Should Syria be left alone to sort out its own issues? Will Turkey serve as a model for countries striving to create Islamic democracies? How can American business leaders stay true to their moral core when the most enticing markets are in countries whose values are anathema to our own?
These were some of the questions that were explored in depth at a Fordham Graduate School of Business Administration (GBA) forum, “American Business in the New New World: From Caspian Sea to the Maghreb” on June 8.
The forum, which was held at the Lincoln Center campus, featured Jonathan Story, Ph.D., emeritus professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD, Dominique Moisi, senior adviser for the French Institute for International Relations, and Bill Park, senior lecturer in Defense Studies at Kings College.
David Gautschi, Ph.D., dean of GBA, said the forum’s purpose was to address questions of how business can function in a region that is hard to define, and has a complex history.
“What are the opportunities, and can we look at this region and the complexities of it, and extrapolate from it, to see if the lessons that we might be able to take from studying it might be applied to other areas of the world?” he asked.
“We are doing this not because we’re trying to find a solution today. The idea is not so much to get the answer, so much as it is to get the perspectives on the table so that we can recognize that different people can legitimately have different perspectives. We should recognize it, and celebrate it.”
Turkey and Syria dominated the conversation, although regional heavyweights such as Egypt, Iran, and Israel were also discussed. The “Arab Spring” was explored in depth, with all agreeing that the events that roiled the region earlier this year were only the beginning of what will be an ongoing transformation.
“It’s very easy to date the beginning of a revolution. It’s very difficult to see when it ends. We are at the beginning of a very long process,” Moisi said, noting that historian François Furet dated the end of the French Revolution at 1877, nearly a century after it started.
“The Arab revolution is truly a revolution, in the sense that it has the same ingredients, which is the encounter between the totally accidental and the totally inevitable. Start with an accident that nobody could foresee, the self-immolation of a young street vendor in Tunisia, which is in a way the equivalent of the seizure of the Bastille. It fits into an anger and resentment which has led to an explosion that could not be contained.”
Story said groups such as Greek Orthodox Syrians, Alawites, and Coptic Christians are the figurative canaries in the coalmine.
“The treatment of these minorities is the key test for how the political evolution of this region will move forward. Will whoever the new governors are accept, regardless of their religious affiliations and views, the key features of a pluralistic polity, which is to accept that there are areas of disagreement, and that well meaning people can actually find areas of agreement?” he wondered.
On Syria, Moisi was insistent that more be done to stop what has blossomed into a full-blown disaster, calling the country “the Balkans of the Middle East.”
Park acknowledged the gravity of the situation but speculated that, in a perverse way, Russia has done the United States a favor by blocking Western powers from leading a more robust effort to stop the Assad regime.
“[The Russians] are putting themselves on the wrong side of history, and people remember these positions,” he said. “Americans remember the British involvement in the war of independence, and Syrians remember things. People will remember this.”
In the middle of it all is Turkey, which, Park said, has many issues but is far more functional than any other country in the region. There’s an ongoing tension between the secular-leaning military and the Islamic government, and, although it is arguably an indispensable bridge between Asia and Europe, it’s also susceptible to the forces buffeting it from all sides.
“The problem is it’s trying to promote itself as a mover and shaker, but they’re also an echo chamber. For instance, the Arab Spring was not something they saw coming,” he said.