Cooperation, Contestation, and Historical Context:
A Survey of the Middle East’s Security Architecture
By Nasser Bin Nasser and Jasmine Auda
March 7, 2018
Political theorists have long considered the Middle East to be the only region in the world that lacks a comprehensive regional security architecture. Europe relies on formalized mechanisms such as treaties and institutions, and countries in Asia have used diplomacy and consensus in pursuit of their regional security regimes. The countries of the Middle East, however, are often said to not even share a common set of norms or guiding principles in the realm of security.
This view is, however, incomplete. To some degree, it judges the Middle East by the wrong scale—a scale largely formed around Western security arrangements, which are not the only ways that security can be managed. This report argues that, while the Middle East may not have an institutionalized security architecture characterized by binding commitments, states in the region are nonetheless engaging in cooperative security, albeit in a way that differs drastically in form from those in other regions.
This does not mean that the Middle East is not in dire need of improvement to its security architecture. The region currently faces numerous threats to security, including concerns of instability and unpredictable outcomes. Many contemporary security threats are products of the factors that contribute to the region’s lack of formal architecture. The ongoing conflict in Syria displays the immediate need for a more robust formal security system, the diplomatic crisis with Qatar points to divergent political interests within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the instability in Yemen and the renewed insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai region further emphasize the region’s needs for greater cooperation.
To address these urgent security needs, the Middle East needs to build upon its own established traditions of cooperative security, in a way that acknowledges the region’s strengths, limitations, and differences from other regions. This report seeks to lay the groundwork for such an effort by identifying concrete factors that have contributed to the lack of a formal security architecture, such as the region’s lack of common existential threats, and examining the role that security institutions traditionally have played across the Middle East. To address contemporary security threats in the region, it is critical to first identify the factors that have contributed to this lack of formal security architecture. In identifying these factors, though, this analysis also refutes the notion that the region is somehow “exceptional” and thus incapable of building a robust security architecture. To move the conversation beyond received and incomplete notions about the Middle East—and toward solutions for the region’s security—it then expands the notion of security beyond military and political dimensions, and assesses the various social and cultural linkages between states, and their effects on regional security.
The notion of security has often been referred to as being an “essentially contested concept.”1 Scholars believe that the definition of security is inherently subjective, as it means different things to different people or states. In the most rudimentary sense, however, security means alleviating threats to established values.2 Following this basic definition of security, cooperative security therefore refers to the mutual collaboration of a group of states to mitigate threats caused by a common set of identified concerns. Before proceeding further, however, it is worth briefly distinguishing between the concepts of cooperative security, collective security, and collective defense.
A Comparative Definition of Cooperative Security
Collective security refers to a group of member states that are legally obliged to protect each other from an attack by other states within that same group.3 An example of a collective security organization is the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Collective defense, by contrast, refers to the commitment of member states within an organization to defend each other from external aggression.4 NATO is the foremost example of such an alliance.
Cooperative security has completely different connotations. The term was largely popularized in the years following the end of the Cold War, and it accurately captured the zeitgeist of that era—an overwhelming sense of optimism for the new world order. Carrying the spirit of that time, then, cooperative security has been identified as connoting “consultation rather than confrontation, reassurance rather than deterrence, transparency rather than secrecy, prevention rather than correction, and interdependence rather than unilateralism.”5 Thus, whereas collective security describes the process of shared legislation to ensure internal order and collective defense involves shared legislation in addition to the commitment to align against external threats, cooperative security simply suggests mutual collaboration to alleviate an internal or external threat to some shared values. To examine the Middle East’s security architecture, this assessment focuses mostly on the elements of cooperative security, not on those of collective security or collective defense.
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