between the United States and Europe, the ongoing mistrust between Europe and Africa, and the new geopolitical changes in the Asia-Pacific all constitute serious developments compelling decision-makers to deal with geopolitics differently than they used to.

The transitional period that the international system is undergoing should be a matter of great concern for all, including state actors, non-state actors, and civil society, with no country exempted or excused.

Source : Morocco World New

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