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The Roots of the Migration Crisis
After having their papers processed, migrant families walk out of a transit area toward a train station, Sept. 3, Gevgelija, Macedonia. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The Roots of the Migration Crisis

Walter Russell Mead

The migration crisis enveloping Europe and much of the Middle East today is one of the worst humanitarian disasters since the 1940s. Millions of desperate people are on the march: Sunni refugees driven out by the barbarity of the Assad regime in Syria, Christians and Yazidis fleeing the pornographic violence of Islamic State, millions more of all faiths and no faith fleeing poverty and oppression without end. Parents are entrusting their lives and the lives of their young children to rickety boats and unscrupulous criminal syndicates along the Mediterranean coast, professionals and business people are giving up their livelihoods and investments, farmers are abandoning their land, and from North Africa to Syria, the sick and the old are on the road, carrying a few treasured belongings on a new trail of tears.

It is the first migration crisis of the 21st century, but it is unlikely to be the last. The rise of identity politics across the Middle East and much of sub-Saharan Africa is setting off waves of violence like those that tore apart the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries. The hatreds and rivalries driving endangered communities to exile and destruction have a long history. They probably have a long future as well.

What we are witnessing today is a crisis of two civilizations: The Middle East and Europe are both facing deep cultural and political problems that they cannot solve. The intersection of their failures and shortcomings has made this crisis much more destructive and dangerous than it needed to be—and carries with it the risk of more instability and more war in a widening spiral.

The crisis in the Middle East has to do with much more than the breakdown of order in Syria and Libya. It runs deeper than the poisonous sectarian and ethnic hatreds behind the series of wars stretching from Pakistan to North Africa. At bottom, we are witnessing the consequences of a civilization’s failure either to overcome or to accommodate the forces of modernity. One hundred years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and 50 years after the French left Algeria, the Middle East has failed to build economies that allow ordinary people to live with dignity, has failed to build modern political institutions and has failed to carve out the place of honor and respect in world affairs that its peoples seek.

There is no point in rehearsing the multiple failures since Britain’s defeat of the Ottoman Empire liberated the Arabs from hundreds of years of Turkish rule. But it is worth noting that the Arab world has tried a succession of ideologies and forms of government, and that none of them has worked. The liberal nationalism of the early 20th century failed, and so did the socialist nationalism of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and his contemporaries. Authoritarianism failed the Arabs too: Compare what Lee Kwan Yew created in resource-free Singapore with the legacy of the Assads in Syria or of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Today we are watching the failure of Islamism. From the Muslim Brotherhood to Islamic State, Islamist movements have had no more success in curing the ills of Arab civilization than any of the secular movements of the past. Worse, the brutal fanaticism and nihilistic violence of groups like Islamic State undercuts respect for more moderate versions of Islamic spirituality and thought.

The Turks and the Iranians have had more economic and institutional success than the Arabs, but in both Turkey and Iran today, the outlook is bleak. Iran is ruled by a revolutionary alliance of reactionary clerics and hungry thugs, and it is committed to a regional policy of confrontation and sectarian war. Like the Soviet Union, Iran is an uneasy conglomeration of national and cultural groups held together by a radical but increasingly stale ideology. Turkey, too, is cursed by blind Islamist enthusiasm and unresolved ethnic and ideological chasms. Neither country is immune to the violence sweeping the region, and neither country has been able to develop policies that would calm rather than roil their turbulent surroundings.

At the same time, foreign values are challenging traditional beliefs and practices across the region. Women throughout the Islamic world are seeking to shape theological and social ideas to better reflect their own experience. Modern science and historical and textual criticism pose many of the questions for traditional Islamic piety that 19th-century science and biblical criticism posed for Christianity. Young people continue to be exposed to information, narratives and images that are difficult to reconcile with traditions they were raised to take for granted.

As hundreds of thousands of refugees stumble from the chaos of an imploding Arab world toward Europe, and as millions more seek refuge closer to home, we see a crisis of confidence in the very structures of Middle Eastern civilization, including religion. Reports that hundreds of Iranian and other refugees from the Islamic world are seeking Christian baptism in Europe can be seen as one aspect of this crisis. If people feel that the religion they were raised in and the civilization of which they are a part cannot master the problems of daily life, they will seek alternatives.

For other Muslims, this means the embrace of radical fundamentalism. Such fanaticism is a sign of crisis and not of health in religious life, and the very violence of radical Islam today points to the depth of the failure of traditional religious ideas and institutions across the Middle East.

In Europe and the West, the crisis is quieter but no less profound. Europe today often doesn’t seem to know where it is going, what Western civilization is for, or even whether or how it can or should be defended. Increasingly, the contemporary version of Enlightenment liberalism sees itself as fundamentally opposed to the religious, political and economic foundations of Western society. Liberal values such as free expression, individual self-determination and a broad array of human rights have become detached in the minds of many from the institutional and civilizational context that shaped them.

Capitalism, the social engine without which neither Europe nor the U.S. would have the wealth or strength to embrace liberal values with any hope of success, is often seen as a cruel, anti-human system that is leading the world to a Malthusian climate catastrophe. Military strength, without which the liberal states would be overwhelmed, is regarded with suspicion in the U.S. and with abhorrence in much of Europe. Too many people in the West interpret pluralism and tolerance in ways that forbid or unrealistically constrain the active defense of these values against illiberal states like Russia or illiberal movements like radical Islam.

Europe’s approach to the migration crisis brings these failures into sharp relief. The European Union bureaucracy in Brussels has erected a set of legal doctrines stated in terms of absolute right and has tried to build policy on this basis. Taking its cue from the U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other ambitious declarations and treaties, the EU holds that qualified applicants have an absolute human right to asylum. European bureaucrats tend to see asylum as a legal question, not a political one, and they expect political authorities to implement the legal mandate, not quibble with it or constrain it.

This is, in many ways, a commendable and honorable approach. Europeans are rightly haunted by what happened in the 1930s when refugees from Hitler’s Germany could often find no place to go. But solemn declarations to “do the right thing” do not always lead to sound policy.

Under normal circumstances, the rights-based, legalistic approach can work reasonably well. When refugee flows are slack, the political fallout from accommodating them is manageable. But when the flow of desperate people passes a certain threshold, receiving countries no longer have the will (and, in some cases, the ability) to follow through. Ten thousand refugees is one thing; 10 million is another. Somewhere between those extremes is a breaking point at which the political system will no longer carry out the legal mandate. To pretend that this isn’t true is to invite trouble, and Europe is already much closer to a breaking point than Brussels or Berlin would like to admit.

In eastern and central Europe, the social and economic conditions for absorbing mass migration from the Middle East simply don’t exist. The relatively homogenous ethnic nation states that now comprise the region were created through generations of warfare, often accompanied by episodes of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Most of these states enjoyed a brief period of independence between the two world wars and were then engulfed, first by the Nazis and later by the Soviet empire. Their independence and security still feel fragile, and most of their citizens still believe that the role of the state is to protect the well-being of their own ethnic group and express its cultural values.

Larger, more self-confident and richer societies in Europe’s west and north are better prepared to cope with immigration. But rules that work for Germany and Sweden can produce uncontrollable backlashes in other parts of Europe. Add to this picture the continuing budgetary and welfare crises and the mass youth unemployment in many Eurozone economies, and it is easy to envision a point at which Europe’s capacity to absorb refugees reaches a ceiling.

And the flow of refugees to Europe could easily grow. The Turkish war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party could escalate. Social breakdown or the victory of radical Islamist forces in Egypt could provoke a mass flight of the Copts, the last remaining large Christian population in a region that has seen one Christian community after another exterminated or forced into exile over the last 150 years. The sectarian war in Syria could intensify and spread into Lebanon. The intensifying religious conflict across the Sahel and northern sub-Saharan Africa could create the kind of political and economic insecurity that would produce vast flows of desperate migrants and asylum seekers.

The breaking point may be reached sooner rather than later. In the short term, Europe’s attempts to welcome and resettle refugees will accelerate the flow. The news that rich countries like Germany are welcoming migrants will stimulate many more people to hit the road. Jean-Claude Junker, the president of the European Commission, is calling on member states to accept 160,000 migrants through a quota system. What will be the response when the number of migrants shoots well past that number?

The EU has failed to see that refugee and asylum policy must have three distinct components: the compassionate embrace of those in great need, a tough-minded effort to reduce the flow at the source by correcting or preventing the problems that give rise to it, and an effective border-control regime that limits the number of refugees and migrants who reach EU soil.

When it comes to reducing the number of migrants at their source, the Europeans have gotten it partly right. The EU has been relatively generous with economic-development aid to North Africa and the Middle East. That aid often falls short of the hoped-for results, but at least the Europeans are trying.

There is a second dimension to this policy that runs into a buzz saw of European assumptions and beliefs: the security question. Poverty is one driver of migration to Europe, but what has turned a policy problem into an international crisis is the intersection of poverty and insecurity. It is the brutal war in Syria that has displaced millions of people from their homes and sent them streaming into refugee encampments from Amman to Budapest. It was the breakdown of order in post-intervention Libya that made the Libyan coast a point of embarkation for desperate refugees from Libya and farther south.

The humanitarian question of refugees and asylum seekers cannot be separated from the bankruptcy of Western security policy in Syria and Libya, and the bankruptcy of Western policy cannot be separated from the long-standing difficulties that many European states have in taking a responsible attitude toward questions of military security.

The utter failure of Western policy in both Libya and Syria has to be seen for what it is: not just a political blunder but a humanitarian crime. The feckless mix of intervention and indifference in Libya and the equally feckless failure to intervene in Syria have helped to trigger the flows of migrants that are overwhelming Europe’s institutions.

It is impossible to have a humane and sustainable asylum policy without an active and engaged foreign policy that from time to time involves military action. The West’s current stance on human rights and asylum is reminiscent of the liberal approach to questions of peace and war in the early 1930s. On the one hand, the West adopted a high-minded, legalistic stand that declared war illegal (the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928); on the other, we adhered to a blind commitment to disarmament. A noble ideal was separated from any serious effort to create the conditions that would make it achievable.

The dream of a liberal, humanitarian peace that both the Obama administration and the EU share may not be achievable in the wicked and complicated world in which we live. It certainly cannot be achieved with the kinds of policies now in favor in capitals on both sides of the Atlantic.

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