Webcast Recap

Three experts in the field of Middle East affairs discussed the arguments contained within a joint United States Institute of Peace (USIP)-Wilson Center paper presenting the challenges posed by global authoritarian powers for U.S. diplomacy and the post-Arab Spring regional strategic balance. This meeting was the first of a series of five meetings assessing the new dynamics reshaping the Middle East.

On January 29, the Middle East Program and USIP hosted the meeting “Global Authoritarians and the Arab Spring: New Challenges for U.S. Diplomacy” with Daniel Brumberg, Senior Adviser, Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at USIP, and Co-Director, Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University; Steven Heydemann, Senior Adviser, Middle East Initiatives at USIP; and Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director and Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, gave opening remarks.

Heydemann began by defining the current period as a “volatile moment in the history of the Arab world and of U.S.-Arab relations” wherein recent shifts in the landscape of the Middle East are presenting new diplomatic and strategic challenges for the United States. He stressed that, in the context of the Arab Spring, global authoritarian (GA) networks contributed to an environment that challenged the United States, particularly in the Middle East where both the United States and the authoritarian states have strong interests. Heydemann emphasized that leading GA powers, such as Russia, China, and Iran, are developing coherent relations in order to explicitly advance common goals. He listed these goals as: challenging Western powers; strengthening economic and financial agreements such as trade, weapons sales, and foreign investments; and building ties with emerging regional states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and the BRICS. He then argued that the collaborative efforts of these global authoritarian systems are an attempt to “break from the dominance of Western globalization” and establish an alternative system of values opposed to the Western principles of liberal democracy. Heydemann stressed their imperative to “defend rigid principles of state sovereignty and non-intervention in internal affairs” which explains, according to him, Russia and China’s opposition to the norm of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Nevertheless, Heydemann noted that while the aggregate impact of the GA networks created a much more complicated environment for U.S. diplomacy, the relationships among these networks are marked by their flexible and informal nature, lacking formal alliances. He concluded saying that their aim is to protect broad strategic interests and economic links in the region.

Brumberg explained that the “heart of the paper” deals with regional strategic dynamics such as the 2011 intervention in Libya and the debate over an international intervention in Syria. He stated that Russia and China’s distrust and efforts to undermine UN Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya set a precedent for the R2P norm within the international system. Nonetheless, with the exception of Syria being a core interest for Iran, he emphasized Russia and China’s interests in the global arena and obligation to “nuance” their discourse in accord with the new Arab leaders’ desire to be seen as “advancing democratic reforms.”

Additionally, Brumberg suggested that U.S. policy will need to be more nuanced and that more active multilateral diplomatic efforts will be necessary to deal with the challenges posed to both the United States and its allies in the Middle East with the continued issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict and U.S.- Iranian standoff.

Commenting on Heydemann and Brumberg’s paper, Wittes praised the “rich, thoughtful, and concrete” arguments raised in the paper and suggested that the crucial question at the heart of the discussion was “how much does the democratic vector matter for the future of the Middle East?” She stressed that, in spite of recent historical examples of democracy spreading globally, the GA states are first and foremost “united by collective action in opposition to a global consensus on democracy and human rights.” She argued that the post-Cold War multipolar environment and globalization trends resulted in a “more complex mix of interests and opportunities” that, in general, affected authoritarian regimes currently struggling to preserve autocracy. Although she argued that there is not yet a coherent strategy by the global authoritarian networks, Wittes expressed doubts about the capacity of the United States to overcome the challenges posed by the these powers in spite of the “transformation of its skill sets and diplomatic capacities to adapt to these recent challenges.”

Moreover, she argued that while the countries at the heart of the Arab spring face some anti-American public sentiment, they also face public expectations about democracy, human rights, and economic development, for which the West has “far more to offer than the GA networks”. She finally gave the example of Egypt’s economy and trade with countries like China, arguing that if the Egypt stabilizes and develops economically, its economic interests will become more and more compatible with Western markets.      

Valérie Guillamo, Middle East Program



This event is the first in a series of five papers and presentations on
“The Changing Security Architecture in the Middle East.”

Upcoming events and speakers in the series:

Shibley Telhami
Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland, College Park

Laurie Brand
Robert Grandford Wright Professor and Professor of International Relations, University of Southern California

Pete Moore
Associate Professor of Political Science, Case Western Reserve University

Adeed Dawisha
Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Miami University

Invitations for these events are forthcoming.



  • Daniel Brumberg

    Senior Adviser, Center for Middle East and Africa, United States Institute of Peace; and Co-Director, Democracy and Governance Studies, Georgetown University
  • Steven Heydemann

    Vice President, Applied Research on Conflict, United States Institute of Peace
  • Tamara Cofman Wittes

    Director and Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution