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Iraq’s foreign relations: testing democratic peace theory?

It has passed some observers by that Iraq is rigorously pursuing a multilateral foreign policy, based on building bridges in the region. It is worth considering that this may even be a historic first in the modern Middle East potentially charting a path to a new Arab unity, something which has eluded the Arab League for decades.

Most previous attempts to unite the Arab world were led by personal agendas and power politics. Today, the theme in Baghdad is cooperation, rather than aspiring to lead the Arab world.

This is a logical path for Iraq. Prior to 2003, Iraq’s foreign relations were based on the survival of one of the worst dictatorships in modern history, bribing or threatening neighbouring countries which did not support the regime. The regime’s decision making had no logical or moral constraints.

In 1994, even after a calamitous war with an international coalition, Saddam Hussein threatened to invade Kuwait again, moving 50,000 troops to the border, despite the disasters Saddam had already brought upon Iraq. The subsequent state weakness caused by relentless confrontation invited various nations to court different opposition groups, further undermining the central government. Briefly, Iraq attempted to chart a new path at the end of the 1990s as the national budget collapsed--stronger trade relations with Egypt and Russia were explored, but this was purely transactional and Iraq eventually reverted to threats, cancelling Russian oil contracts in 2002 due to Moscow's decision to pressure Saddam.

After 2003, regime change brought a radical departure from this confrontational path, but many countries continued pursuing the Machiavellian foreign policies that have bedevilled the region's history.

Unfortunately, some nations felt they could influence events in Iraq through proxy groups and it was the Iraqi people who paid for these mistakes as various countries funded both non-state groups and political parties, spreading chaos in the region. This was also a huge mistake for nations which now see the benefit of having a conciliatory and representative government in Baghdad.

Many in the past ignored Iraq’s unsecured borders in an attempt to disrupt the experiment in democracy. Others took the opportunity to fight U.S. forces in Iraq, with no regard to the type of people they were supporting, leading to thousands of civilian deaths. This ultimately led to the ungoverned space occupied by Daesh, in reality a loose coalition of fanatics from 120 countries.

Today, Iraq has scored an incredible victory against this group, and is the only country in the Middle East with a Special Forces worthy of the name, evidence that the Iraqi state is rebuilding its “monopoly on force.” Nowhere in the region has Daesh lost so much territory to a legitimate government. Iraq is now taking the high ground by setting the tone for regional relations based on trade and cooperation against terrorism. In particular, Iraq has emphasised a multilateral approach to the Kurdish referendum.

This can form the basis for cooperation on many other issues, not least the sharing of trans-boundary waterways and the battle against climate change. All governments need to also cooperate to end the policy of supporting armed groups instead of working with nation states. Iraq is leading the way on this in integrating armed groups into the official government security services, under the PMU Law which observes Article 9 of the 2005 Constitution, bringing forces under state control and ensuring they represent the Iraqi people.

This sets a standard for the region. Foreign Minister Jafaari has spoken in terms of a post WW2 European style consensus, with MENA states coming together with international support to rebuild and stabilise the region. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi also supports this view, as does his current political ally Moqtada al-Sadr, who recently surprised observers of the region by visiting Saudi Arabia. Previously, PM Abadi and Minister Jafaari had been to the KSA on a state visit. Elsewhere, Ammar al-Hakim, who has launched a new political party, has been in Amman discussing peace and reconciliation in Iraq.

As a result of these talks, trade routes are re-opening for Iraq. It may be the cause of suspicion in the region, and also within Iraq, but this multilateral foreign policy is already bringing benefits, with Turkey recently joining an array of nations in asserting that Iraq should remain united and federal in character. Jordan and Iraq are also set to revive two way trade, and Iraq’s border with Saudi Arabia recently re-opened. Eventually, new trade zones can strengthen relations even further, but this has to be a two way street: rights of minorities in Saudi Arabia are as important as the rights of minorities in Iraq. Waterways are for all, not only for nations that build upstream dams.

As Iraq remakes these relationships, we expect cliches about Iraq’s foreign relations to persist, in particular the idea that Iraq has become a client state of Iran, a country which it shares a 1500 km border. The reality is that Iraq simply cannot have adversarial relations with Iran, or any of its neighbours, no more than Germany could get into a trade war with France. Those who accept a “hard Brexit” may soon learn the reality of this.

Likewise, Mexico and the US would be foolish to let a row over a wall or potential trade tariffs get in the way of almost $600 billion worth of two way trade in 2016 alone. Ultimately, Iraq’s relations with Iran (or Turkey for that matter) should be seen in light of Baghdad’s alliance with 70 nations, a coalition more than twice the size of NATO.

Good relations with neighbours are a logical necessity, and multilateral relations balance these arrangements. By contrast, history is full of examples of countries that have been destroyed after becoming pawns in regional power games.

But history also shows us that nations can make regions more peaceful by virtue of being democracies, the so called, “democratic peace theory.” This well known idea suggests that democracies are less likely to enter into conflict with one another, based on the constraints of representative government through what Bruce Russett calls, “cultural/ normative” democratic peace on the one hand, and the values of democracy (“structural” democratic peace) on the other.

In reality, Iraq’s path to better regional relations may not arise from either of these explanations: for now, Iraq must simply be pragmatic to rebuild after Daesh.

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