For The West, There's No Walking Away From Arab Conflicts

A U.S. Army Spc. in Afghanistan's Logar province, in June 2010.
A U.S. Army Spc. in Afghanistan's Logar province, in June 2010.
Daniel-Dylan Böhmer


BERLIN — American Foreign Policy magazine's home page is a little bit like a quotation board for security policy strategies. Here you see not only how various players evaluate the world's conflicts but also how much support there is for their point of view, because the number of times the article has been shared on social networks is posted along with its title and author.

And in recent weeks hardly anything has surpassed Stephen Walt's article "Do No (More) Harm," which argues that every time the United States intervenes in the Middle East, everything just gets worse. It's time to go, without looking back, Walt writes.

Not wanting to know what's going on in the world is a bizarre strategic approach. That Walt's piece resonated so widely is understandable in view of the crises in Gaza, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Kurdistan. Everywhere we see weakened governments, little-known ethnic groups and militias that keep changing their names, all fighting each other. These microcosms seem far too complicated for the involvement of outsiders.

But the macrocosm of the Muslim world comes across as immeasurably more complex to the extent that just our presence would upset the balance. We make conclusions based on specific situations and apply them globally, then flee with relief into our fantasies of powerlessness. As it happens, this way out is as amoral as it is unrealistic.

If you look at the connections between the crises, it becomes clear that not only should the West not walk away — we can’t. That's because of our economic links to the Muslim world, but also because of a pattern of conflict of which we are unavoidably a part. What's happening right now in Iraq is driven by central mechanisms the core of which are also playing out in North Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A U.S. soldier and an Iraqi resident of Baghdad, in Iraq, in July 2007 — Photo: The U.S. Army

Conflicts we don't understand

On the one hand, part of the pattern is the local issues that make the conflicts so confusing for the Western news consumer. In Afghanistan, the Taliban claim to represent the interests of the Pashtun majority. In Pakistan's tribal region, northern Waziristan, the army is trying to drive out what remains of al-Qaeda and Islamic groups that have found refuge among semi-autonomous tribes.

In northern Nigeria, Boko Haram is fighting to establish a caliphate. And finally, Libya is sliding into the chaos that broke out among tribal groups and has spread to Islamic forces not wanting to relinquish any of the power they won after the fall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime. Taken by themselves, these animosities are unique. But in form and magnitude they also go beyond the local, and the West plays a role in them — voluntarily or not.

Western countries have at some time or other intervened either militarily or politically in all of these conflicts. But even when the West doesn't actively intervene, it is still involved on at least two levels. The first is the economic and strategic interests that bind the industrial countries to these areas — the oil in Iraq, Libya, Nigeria; Afghanistan’s central location; the risks Pakistan's nuclear weapons pose. The importance of these regions to the world economy gives local players higher leverage.

Second, there is the political psychology of the conflicts. In all of them, Islamist groups play a main role. Their goals may be local, but they're only as strong as they are because they manage to leverage money, weapons and fighters from abroad. International sponsors are usually powerful individuals and private foundations in the Gulf States, or military regimes such as those in Syria and Iran.

Anti-West motives

They don't support these players because the local issues are somehow dear to them. Rather their support boils down to supporting a global war against the West on many fronts. Think global, act local. The newest and best example of the terrorist version of that principle is the group formerly known as ISIS, now calling itself the Islamic State (IS).

Broadening into Syria from Iraq, this terrorist group has in recent years attracted fighters from all continents, as evidenced by the suspected British IS jihadist who killed American journalist James Foley. The militia is attractive locally because it can cooperate successfully with Sunni tribes. Meanwhile, its laws, symbols and gruesome punishment rituals constitute a kind of model caliphate that they broadcast across the globe via the Internet.

The real terror regime is simultaneously a permanent ad campaign for a global public. The video of Foley's decapitation is just its latest grisly high point.

The West is no longer an imaginary participant in the new terror war. Many of the recruits are Muslims or converts who have grown up in Europe and the United States. They risk their lives for a narrative in which the Muslims avenge mankind against the West's plutocratic world system whose supposed liberalness is in fact spiritual slavery.

A coalition force member in Afghanistan, in March 2013 — Photo: DVIDSHUB.

Fighting that fight is something that the recruits would ideally want to do in enemy heartland, which is to say their Western home countries. Anything else would contradict the psychology and logic of their biographies. Here too, we can't just walk away. For quite a while now, the war has been taking place on our own soil.

We have potential allies in this war, countless people in these far-off areas. If the terror militias are currently so successful, it's not because they have relevant answers to the real problems of locals but because their growing international connectedness has made them considerably less dependent on the approval of those around them.

Insofar as public opinion in the various crises areas can be polled — in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example — acceptance for the militants is on the wane. In Libya, the most recent Islamist offensive was manifestly linked to the dramatic defeat the Islamists suffered during the May elections. To stoke chaos in the country and intimidate its citizens, militias don't need votes. But that doesn't mean people have to let them walk away with political victories.

The breakdown of statehood in the "Arab Spring countries," the Hindu Kush and Africa has played a considerable role in the spread and interconnectedness of these new international terrorists. If they can be stopped and the situation turned around, then the counter-narrative of the militant Islamists will lose its validity — not only in those areas but worldwide.

The West can help with this politically and militarily. But if it is under the illusion that it can detach itself from these problems, then it is helping eternalize the chaos in the Middle East and North Africa, and it will never be able to escape the consequences.

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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