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by Raine Phythian
atching events unfold in the Middle East in the
spring of '11 was both exciting and, with troops
firing on their own unarmed citizens, at times
heart wrenching. International relations stu-
dent Eric Freeman was in second year at the time and followed
the news of the Arab Spring closely. But it was not until his third
year, when he took a course with politics and international re-
lations professor James Devine, a Middle East expert, that he
really began to understand the extent of what was happening
and why. He has focused his degree on the politics of the
Middle East ever since.
Freeman was curious about why the United States supported the
protesters in one country, while elsewhere it continued to sup-
port repressive regimes.
"For example, in Egypt, the U.S. was quick to use its leverage
over the Egyptian military to help usher Mubarak from power.
Conversely, in Bahrain, the U.S. never put significant pressure
on the ruling al-Khalifa family to relinquish power," he says.
Freeman wondered if there might be a theory that could predict
U.S. actions. With the support of a summer research
grant, Freeman began modifying an existing inter-
national relations theory to explain this disparate
U.S. policy. Freeman used the modified theory,
with Egypt and Bahrain as examples, to explain
under what circumstances the U.S. will support
and promote democracy.
"The ripe moment is where there is a dysfunc-
tional alliance, a crisis that threatens the survival
of the autocratic regime, and a formula for a way
out," says Freeman.
He argues that whereas Egypt met these conditions, Bahrain
did not.
"With Egypt, the relationship between the U.S. and the
Mubarak regime had not been going well for a decade. The
uprising, the crisis, increased the cost of supporting the regime
and there was a way out -- a viable opposition party," he says.
On the other hand, the U.S. relationship with Bahrain's al-Khalifa
regime was healthy. There was a crisis with the uprising, but
there was no workable way out. The democratic alternative to
the regime could destabilize the whole region.
"What I found was that U.S. foreign policy is driven by prac-
tical political considerations of what the Arab uprisings would
mean for U.S. strategic interests," Freeman says. "Although there
appears to be inconsistency in their policy in different countries,
the U.S. adheres to a cost-benefit assessment. In other words,
when the costs of continuing to support the regime outweigh
the benefits of doing so, the time is ripe to support democracy."
Devine says, "I think Eric's work represents a unique contri-
bution to the literature on American foreign policy
and democracy promotion. He has taken a well-
respected theory, applied it in a novel way,
and in the process, provided the U.S. with
valuable insights into an extremely important
set of events."
Freeman is continuing to work on his theory
this year as part of his honours in international
relations. And as the Arab Spring continues to
unfold in the Middle East, he is seeing firsthand
how his theory is holding up.
U.S. foreign policy
is driven by
practical political
considerations of what
the Arab uprisings
would mean for U.S.
strategic interests