Newspapers around the world are flooded with news about the Middle East; all of it is grim. Syria and Iraq are fighting the brutal insurgency known as ISIS and Libya has fallen into chaos. After the promise of “Arab Spring” back in 2009, Egypt has returned to a military dictatorship, and once peaceful Yemen is embroiled in a seemingly endless civil war that is attracting foreign intervention. The prospects for improvement in the near term are not good.
I served for nearly two decades in the United States government and we tried to present ourselves as the “honest broker” in the Middle East, as a neutral player whose policy was to bring all parties together for the common good. But sadly the United States has failed in that policy and the flood of refugees to Europe suggests that we face a more dangerous instability in the Middle East than at any previous moment in the last century.
A former State Department Special Envoy for the Middle East once told me that “there are no new ideas for peace. Everything already has been thought of.” But I now think he was wrong.
The United States must recognize that its policies have failed and allow others to play a more critical role. Unfortunately, recent interventions in the Middle East by Russia and Turkey are of dubious value in that they are regional players with imperial histories who are not fit to serve as honest brokers.
But Korea is an entirely different story. Korea is an admired middle power that, remarkably, has maintained solid ties with China, Russia, the Middle Eastern countries, and many other nations while serving as a key ally of the United States. Korea’s economic successes can be readily exported to developing nations and the Middle East is thirsty for a forward-looking plan for economic growth beyond oil.
The United States is simply too big and too established. The developing nations of the Middle East cannot see any aspect of themselves in American culture. But Korea offers hope in that its political and economic landscape was not all that different than that of Egypt or Libya in the1970s, and yet it was able to pull itself up by the seat of its pants and create global brands like Samsung and Hyundai.
In 1964, Korea and Pakistan (a country with similar problems to Middle Eastern countries) had an almost identical per capita Gross Domestic Product at just under $120. Their economies were almost identical in terms of size and complexity.
Today, however, Korea’s per capita GDP has reached $26,000, according to the World Bank. Pakistan’s per capita GDP is only $1,275. Moreover, Korea has developed a strong democracy, a vibrant culture that is popular in the Middle East, and has one world’s leading economies. It achieved all this while contending with the threat of North Korea and enduring substantial political upheavals at home.
Korea can and should draw on its own experiences to teach the people and governments of countries like Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and others how to successfully transition from a post-war economy with literally nothing into an economic and democratic powerhouse.
The state of economic and social devastation in Korea after the end of the Korean War is not so far from what many nations in the Middle East face now. They need Korean technology and aid, but even more importantly, they need Korean leadership in terms of vision for nation-building and creating an effective economy beyond oil. Korea can offer what the United States and other advanced nations cannot.
Korea should combine its “new village movement” building local communities with a larger dialogue on prospects for substantial democracy, rule of law and economic development. Korea has many best practices that can be readily adopted, and most importantly, Korea offers the concrete possibility of success.
Egypt is probably the country that is most ready for Korean know-how. After decades of flawed democracy, the military seized power in July 2013 and jailed the country’s President. Although the new constitution reportedly won the support of 98.1 percent of voters, in fact turnout was very low, as virtually all of the opposition’s leadership had been arrested and imprisoned.
History tells us that a military dictatorship without popular support will inevitably result in much more bloodshed. But Koreans have a story to tell that will make sense to Egyptians. Korea moved from an extremely repressive government to become one of the most transparent countries today. Korean can give very practical and substantial advice to the Egyptian government, not just on how to pursue transition to democracy, which it says it wants to do, but also on how to build a diverse and robust manufacturing base.
Egypt still produces some of the finest cotton textiles in the world, and its foodstuffs are competitive internationally. But that alone is not sufficient to sustain a country of 82 million people. Egypt needs to develop heavy manufacturing and Korea is best equipped to show the Egyptians how to do that.
Libya is in an even worse situation. Chaos reins in the country in the aftermath of Muammar al-Qaddhafi’s overthrow. In spite of civil war, Libya is able to produce and export more than 400,000 barrels of oil per day. But it also needs help in diversifying its economy, in creating downstream industries, and, most importantly, in creating a functioning government.
Yemen and Syria are the sites of current conflicts and it is too early to rebuild their infrastructure. Nonetheless, exposing their people to the Korean dream at this point could do much to inspire them to move in a positive direction. When they are ready, they will welcome Korean guidance.
It is a tall order for Korea, which has traditionally seen itself as a shrimp among whales, to suddenly step forward and play the leading role in bringing peace and prosperity to the Middle East. But Korea already is a major economic player in the world and should be an important leader in the Middle East. If Koreans with nothing could both dream of and realize global dominance in shipbuilding and memory chips, then Korea is certainly capable, as an advanced economy, of rising to the occasion for global leadership. The time is now.
John Kiriakou is an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.