Small Steps First: The case for a Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East

Dyarbakir moske.pngThe Great Mosque of Diyarbakır under attack. Photo: Thomas Buikema Fjærtoft

By Torgeir E. Fjærtoft, Visiting Research Fellow, Centre for Islamic and Middle East Studies, University of Oslo

The conflicts in the Middle East are escalating, producing the chaos of failing states, inflicting terrible, unimaginable suffering, and even edging major states towards the abyss of all-out war.


My answer after attending three international meetings on peace in the Middle East from early May until mid-August: No current policies work, in the sense that they fail to produce their intended purpose, but instead aggravate chaos, escalating violence and polarizing group identities. Even worse, there are yet no realistic ideas by anybody for how to initiate a political process to create a new, stable regional political order. Strangely, no one seems to have thought of the only feasible solution– yet.

The option not yet tried

The option not yet tried is a regional diplomatic process with a comprehensive agenda, involving the remaining major stable states in the region, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran. For such a diplomatic process to be feasible, the major external powers must agree to cooperate. There are three recent encouraging signs of such a cooperation: the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, the US – Russian cooperation on removing Syrian chemical arms, and, as of this time of writing, the US – Russian agreement on the terms for a ceasefire in Syria.

In short, the aggravating conflicts are contrasted by a few encouraging cases of cooperation. This is why I decided to use my participation at these meetings to join a small group of experts to argue that the European Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe be adopted as a specific model for the current Middle East. The most urgent case is the dangerous confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Purpose of European model: Not emulation, creative adaption

The point of such a model is not emulation, but a creative adaption in a new comprehensive agenda. This agenda needs to address simultaneously the three “baskets”, or sub-agendas, of the European conference:

  1. Narrow security concerns. No wars.
  2. Broader security concerns, making societies more sustainable. Cooperation on economic development, environmental protection and resource management.
  3. States as protectors of individuals and groups. The very difficult agenda of state stability, human rights and protection of minorities. Some “realists” see keeping dictators in power as the lesser evil compared to the chaos following the democratic uprisings. They fail to see that for a policy to become effective beyond the moment it must address the underlying causes of instability. In the Middle East, the decisive issue is how states should protect individuals, women and minorities.

The superintendent point is that a regional political process modelled on the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe would serve as vehicle for taking the incendiary issues away from the battlefield and into the conference rooms. In other words, political solutions are not the condition for a conference, but the goal. Rather than insisting on solving everything before agreeing on anything, a political process modelled on the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe would strive to agree on some issues, and then build further. Such a regional conference would offer a structure within which regional parties talk to one another in a systematic way. As with all regular international fora, a major benefit of such a conference process would be to offer a low threshold for informal contact with adversaries and enemies.

For the process to succeed, the ultimate aim has to be that the states of the region assume ownership of their own affairs, facilitated, as needed, by the global powers’ continued involvement.

Purpose: “path-dependence” on cooperation

That way, such a process could generate a “path dependence” on cooperation. Solutions are never complete, but incremental and imperfect. However, gradually parties to the conflicts see solutions outside the established parameters of cooperation as unfeasible. To the historian Andreas Wirsching this “path dependence” on cooperation is the essence of the current European cooperation. Cooperative responses to crises, not grand designs, drive the cooperation forward because all parties see compromise on joint solutions as more effective for themselves than opting out of the cooperation.

Avoid self-fulfilling assumptions

Unrealistic, this is the common argument against the proposal that the idea of a conference in the Middle East should be modelled on the European Conference on Security and Cooperation. The Middle East, so this argument goes, is much less politically developed than Europe. Therefore, the four major remaining stable states in the Middle East are unable to engage in a pragmatic cooperation to reach incremental, imperfect solutions to generate a path-dependence on cooperation in response to crises.

I disagree with the assumptions of this argument. First, those who initiated the European process of transformation defied the same argument. This took wisdom, courage and strength by individuals acting contrary to common assumptions. Individual agency can be decisive at critical junctures. Sceptics first considered the idea of cooperation across the fault lines very unrealistic, even as dangerous defeatism. Success was elusive. Second, European cooperation is no unequivocal success story. Cooperation alternated with confrontation; still does, as we see. Third, the assumption that the Middle East is politically less developed than Europe may be accurate, but also self-fulfilling by blocking initiatives. Worse, the assumption that those societies in conflict are hopeless cases produce the primordial “flight-or-fight” response in us instead of creative, pragmatic problem solving.

Goal: tacit alliances across fault lines

Furthermore, this assumption also ignores that the Middle East, like Europe, has diverse groups and individuals. My own conviction after talking to many individuals in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel and Turkey is that some will see the merit in trying a new approach, especially when all current policies produce disaster. The goal of any diplomatic process must be to strengthen the position of flexible, innovative pragmatists within their own decision-making process. Effective diplomacy forms tacit alliances across fault lines. A diplomatic conference along the lines of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe above all provides a vehicle for forming such alliances.