President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will confront a Middle East filled with many challenges and few opportunities. The arguments for pivoting away from the region are compelling, though they may well underestimate the challenges of counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, and protracted conflicts that have the capacity to draw the United States back in. Indeed, the United States still has vital interests to protect.
At the same time, if the past two decades have proven anything, it’s that America cannot transform the region. Most of the challenges that bedevil it—the absence of good government, the lack of transparency and accountability, corruption, and sectarian tensions—are beyond America’s capacity to repair. Without local buy-in from those who live and lead in the region, it’s doubtful that real change is possible. Moreover, faced with the greatest challenge of domestic recovery since the Great Depression, Biden’s bandwidth for engagement will be limited.
There are issues where the United States must continue to act unilaterally, if necessary, in pursuit of its interests. But a strong case can be made that moving forward, a more subtle mix of U.S. unilateralism and selective multilateralism makes more sense for American diplomacy and power projection. For a region this complex, the key may well lie in partnership with others, especially in areas of conflict where management and mitigation rather than short-term solutions rule the field. These include some of the more intractable conflicts in the region—like in Syria, Yemen, and Libya—and the many endemic social and economic challenges that have thus far been impervious to easy solutions. The United States has always enjoyed the power to convene, that is, the ability to mobilize others to work together on a common problem.
We Know Multilateralism Works
We have seen for ourselves how helpful a multilateral approach can be. Following the 1991 Madrid peace conference, its co-sponsors, the United States and Russia, launched a multilateral process to deal with unresolved issues between the Israelis and the Arab states. The two of us were part of a small team assisting then secretary of state James A. Baker. We joined him in Moscow to launch the process, and then we oversaw the steering group and the five working groups that were created: water, the environment, refugees, economic development, and arms control and regional security. Each of these groups pulled no punches, as Israel, most Arab states, the Palestinians, and selective international participants came together to focus on practical problems. Of particular importance was the steering group, a lean cohort of about twelve parties in which Israel sat alongside Egypt, Jordan, Palestinians, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia to work out the details and goals of the working groups.
Several years later, the United States launched a second multilateral process that focused on economic public-private partnerships. Four conferences were held in Amman, Cairo, Casablanca, and Doha, where Israeli, Arab, American and international officials and business leaders came together to talk about investment, economic challenges, and the like.
In both of these multilateral processes, the results were modest, and their significance was largely in the fact that they took place. During and following the multilateral meetings, Israel and many states in the region with which Israel did not have formal relations began to forge ties. Israeli ministers and officials traveled throughout the region and built relationships that paved the way for the formal normalization processes that have started this year. Multilateralism both broke the ice and accomplished purposes that the United States alone would not have been able to achieve.
We witnessed this up close. In a steering committee meeting in Canada where the delegates were snowed in, Israelis and Arabs mingled and interacted casually during off hours. During meetings of the arms control and regional security group, Israelis and Arabs locked horns in serious debate over consequential issues but also produced some joint regional activities such as a search and rescue exercise at sea. And in the refugee working group, the most political of the groups, Israelis and Palestinian refugees talked to each other for the first time. The importance of the multilaterals cannot be overstated, either in the past or looking ahead. Now more than ever, particularly with the growing contacts between Israel and the Arab states, they are a diplomatic force multiplier for the United States, as we try to maximize achievement while keeping human and financial costs in check in the post-pandemic world.
Thinking ahead, more of these coalitions could be brought together to tackle issues that are important but not vital to U.S. security, on which unilateral U.S. actions would likely be ineffective. The management of these efforts will take time, patience, and commitment, but could be overseen by senior officials within the national security system.
What A New Multilateral Model Might Look Like
Multilateral processes are underway already in several regional conflicts. The United States should join forums on the Syrian conflict such as those organized by the UN and energize others where diplomacy has been moribund, such as the peace processes for Libya and Yemen. The agendas of these multilateral efforts and the participation of regional and international parties will differ from one conflict to another. But they will have much in common. Each will need to examine the core issues that divide the parties, how to improve the situation on the ground, and how international actors can help manage the conflicts and mitigate their damage while seeking solutions.
Different models can be considered. The most ambitious would be a Middle East version of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe that helped manage East-West relations during the Cold War. Such a gathering in the Middle East could divide the issues at hand into different baskets. For example, different groups could examine questions relating to regional conflicts, the potential for cooperation in science and technology, and possible advances in humanitarian and human rights affairs.
A more modest approach could build on some existing forums, such as the Geneva model regarding conflict in Syria or a revitalized and expanded Quartet for the Israel-Palestine issue. Each multilateral forum would need to be constructed individually, adapted to the particular circumstances of the conflict under review.
Building Upon Existing Plans
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)–sponsored Arab Human Development process has defined a serious agenda for the region but has accomplished very little. Multilateral forums could have an effect in promoting basic freedoms and rights by examining ways that Arab states and societies can govern more effectively and democratically, advancing educational reform and higher academic standards by focusing more on stimulating creative thinking, and promoting women’s engagement and empowerment so as to bring women more into mainstream economic and social activities.
Substantial time and effort have already been invested in dealing with these “deficits” (as they are described in the report) identified by the Arab intellectuals and public policy personalities involved in the UNDP conferences. Broadening the participation in their work to include citizens in the countries taking part, as well as focusing the work more narrowly on practical ways to produce progress in each area, could yield results that would enjoy regional buy-in and international donor support. In these forums, participation of governments, NGOs, UN agencies, and others would enrich the discussion.
What Regional Cooperation Could Achieve
There are several related areas that would benefit from vigorous multilateral engagement. Regional security cooperation in the Gulf and in the Eastern Mediterranean has been an elusive goal of both regional and extra-regional states for years. Initially, a multilateral forum would probably need to be satisfied with discussion and debate. But with careful tending, action plans can begin to be formulated. There are three proposals already on the table regarding Gulf security cooperation, drawn up by Iran, Russia, and the United States. None of the three is likely to gain traction by itself, but a multilateral forum could seek ways to build consensus around a plan of action that draws out the best ideas from each.
Regional cooperation on other pressing issues would also benefit greatly from multilateral engagement. These issues include public health, water access, climate change, and the environment. Drawing on work already done in the Madrid multilateral process and UN specialized agencies, new multilateral configurations could advance the human side of regional security, which is no less important than military cooperation in keeping the region stable and safe.
The Value of Tradecraft
Given that Biden’s administration is likely to be preoccupied with domestic recovery, it is worth noting that the cost of devoting time and resources to multilateral initiatives pales in comparison to trying to effect change unilaterally. American leaders need to decide to invest in these processes, to stay the course, and to exercise the kind of American leadership that they have demonstrated when they have decided to mobilize international coalitions in the past. For the country’s friends and allies, an American commitment to multilateralism, even selectively, will be most welcome.
We have no illusions that, even with effective multilateral action, the myriad of challenges confronting this region can be easily or quickly overcome. But if progress were made, the payoff for the hard work and long-term investment in selective multilateral engagement could be enormous. It would restore American credibility and leadership, create a path for progress to deal with the region’s most pressing problems, and help secure a better and safer future for America’s allies and friends. Most importantly, smart multilateral action could offer the people who live in this region a greater chance for security, peace, and prosperity.
Daniel Kurtzer is the S. Daniel Abraham professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. During a twenty-nine-year-long career in the Foreign Service, he served as the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. He is the co-author and editor of several books, including The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989–2011.
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is a CNN global affairs analyst and the author most recently of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.