Although Australia has repeatedly expressed its solidarity and support with the Arab uprisings and has called for a no-fly zone to be imposed on Libya, what exactly Australia should learn from the popular democratic movements sweeping across the region has yet to be considered.
The dramatic sequence of pro-democracy movements that are emerging in the Middle East and North Africa serve as a unique opportunity for Australian politicians and policy-makers to learn three key lessons which have very specific consequences for Australia’s foreign policy, its trade and security, and its relationships with the Arab world.
The first crucial lesson is that intervention is not an effective method of democratisation. The most interesting comparison that can be drawn with recent events in the Middle East is that of the efforts of the US and its “Coalition of the Willing” (including Australia) to bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq via military intervention and protracted occupation.
While some real progress has been made in both Iraq and Afghanistan towards democracy, these countries remain among the poorest and deadliest places on earth. Politically, the leaders of both Afghanistan and Iraq struggle for legitimacy at least in part because they did not come about as a result of a domestic push towards democracy – like that in Egypt and elsewhere today – but by external force.
The lesson here for Australia is that democracy is not ours to impose by force on others. While the Arab uprisings demonstrate that people everywhere want democracy, they must be encouraged – not forced – to pursue it. Democracy is governance by the people after all, and it will only take hold if those same people are prepared to stand up and make it happen for themselves.
The second key lesson Australia should learn from the Arab revolts is that Australia must end its support – whether tacit or direct – for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa.
While much has been made of the support offered to several Arab dictators by Western powers, such as Mubarak’s relationship with the US or Gaddafi’s relationship with the UK, Australia has its own history of supporting various despotic governments across the region.
Mostly, this has been a relationship of complicity where Australia has not adequately confronted the regimes themselves nor criticised their US and UK backers. But Australia has also forged its own relations with several troubling Arab regimes based more on economics and trade, security and the ill-defined ‘national-interest’ than the stated goals of the Australian government to support universal human rights and foster democratic participation in the region.
Perhaps the most startling example is that of the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) which paid kickbacks to Saddam Hussein in the late 1990s in direct violation of UN sanctions and Australian law. In the case of Libya, Australia has played an active role in, and has benefitted enormously from, the extraction of oil and natural gas since the loosening of UN sanctions in 2003. More broadly, over the past couple of decades Australia has aggressively pursued stronger economic ties with North African and Middle Eastern markets, including many of the counties currently witnessing popular revolts against oppression – Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.
The lesson here for Australia is that it is in very real danger of being accused of hypocrisy in the region. It cannot gain from trade relationships with tyrants at the same time as advocating human rights and democracy.
The third lesson for Australia here stems out of the first two, namely that Australia must re-engage the Middle East in ways separate from that of traditional allies such as the US and the UK. Certainly, whatever governments emerge in Tunisia or Egypt and whatever happens next in Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere, Australia must develop relationships with the Middle East that are distinct – and broadly perceived as distinct – from those of the United States and Europe.
These new relationships with the Arab world should be dynamic and responsive, open and culturally sensitive, and mutually beneficial. To do this, the Australian government would do well to keep its own word: it should continue to pursue human rights and democracy in the region by prioritising this over military intervention, over blindly following the lead of traditional allies and by refusing to support despots who fail to address the legitimate needs and aspirations of their citizens.
Learning these three difficult lessons from the Arab uprisings will require Australia to dramatically re-think its relationship with the Middle East. Unfortunately, this relationship, particularly over the years since September 11 2001, has often been marred by suspicion and confrontation. It has also been underpinned by the preposterous notion of a ‘clash of civilizations’ which has pitted ill-defined ‘Australian values’ against the supposed Arab or Islamic tendency towards violence and despotism.
Recent events have put the lie to this notion and, as thousands of Arabs continue to fight in the name of liberty and democracy, the Australian Government would be wise to carefully dissect these events and learn the important lessons they bring to the fore.
The article was first published in ABC Unleashed on 17 March 2011 at: http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/45130.html