Europe and the Middle East Are Cracking Up: How Hyperconnectedness Destroys Worlds
Thomas L. Friedman
For many years, strategists have debated whether Turkey would be a “bridge” or a “gully” between predominantly Christian Europe and the Arab/Muslim Middle East.
If Turkey were admitted to the European Union, it would be a bridge binding these two worlds. If it were kept out of the European Union, it could become a gully separating the two. It turns out that Turkey these days is neither a bridge nor a gully. It’s an island — an island of relative stability between two great geopolitical systems that are cracking apart: The euro zone that came into being after the Cold War and the Arab state system that came into being after World War I are both coming unglued.
The stresses are getting to everyone. The reactions range from the truly horrific murders perpetrated by the Assad mafia family clinging to power in Syria to the disturbing fight that broke out last Thursday on a morning TV talk show in Greece, where the spokesman of a far-right party tossed water in the face of a woman from the left-wing party on the show and then smacked another female panelist in the face three times.
The island of Turkey has become one of the best places to observe both these worlds. To the east, you see the European Monetary Union buckling under the weight of its own hubris — leaders who reached too far in forging a common currency without the common governance to sustain it. And, to the south, you see the Arab League crumbling under the weight of its own decay, with leaders who never reached at all for the decent governance and modern education required to thrive in the age of globalization.
Europeans failed to build Europe, and that is now a big problem because, as the European Union goes deeper into recession, the whole world feels the effects. The Syrians failed to build Syria, the Egyptians failed to build Egypt, the Libyans failed to build Libya, the Yemenis failed to build Yemen. Those are even bigger problems because, as their states have been stressed or fractured, no one knows how they’ll be put back together again.
To put it another way: In Europe, the supranational project did not work, and now, to a degree, Europe is falling back into individual states. In the Arab world, the national project did not work, so some of the Arab states are falling back onto sects, tribes, regions and clans.
In Europe, the supranational project did not work because the European states were never ready to cede control over their budgets to a central authority that would ensure a common fiscal policy to back up a common currency. In the Arab world, the national project did not work in many, but not all, cases because the tribes, sects, clans and regional groups that make up these Arab states, whose borders were drawn up by colonial powers, were unwilling or unable to meld genuine national communities.
So the European Union today has many citizens, but no single supranational nation state to which everyone is ready to cede economic authority. And the Arab world has many national states, but few citizens. In Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Bahrain, you have one sect or tribe ruling others by force, not because they forged a voluntary social contract with one another. In Egypt and Tunisia, you have more homogeneous societies and a stronger sense of citizenship, which is why they have a better chance at transitioning to more consensual politics.
In fairness, in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, you have many people, particularly young rebels, who want to be citizens. They want to live in states where people have rights and obligations and multiethnic parties. But it’s not clear they have the leadership and educated middle classes needed to forge modern political identities out of atavistic ones.
One question historians will puzzle over is why both great geopolitical systems fractured at once? The answer, I believe, is the intensifying merger of globalization and the information technology revolution, which made the world dramatically flatter in the last five years, as we went from connected to hyperconnected. In the Arab world, this hyper-connectivity left youths better able to see how far behind they were — with all the anxiety that induced — and enabled them to collaborate to do something about it, cracking open their ossified states.
In Europe, hyperconnectedness both exposed just how uncompetitive some of their economies were, but also how interdependent they had become. It was a deadly combination. When countries with such different cultures become this interdependent, sharing the same currency but not the same work ethics, retirement ages or budget discipline, you end up with German savers seething at Greek workers, and vice versa.
And the Americans? The United States’ flexible federal system makes it, theoretically, well-suited to thrive in a hyperconnected world, but only if we get our macroeconomic house in order and improve our education . We should be the world’s island of stability. But we’re not. As Mohamed el-Erian, the chief executive of the bond giant Pimco, said, “We’re just the cleanest dirty shirt around.”
Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.