Oren sees a similar dynamic at work in the Middle East. "There was a certain stability that was brought to the region as a whole -- which had been greatly fragmented -- by the Sykes-Picot treaty in 1916," he notes. "But here we are almost a hundred years later, and the memories and ideas behind it too have started to fade. That's good in some ways. But the consequence is not localized but regionwide instability."
Sykes-Picot was an agreement to divvy up the Middle East into spheres of influence -- British, French, and, based on parallel conversations, Russian. Russia was to control the area around Turkey. France was to influence what is today Lebanon, Syria, and northern Iraq. Britain was to have sway over what is today Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and areas south.
While the relative influence of these countries over the regional segments in question ebbed and flowed, a couple of core principles endured. One was that in a region that was largely tribal or at least broken into many subnational groups, there would be an effort to support the development of states -- or what passed for states, what might bluntly be called families with armies. In other words, an elite group was identified to rule and then would be supported in the development of the means necessary to maintain control over the people within its borders. The other key principle was that those elites would be backed up and influenced by outside powers, who were committed to remaining engaged and helping preserve order (and, of course, advancing their interests in the region).
What has happened in the Middle East is that we are seeing the centrifugal forces of tribal or religious or ethnically divided societies coming apart because the old guard has lost influence and credibility due to the passage of time, grassroots forces empowered by new technologies, deep frustrations, and, significantly, the disengagement of outside powers. This process began with the decline of European powers after World War II and accelerated with the end of the Cold War. But even after the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States remained engaged in Iraq, and then, post-9/11, U.S. engagement in parts of the region grew deeper.
But as Oren warned in remarks to Congress in the early days of the Iraq conflict, years before he was appointed ambassador, the United States may not have the stomach for the endlessly brutal and bloody process of state-making in the Middle East. (It may be surprising to some, but this ambassador now representing an Israeli government that is a favorite of the neoconservatives once actually questioned the basic neocon assumption that somehow the Americans would be welcomed with open arms in Iraq.)
Following that logic, one might point to the American invasion of Iraq as the beginning of the end for the old order. The war upset the balance in the region, inflamed certain old divisions, and then, more saliently, led the United States to want to pull back. Gradually, a host of factors -- America's constrained resources, similar economic challenges for the Europeans, the rise of domestic energy resources, the shift away from the "war on terror," and the greater engagement in the region of less hands-on powers like China and India -- led to the weakening of historical spheres of influence and thus to the lid they helped keep on regional disputes.
The result was a series of upheavals and potential upheavals that have literally left no country or relationship in the region unscathed. Throw into that the old tensions associated with some of the very artificiality of some of the "nations" created by Sykes-Picot and agreements like it -- some exacerbated by the rise of minorities or individual clans to assume the "families with armies" leadership roles (as in Syria, Iraq, or Libya) -- and the result is ferment that does not look like it is going to settle down for a while.
In fact, and I'm not sure Oren shares my view on this point, it may well be that the absence of a central organizing principle for this region is a greater threat to many countries in the Middle East, including Israel, than any specific threat currently in the headlines, including Iran's nuclear program. Protracted institutional decay, violence, spillage of conflicts across borders, withdrawal of investors, economic decline, collapse of the few stable regimes that remain, and similar problems could produce just the kind of void that came with the collapse of the Congress of Vienna. And as we know, new institutions did not emerge in Europe until two massive conflicts later. Indeed, almost a century after that collapse began, we're still not sure of the shape those institutions will ultimately take.