Social Trust as a Path to Peace

Brookings recently published a piece by Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy and the author of “Freedom’s Unsteady March: America’s Role in Building Arab Democracy.” In the article, she argues for the importance of improving governance systems in the Middle East as a means for peacebuilding. Noting that discussions of the region often focus on problems such as terrorism, wars, and those displaced by them, she stresses that these issues are merely the symptoms of a larger problem in many Middle Eastern countries which still needs to be addressed.

“I just came back from the Halifax International Security Forum and the only discussion of the Middle East there was framed around terrorism, ISIS, civil war, and refugees. Those are the urgent problems that are seen by many governments around the world as a threat to international security, and that are driving global attention to the region. But ISIS and civil wars are symptoms of a broader deterioration in the region—they are not the disease.”

This larger problem, she elaborates, involves the breakdown of an old system of governance unable to cope with the realities of an increasingly globalized world. Efforts at reform frequently make the situation worse rather than better, exacerbating social inequalities and allowing elites more and more power over the state. Faced with the increasing popular dissent that followed these changes, many states relied on coercion to address the issues at hand, leading to the rebellions of 2011’s Arab Spring. State attempts to prevent these uprisings forcefully led many citizens to seek protection from extremist groups and local militias, hence the rise to power of groups like Daesh or ISIS in the Syrian context.

“As basic governance and community order failed, those with guns to impose their will gained power. As the state apparatus turned against its own citizens, those citizens turned elsewhere for protection—toward identity-based, sectarian militias and toward extremist groups, often with horrific agendas.”

One of the greatest threats to restoring stability to the region, Wittes argues, is the erosion of social trust. It follows that, although a daunting and time-consuming task, the restoration of social trust is the most crucial focal point in the Middle East. Repairing governance systems and renewing the social contract between state and citizens cannot be achieved without improving the ability of communities to live and work together while sharing power; as the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate, if all affected parties do not have a stake in new governance institutions or do not find them fair, they will cease to function.

Wittes stresses that rebuilding social trust within nations and communities is a process that has to start on the local level, beginning between neighbors and expanding to greater trust between communities until it reaches the national level. This process must involve developing transparent, inclusive, effective, and accountable governance institutions on a local level, an emphasis on dialogue and conflict resolution, and acknowledging the vulnerabilities within states that have not reformed. The United States and other nations with a stake in the region, Wittes says, have three priorities: addressing these vulnerabilities by pressuring such governments to reform, seeking to quickly and peacefully resolve ongoing civil wars, and encouraging dialogue and conflict resolution in communities threatened by or emerging from conflict. Although these processes may be long term commitments, the author stresses that this is the only path toward a more stable and sustainable system of governance in the Middle East.