Is the Arab Spring a Black Swan?

6 May

             Understanding the Western response to the Arab Spring, a colorful designation of the democratizing movements of varying character that have rocked the foundations of the Arab world, is an ongoing process.  These movements are also seen as posing possibly serious threats to the structure of economic and strategic interests associated with long standing American and European influence in the region.  On the surface after some obvious hesitation, even ambivalence, the liberal democratic governments of the West, headed by the United States, declared their support for the Arab Spring, and even mounted a ‘humanitarian intervention’ (disguised as a No Fly Zone to protect the Libyan civilian population so as to discourage Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council) to help the rebels prevail in their civil war against the Qaddafi regime. Everywhere in the region the political outcome of these unfinished uprisings remain shrouded in multiple doubts.


Having just visited Egypt for a week I came away with this dual sense that the revolutionary dynamics have produced remarkable results that form a glorious chapter of Egyptian history, but also that there are a variety of dark forces that are working under the radar to contain if not reverse this exhilirating democratizing momentum. In the foreground was the widespread acknowledgement by all sectors of public opinion in Cairo that the more reflective governing policy is of popular sentiments the more likely is a definite adjustment of diplomatic stance with regard to the Israel/Palestine conflict. This stance is already evident in the opening of the Rafah Crossing and in the robust Egyptian encouragement of Palestine Authority/Hamas reconciliation.


Looking from outside, I encountered one brief insight into real American thinking about the Arab Spring that was for me particularly revealing. It was published in the comment section of the May/June 2011 online website of Foreign Affairs, the most influential voice on foreign policy in the United States. It was written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth, and opened with this rather startling sentence: “The upheavals in the Middle East had much in common with the recent financial crisis: both were plausible worst-case scenarios whose probability was dramatically underestimated.” What an odd comparison! The equivalence was premised on the negative character of both occurrences, which led the authors to identify the emancipatory movements in the Middle East with the perjorative label of “upheavals,” thereby ignoring the manifest revolutionary and reformist challenges being directed at the established repressive political order. At their worst, these movements could be downgraded to ‘uprisings,’ rather than the image of ‘upheavals’ that mainly suggests purposeless disorder.


The most remarkable aspect, by far, of the Taleb/Blyth comment was to treat these Middle Eastern events as illustrative of unanticipated “worst-case scenarios.” Worst-case? Such a perception only makes sense if it unintentionally reflects the undisclosed underlying strategic consensus that the Arab Winter was far better for the West than the Arab Spring. In effect, that authoritarian government in the region was a necessary correlate of Western grand strategy long built around petropolitics, and more recently extended to the containment of political Islam and sustaining Israeli

regional security goals. Netanyahu and other political leaders in Israel acknowledged as much by their outspoken admission that they were sorry to see the Mubarak regime collapse.


             Nissam Nicholas Taleb is a financial risk analyst who made a wider stir when he published his book Black Swan  a couple of years ago. It has as its central and compelling thesis that there is a pervasive tendency for history to be shaped by unpredicted events, and especially by occurrences that have not taken place in the past. His vivid central metaphor is the assumption that all swans are white because no other color had been seen until the black swan variety was discovered in Australia. This is an interesting alternative approach to what I have been calling ‘the politics of impossibility,’ a phrase meant to suggest that the impossible repeatedly happens, making future studies based on past trends and statistical projections almost certain to be wrong.


            I am not contesting the idea that implausible happenings should be taken into far greater account when contemplating the future. What I am remarking critically upon is the bland classification of the Arab Spring as ‘a worst-case scenario,’ and the fact that such a comment could survive scrutiny from the normally very adept gatekeepers at Foreign Affairs. Is it to be explained as an accidental political oversight or more darkly as a revelation of the mindset so ingrained within the American foreign policy establishment as to be unnoticeable? If the latter, then, it is not surprising that such a phrasing would not even be noticed because it was accurately expressive of the private discourse among foreign policy elites on the impact of these developments. Supportive of this latter interpretation is the fact that this Black Swan comment has remained featured on the Foreign Affairs website.


            It is possible that I am exaggerating a flourish that is nothing more than a slip of the pen! At the very least, however, it should serve as a reminder, if not a warning, that there is not only pro-democracy cheering going on in the Washington situation rooms that shape the foreign policy of Western countries, especially the United States, with respect to what to hope for in the Middle East. As the Chinese supposedly believe: “two persons sleep in the same bed but they have different dreams.”

12 Responses to “Is the Arab Spring a Black Swan?”

  1. Aiman May 9, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    This may explain the American and Western hesitation in taking a firm stance with regard to the brutality of the Syrian regime, just in order to prevent the “worst case scenario” from taking place in Syria. Despite placing Syria in the axis of evil by Bush, nevertheless its security importance to Israel supersedes human rights and all evils this regime may cause, especially if we know that the Syrian-Israeli borders were one of the quietest since 1967.
    Therefore, I believe that your remark is not an exaggeration, rather it shows the American worries about “what if questions”: what if the Islamists took power in these countries? Or what if a new government was established that is not willing to compromise its sovereignty any more? What if a new leadership emerged that is hostile to Israel? The US as a hegemonic regime wants to make sure that it draws the Arab Spring with its favourite colours.

    • Mark May 9, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

      I suggest you read the Nissam Nicholas Taleb article before commenting on it and its implications. The article is not as Falk describes. Falk has chosen to go to the dark side and go there fast. For without controversy there is nothing for him to write about.

      • Richard Falk May 9, 2011 at 9:08 pm #

        You have a point with respect to the Taleb articel read as a whole, where the focus is on volatility rather than characterizing the Arab Spring as a worst case scenario, but the description given by the editors to the article is perhaps more important from my perspective than the article itself as it discloses the unacknowledged outlook of the foreign policy establishment to the upheaval in the region, especially Egypt.

      • Aiman May 10, 2011 at 3:56 am #

        It is true I didn’t read the article and I believe I should. But it is worth saying that I am not taking what Richard says at face value or just because he said it so it’s true. If we leave the article aside, the American foreign policy, in general, towards the Arabic uprising is full of hesitation, confusion and hypocrisy as usual. If we look at how the US and EU have dealt with Libya and how they are reluctant to take serious stance with regard to Syria and ignoring the events in Yemen completely, this is a strong evidence of geo-politics and oilpolitics.

  2. Heidi Morrison May 15, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    You are not exaggerating. The Arab Spring is the worst-case scenario for Israel.

  3. Heidi Morrison May 15, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    Furthermore, it is the worst case scenario for all those who are comfortable with associating Arabs with violence (and not peaceful resistance).

    • Richard Falk May 16, 2011 at 8:02 am #

      Thanks, Heidi, for your consistently affirming and reinforcing responses!

      • Mark May 19, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

        Yes, you do desire affirmation and attention and the limelight, don’t you?

        A sudden event born from frustration and repression is the least desirable outcome. Especially when the framework to install and transition to a democracy does not exist. While the peoples’ intent may be pure and right, the chance of that intent being implemented is very low. And, in fact, the chance that another repressive regime will rule the land – the worst case scenario – is extremely likely.

        If you believe it is only to Israel’s benefit that true democracies form in the mid-east, then you surely do not have the best interests of its peoples, the US or the world in mind.

      • Richard Falk May 19, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

        I understand your thinking about these issues, but adopt a different outlook.

        For what it is worth, I have never had public ambitions, and would prefer to remain in the
        shadows than be in what you call ‘the limelight.’ This blog was a ‘birthday gift’ from my daughter some months ago, and it was a surprise, but without such encouragement I would never have taken such a step on my own.

  4. Adriana November 3, 2011 at 3:13 am #

    Hi, I am phycisist,
    Just to tell that he used a jargon for mathematical modeling.
    plurydisciplinary issues has this problem, specialist talk different languages.
    it is not more than that.

  5. Beau Oolayforos December 7, 2014 at 9:25 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,
    No one can say you didn’t warn us. Sadly, events have once again shown your fears well-grounded.


  1. TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » Is the Arab Spring a Black Swan? - May 9, 2011

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