A keg of gunpowder and a Scottish butterfly…
By: Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Here in the Middle East, the political situation seems to be getting ever more unstable. Between the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and new Israeli action against Gaza, the news gets worse by the day. Where are we heading? It is difficult to say in advance. But we seem to be witnessing some deep geopolitical rearrangements as the U.S. and the West seem to be casting their attention away from our region and ever further East, to China. And it looks like we can expect an ever-growing power-vacuum.
The rise of ISIS has shown us a predictable outcome of power-vacuums in our region. New actors will rise to challenge weak states, and the end result is instability, sectarian strife, war, thousands upon thousands of deaths and millions of refugees.
A few thousand Scottish votes in either direction may cause a tornado on the other side of the world
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
As politics drives more and more people to fight for their ideals and their communities, this prompts a question: what are the right reasons for political action? We must consider what we want as individuals, what we want as societies, and how we should go about pursuing those desires.
Dreams and aspirations
One thing that is always taken for granted in the West is that a people who have dreams and aspirations about the kind of society that they want to live in should have the right to determine their own political future together, without interference from other political powers.
This casts my mind to a different political quandary. In seemingly unrelated events, two months from now, the people of my native Scotland will be going to the polls to decide their political future. They are to choose between staying part of the United Kingdom or forming an independent country where they can forge their own separate destiny. At the time of writing, opinion polls suggest that Scots will choose to remain as part of the UK. But what if they choose to leave?
This is a question that Scots have asked themselves over and over again in the past year. But only in so far as their decision might affect them. People in the rest of the UK might also have opinions on this, but it seems to them rather rude to intrude and offer their own opinions on the matter. And very few wonder what the consequences of Scottish independence might be beyond the British shores. After all, it isn’t anybody else’s business, right?
Except that in our global, interconnected world, a world which we so poorly understand, just a few thousand Scottish votes in either direction may cause a tornado on the other side of the world. Or trigger even further instability in some of the most unstable regions in the world, such as our own.
Ramifications for the Middle East
Consider this: if Scotland leaves the UK, the rest of the UK is put in a rather awkward position internationally. It remains as the continuing state of what was once the largest empire in world history, but yet again it loses a significant proportion of its traditional core territory. It loses a certain amount of international prestige, but also, a good 8-9 percent of its GDP. With that, it will slip down the GDP rankings, and its hopes of overtaking France and eventually Germany economically will be dashed. Its international diplomatic clout would be significantly diminished.
Similarly, the rest of the UK would eventually have to start scaling down its defence spending and its overseas deployments. It simply wouldn’t be able to afford its current ambitions. In terms of foreign policy, it is likely that it will become even more reliant on its alliance with the United States, while conversely becoming less useful to them. If this will prompt the UK to also retreat from the Middle East just as the U.S. is, what will happen to the region? We simply do not know. Will this bring Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran closer together than could have been thought possible before, in order that stability is re-established in the region without the help of the West? Or will we sink in self-reinforcing vicious cycles of sectarian violence and instability?
These are not things that Scots will consider ahead of their referendum in September. All they want is to decide their own destiny. But there are many more destinies at stake right now, and not all of them get to choose.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim