Written by Niv Horesh.

As anti-government protests spread across the Arab world from Tunis to Riyadh in 2010-11, an instinctive gush of euphoria seemed to have gripped large quarters of Western media and liberal circles. At last, many believed, the masses would shake off the shackles of corrupt regimes that had long oppressed them, and finally democratization would break loose in a part of the world more commonly associated with poverty, tyranny and nepotism.

President Obama was often hailed as having the courage and vision to unleash these protests by engaging with Egyptians over Hosni Mubarak’s head in his famous 4 June 2009 speech in Cairo. And in view of the protests breaking out in Wukan village (Guangdong Province) against local real-estate developers in September 2011, a few commentators even went so far as to predict that Obama’s idealistic rhetoric would be heeded further afield. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s bolder support for nascent civil society in the developing world and the widening use of social media by protesters — as occurred during the Arab Spring and Wukan events — would all combine, we were told, to eventually undermine not just Arab tyrants but also CCP rule in China.

Underlying such predictions was of course a new foreign policy platform that typified Obama’s first term in office almost from day one. In the Middle East, Obama was keen to be seen as radically departing from George W. Bush’s controversial interventionism. Bush was resented in the Middle East not only because of his pro-Israeli stance, or his invasion of Iraq, but also because he was widely seen to have coddled the dictatorial Arab ancient regime in return for support for his “War on Terror”. The flip side of Obama’s first-term idealism was of course great anxiety among many Israelis that the US was slowly abandoning their staunchest Middle Eastern ally. In Israeli far-right circles, much like in the US ‘bible belt’, Obama was portrayed as an undercover Muslim who had been able to hijack Middle America with empty promises. Such perceptions were at the time trickling into Israeli mainstream, as Obama later refrained from visiting Israel.

But Israeli anxiety of US abandonment was not only a result of Obama’s Middle East rhetoric. It was reinforced by the notion that the administration’s “Pivot to Asia”, vocally championed by Hillary Clinton during Obama’s first term in office, meant the US would soon extricate itself from the Middle East altogether so that it can consolidate military and diplomatic support around the Pacific and focus on containing a resurgent China. In that sense, the “Pivot to Asia” was not interpreted as a Cold-War-like demarche that might potentially strengthen Israel’s geo-strategic situation as a longstanding ally of Washington’s, but rather as a zero-sum game of American redeployment.

Amid the great euphoria in Western liberal circles about Arab Spring democratisation and civil-society mobilization in China, Israel’s PM Netanyahu was one of few statesmen who actually predicted the Arab Spring would end up as an Islamists’ Winter. Despite Obama’s demand for more Israeli concessions to revive negotiations with the Palestinians, Netanyahu insisted in 2011-2 that any such concessions, like for example another West Bank settlement freeze, would prove counterproductive because no moderate Palestinian leader would dare reciprocate, or merely recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish nation-state, so long as Islamists were toppling secular tyrants in neighbouring countries.

Netanyahu was of course right at least in that the Arab Spring immediately bolstered the Hamas Islamist movement in Gaza, which is at loggerheads with the Fatah Movement controlling the Palestinian Authority. Whether he strategized it well in advance or was simply driven by hard-line ideology — Netanyahu’s decision to resist Obama’s call for more Israeli gestures certainly did not prove as catastrophic as most commentators predicted.

To the contrary, the unravelling of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria as well as Iran’s intransigence during nuclear-disarmament talks in Turkey and Kazakhstan have made Obama’s second-term administration realise that the Palestinian problem – however inflammatory on the Arab street – is in actual fact only a small piece in the region’s vexing Sunni-Shi’ite jigsaw puzzle. Ridiculed by many back in 2010, Netanyahu was proven right for the most part in casting Iran’s nuclear ambitions as the main destabilising factor across the region –- one that is unnerving not just Israel but also most Sunni-Arab leaders. If back in early 2011 the initially peaceful mass protests in Tahrir square made Israel’s claim to being the only functional democracy in the region look rather shaky — Egypt’s descent into near civil war in 2013 and the spectre of Al-Qaeda cells infiltrating the Syrian insurgency against Bashar Al-Assad arguably make Israel re-appear like a beacon of stability and a veritable asset to America.

Thus, one of the first things Obama did upon re-gaining office was not to avenge Netanyahu’s slights a year earlier, nor did he break even with Netanyahu’s much-maligned attempt to tilt the US presidential elections in favour of Republican Mitt Romney. Rather, Obama made a point of making Israel his first second-term foreign-visit destination. In Jerusalem, he went out of his way to assure everyone that the US was more committed than ever before to maintaining Israel’s military superiority in the region. Moreover, Obama made great efforts to be seen as having mended fences with Netanyahu on a personal level, thus sending a strong message to Tehran that nuclearisation could expose it to an Israeli air strike with indirect US support. In short, the idealism of the Cairo speech gave way to hard-nosed realism about how much the US can achieve in the Middle East.

All of which brings us back to the “Pivot to Asia”. In much the same way that the spirit of the Cairo speech was toned down, Hillary Clinton’s replacement by John Kerry signalled that the notion China would from now capture US foreign policy was off the table. After all, neither Kerry nor Obama chose East Asia as their first foreign-visit destination this year, and neither is on record so far with particularly strong criticism of China’s human-rights record.

The Arab Spring did not quite yield the kind of opening up and democratization that Western liberal commentators were predicting. Similarly, Wukan-style local protests have not yet evolved into a nation-wide threat to CCP rule. To the contrary, developments in Iran and North Korea help position China again as a “responsible adult” whose tacit support the US badly needs if it wishes to avoid nuclear proliferation. And, in view of what is happening in Syria, the prospect of a Jasmin revolt and Chinese regime implosion – whether plausible or not in the intermediate term — must surely appear somewhat less desirable in Washington.

In this context, perhaps, it was Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr who seemed to question what few policymakers in the West publically would: the notion that a nominally democratic China would necessarily be a more pro-American China. Carr speculated in September of last year that CCP implosion in China might actually result in a more territorially assertive and globally competitive China in the long run. If a Jasmine Spring could at all break out anytime soon, what are the chances it might end up like a Nationalistic Winter in the absence of CCP reins on power ?

Niv Horesh is Reader in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. 


  1. Interesting piece, Niv. Thinking about what a democratic China might look like, I recall that back in 1989, student activists and intellectuals worried about one person, one vote in the PRC, as they feared where a plausible demagogue might be able to lead “unsophisticated” workers and farmers. As it turned out, it was students and not workers who got drawn in to the high-level power struggle and away from their own goals. These days we should ponder what it would be like if the “angry youth” had votes – it might be hard to resist a quick Diaoyutai/Senkaku sortie ahead of an election.

  2. I guess you nailed it, Jackie. Are today’s “fenqing” likely to erect a 1989-style Goddess of Democracy if given more leeway ? Or sing along with the likes of Bo Xilai ?

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