Middle East Institute hosts webinar for students over Zoom

The Middle East Institute hosted a public Zoom call Thursday, allowing for debate over the relationship between the US, Russia, China and how those relationship relate to the Middle East. The Supermoon rise behind an illuminated cross from a Christian Orthodox church in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The phenomenon of "supermoon'' happens when the moon is at its closest point to the earth and looks larger than usual. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

By Sarah Pinkerton | Staff Writer

Learning outside of the classroom continues for students. A webinar over Zoom was held on Thursday at 2 p.m. for public viewing titled “The Middle East in an Era of Great Power Competition.”

It touched on the topic of the United States’, China’s and Russia’s move toward “great power” in foreign policy and the obstacle the Middle East may face in this.

Hosted by the Middle East Institute, the panel was moderated by Bilal Saab, senior fellow and director of the defense and security program at ME,I and included two panelists: Dr. Barry Posen, Ford international professor of political science at MIT and Dr. Stephen M. Walt, professor of international affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Before discussing the United States’ relations with the Middle East, they first discussed the “buzzword”, Saab said, of great power competition, as it becomes prevalent in the U.S. national security strategy and national defense strategy and what is new about this despite our relations and competition with China and Russia.

Great power competition is described as the possibility of countries to compete with each other based on their military, political and economic power.

Walt said that he finds it interesting how many international relations scholars don’t agree on the exact structure the United States is currently in. While many think the U.S. has the largest claim over other majors powers, some think we are in a bipolar structure with China, followed closely by Russia and others think the U.S. has the most power but is followed closely by China and Russia.

He also added that he thinks the positions of Russia and China are very different from each other.

“Russia to me is basically playing a very defensive game. They don’t have great global ambitions at this stage, they’re mostly trying to make sure that people don’t ignore them, all the emphasis on being respected and having a place at the table,” Walt said.

Walt said that China, however, sees themselves as growing in influence and that their true goals remain unknown for at least a few more decades.

The panelists also discussed the potentiality of a “Grand Strategy”, a term that describes the total use of all the power instruments available to a group.

Walt then said that there has been a shift in the foreign policy in the U.S. but not to the extent that some may think.

While Saab believes that we have decreased our efforts to suppress terrorism and are more focused on China and Russia now, Walt said he believes that at the root of the substance of American policy, it has not shifted much from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration.

He said that we still have troops in NATO deterring Russia and troops in the Middle East and that the Bush, Obama and Trump administration have all seen China as a competitor.

“There’s been certainly a huge change in style,” Walt said. “There have been some changes on a few issues, but the overall sort of thrust of American foreign policy has actually changed rather less than many people believe.”

After a bit more discussion on the U.S.’ relationship with Russia and China, the panelists then began their conversation on the ways the Middle East fits into the picture.

Walt said he is surprised about how little involvement China has in the region.

“As it becomes more powerful and given its reliance on outside energy supplies, would naturally be inclined to get more and more actively engaged in Middle Eastern Affairs,” Walt said.

However, he said that with their modest degree of military power, Russia has been able to intervene in a few places, particularly Syria, to keep Bashar al-Assad in power.

However, he added that in the “blaming column”, it is not much of an advantage for them in a strategic perspective, due to Syria’s ongoing civil war.

An audience member then asked about why it isn’t possible to have greater cooperation, as opposed to competition with the Russians and the Chinese, to stabilize the Middle East.

Posen responded and said that the Chinese do not want to be deeply involved in the Middle East. He said they like to have options on the way they trade and secure themselves.

“They seem to like options so the last thing I think they want to be part of is any kind of architectural thinking about the Middle Eastern Persian Gulf,” Posen said.

They then discussed topics such as the strategies the United States should be pursuing in the Middle East to compete with Russia and China, what it means to be an “off-shore balancer”, our relationship with Iran, how oil is involved with all of this, how foreign policy may change with Joe Biden and the impact of COVID-19.

The full webinar can be found on YouTube.