A return to history?

03/02/2015

By Zane Kanderian

Since the early nineties, the consensus within development and international relations, over what makes for good (enough) governance has been informed almost exclusively by liberal democratic models, the alternatives to which are either kleptocracy, autocracy or failed states. However, the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) is a direct challenge to that model and one that requires a response from development and international actors that takes that challenge seriously.

While opposition to the so-called New World Order of the post-Cold War era is not new, states such as North Korea, Cuba and Iran have remained resilient to Pax Americana for the last two decades. In turn they have generated very little external support for their politics, ideologies and foreign policies.

IS is different. It rejects the primacy of debate and democracy. Yet, it is able to raise taxes, generate revenue from oil and administer a justice of sorts, thereby ensuring financial stability to deliver at least some basic services. It is reaching deep into territories in South Asia and Africa with strong insurgency movements building up a body of alliances. Most importantly, it is generating enormous significant support from disaffected peoples across age ranges, nationalities and social classes. Social media is awash with odes to the courage of IS soldiers and panegyrics on the glory of living under Islamic Law.

Nestled under the aegis of the IS, are political and military groups that have lost whatever belief or tolerance they may have once had with the West. These include Syrian anti-Assad militia and Iraqi Baathists. IS can negotiate with them, speak the same language and provide the necessary assurances to secure their support.

IS has many functions of a state, a strong disregard for the rules of the international order, a wide international network of alliances and strong support from individuals across the world. So whilst the pundits remain convinced that the West’s next big challenge remains the rise of China in the modern age, it is possible that the next big challenge has already arrived.

The implications this has for development actors and diplomats are profound. With limited appetite for expeditionary campaigns and Western military intervention proving to be ineffective, the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia need to be targeted with a coherent, comprehensive and cohesive approach if they are to avoid the sort of gravitational pull that gripped 20th Century Europe towards fascism and communism.

This can be achieved in three major ways.

The first being to stabilise the governments surrounding Syria and reinforcing their capacity to defend against IS will need to be a priority in the first instance, particularly Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Drawing up a regional economic development plan, with a focus on countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey, will be a second priority so that growth and economic prosperity can push societies in the region to invest more in their own futures.

Finally the forging of political co-operation among the region’s major actors (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey) to avoid undue interference in the affairs of other states in the region will also be of crucial importance.