Collective Security as an ‘Impossible Necessity’
List of speakers

The last session of the first day of the Valdai Club Middle East Conference was devoted to the collective security system in the Middle East. If earlier, when speaking of “military diplomacy” in the region, the experts focused on the present, and later turned to the past; now they were talking about the future. It is quite likely that the future will be better, because, as the speakers agreed, the present situation is too bad. 

The former system of collective security in the Middle East, even if the egoism of certain countries is ignored, was based on a number of principles. Each of them has proven to lead to instability today: namely, state centralization, a lack of inclusivity, and extreme dependence on external players. Today, all these factors, which were once simply regarded as “features” of the old system, have begun to play against it or have led to its collapse. The region has been affected by the global transformation of security systems, but it remains unclear what will be accomplished. The speakers attempted to answer the question: Is it possible to talk about the creation of a collective security system in the Middle East, and if so, are there any prerequisites for this? 

The experts’ opinions were radically different. The first speaker answered with an unequivocal “no,” insisting that if any cooperation between the countries exists, it is established with the goal of addressing a common threat. “Any security system,” he said, “must be stable and reliable enough to be able to cope with every crisis, and not with this or that crisis alone.” Attempts to establish such a system have been made, but all were superficial, since they did not take into account the specifics of the region or the number of problems that have accumulated.

The expert cited three examples of such attempts. First, the collective security based on the model of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It was supposed that it would be worthwhile to form a similar system in the Middle East, and that the regional powers would be able to coexist peacefully, but this is impossible due to mutual enmity. The second example provided was the Madrid Conference. This also reflected good intentions and a spirit of compromise, but only Israel was represented among the countries in the region, and multilateral interaction was not established. Finally, a third example is the recent Warsaw conference led by the United States. Given its one-sided orientation against the “Iranian threat” and its limited nature, it is also doomed to failure. “You cannot base a security system on measures directed against one state,” the speaker said, adding “you need to help everyone and include everything.” 

But what should be done? It’s probably better to start small. There is a difference between the regional security systems and sustainable agreements, which may start off as bilateral and later become multilateral ones. Although the establishment of collective security, according to the speaker, is not possible at the moment, there could be confidence-building between countries and an improvement of relations between the main conflicting parties. Among them he named first Egypt and Turkey, and secondly, Saudi Arabia and Iran. “I do not see much progress in the near future, but individual steps are possible,” he concluded. 

The second speaker was not as pessimistic, and presented his own vision of the problem. In his opinion, the conflict in the Middle East is caused by a combination of two factors. On the one hand, it is the most polarized region in the world, where confrontation continues between different branches of Islam, between Jews and Arabs, Kurds and Arabs, Saudis and Iranians, and so on. On the other hand, the level of integration is such that conflicts easily cross any border, spread to other countries and force them to join coalitions. The best example of this is the war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have been drawn in along with many other forces.

Accordingly, the collective security-building process must be inclusive, because if communication connects only like-minded people, it does not yield anything. The expert cited two examples of successful projects built on this basis, which allowed countries to overcome their differences: the first is the Iranian nuclear deal (JCPOA), and the second is the Astana process, which helped Iran and Turkey find common ground. A similar experience, the speakers agreed, can be repeated between Egypt and Turkey, as well as between Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

However, the position of the third speaker was radically different. He said that the creation of a collective security system is not only likely, but also inevitable, since it will arise as a result of the natural political process. Instead of solving the problems of all countries at once and dealing with contradictions, he proposed to build national security first, allowing each country to go a special way – and after that to reach general agreement and consensus. “We will need to agree on domestic political principles, how far this process takes into account national interests and concepts.” 

Therefore, the movement to build a collective security should go from the bottom upwards – from particulars to generals. In the absence of such a system in the field, it is impossible to talk about something larger. At the same time, it is necessary to consider the sequence of actions, that is, the logic of the processes development. A serious obstacle is the inconsistent policy of the United States, which has not yet withdrawn its troops from the region and continues to put pressure on Iran. Although, according to the expert, this only legitimized Tehran’s actions and accelerated its response. The countries of the region are not sure that the same cannot happen to them tomorrow. “The states need confidence,” a session participant noted, “and then they can be persuaded to join the collective security system.” 

Regardless of whether it is possible to build a collective security system in the near future or not, the experts agreed among themselves that precedents, experiments or models for interaction between the countries of the region have already been developed and can be used as a basis for further activity.