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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Welcome to the age of disruption. We only have ourselves to blame

If Jared Kushner's disruptive politics are regarded as a success, the temptation to follow suit will be powerful, writes Mustafa Alrawi

US President Donald Trump and his granddaughter walk off Marine One as they return from a weekend stay in Bedminster, New Jersey. Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA
US President Donald Trump and his granddaughter walk off Marine One as they return from a weekend stay in Bedminster, New Jersey. Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

“Sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things in order to get there.”

Those words are attributed to Jared Kushner, one of US President Donald Trump’s lead advisers on the Middle East and the husband of his daughter Ivanka. The context of this statement, taken from emails obtained by Foreign Policy, is the Trump administration’s efforts to alter the status quo regarding the two million Palestinian refugees living in Jordan as part of a wider goal to end the conflict with their occupier Israel.

Mr Kushner is, according to what is said to be his own words, “an honest and sincere” disruptor in the pursuit of his goals. He is not alone in thinking this way. These days there is a sense that everything is being done differently from before – in diplomacy, business and sport, from peace plans to industrial models to football tactics.

There is a distinction to be drawn here, however. What Mr Kushner is advocating is a kind of "disruption politics" that aims to stall the natural rhythm of progress for the sake of the few. This is not the same disruption as that illustrated by the anger of taxi drivers following the arrival of ride hailing platforms like Uber. The latter is the result of people suddenly and in large numbers embracing something new, a kind of micro-revolution and the upheaval associated with such changes. The origins of such developments are almost always innovative and creative, if not universally welcome.

Mr Kushner, by contrast, is actually talking a language of destruction. He pursues the breaking of the status quo with the intention of providing one pre-designed outcome with no alternatives. So many of the world’s crises today can be viewed as the result of the politics of disruption. In the UK, people are bearing the cost of the Brexit divide and the Windrush scandal. The United States has been roiled in the wake of immigrant children separated from their parents and held in detention centres. These are just a few examples of how people’s lives are immediately affected by using disruption as a strategy to achieve narrow political goals.

Taking a step back, perhaps we are just paying the price of not adequately dealing with the anger that has been simmering for a decade since the financial crisis. We collectively failed to acknowledge that during that time we continued to preserve the status quo, when what we really needed was an honest appraisal of what we had not done right and charted a bold, new course.

Instead the priority seemed to be to cement the wealth and status achieved by the winners of globalisation, the EU project and other well-intentioned but inefficient policies of integration. Having said this, it is very sad to see some respond to the failure of the last decade by completely giving up on working towards a fairer, even more inclusive society.

Not only does it risk perpetuating the cycle in the long-term, in the short-term a sharper edge has been added to politics, particularly in Europe and the US, where the left and right are at each other’s throats in a manner not seen in almost a century. There is an atmosphere of open disdain on both sides for the other’s desires and goals.

More worryingly, there is not just a wholehearted belief that the ends justify the means but that those means must be as onerous as possible in order to change the status quo as quickly as possible. It is one thing to see this play out elsewhere in the world but quite another to have it directed at the issues facing the people of the Middle East.

The region has quite enough disruption of its own, reaped over decades, some of it unavoidable perhaps, but too much already caused by the influence of outside powers. In the past, former colonial masters ensured that independent Arab states could not be too self-sufficient through means both fair and foul. While the consequences of these policies can never be justified, there was at least a national interest at work or at its most cynical, a benefit to be obtained for a country’s corporate sector.

Today, those who wield disruption as a weapon in their own countries and then apply it to foreign policy are not working in the interest of any nation as a whole. They are working to meet the desires of a relatively small group because for them, no one else matters.

Who then will be responsible for the disruptees, in this case the Palestinians? That is of no importance for the disruptor as long as he gets what he wants. This will be the biggest challenge the region has ever faced. That is not hyerpbole, even taking into account the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

The reason is that in the wake of any perceived success of Mr Kushner’s "disruptive politics" will be a strong temptation to follow suit in many countries, as leaders chase their own goals. The consequences of that could be beyond anything we have already witnessed.

Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief of The National