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There can be no realistic picture without ground-up analysis

The quest to build a peaceful world is ill-served by approaches that advocate smaller states' alignments with external powers.

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The dominance of the world by the superpowers forced countries and movements into compliance with the bipolar model. On the ground, things were more complicated.

IN the decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union, global politics seemed so simple: there was the USA and its allies and friends on one side, and the Soviet Union and its allies and friends on the other.

Allies and friends were either just that or they were puppets of one or the other superpower, depending on a person's perspective. At least, that was what Cold Warriors and ideologues of Right and Left said. It suited both sides to portray the world in this "You're either with us or you're against us" way, using it as a tool to stifle independent thinking and alternative power structures.

In reality, things were always more complicated. The dominance of the world by the superpowers forced many countries and movements into compliance with the bipolar model, but more often than not, they still pursued their own goals, even when they aligned themselves with one or other great power because of the support it could give them, or because they felt a need for a counterweight to the support their local rivals were receiving from one of those powers.

This had an impact on how certain anti-colonial struggles were perceived, including those of the peoples of the Portuguese colonies in Africa, South Africa, Palestine and Western Sahara. In each of these cases, a local issue of national self-determination that had no necessary connection to great power politics came to be seen by many in positions of influence as subordinate elements of a greater East-West conflict.

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The results could be farcical at times. Perhaps this was most so in the Horn of Africa, where, at the beginning of the 1970s, an Eritrean liberation movement was seeking independence from Ethiopia, which also had a long-standing territorial dispute with neighbouring Somalia. Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was on good terms with the USA, while the Eritreans and Somalia had ties to the Soviet Union. The Cold Warriors on either side portrayed them as tools of US or Soviet policy, depending on their own affiliations.

Then, in 1974, Mr Selassie was overthrown in a military coup that installed a pro-Soviet military regime. The Soviet Union quickly decided that it was a more desirable partner than Somalia or the Eritreans and, forced to choose, ditched them in favour of the new masters of Ethiopia. The Eritreans ceased to be freedom fighters and became counter-revolutionaries; Somalia ceased to be a progressive state taking the "non-capitalist" road and became an ally of US imperialism - all within a matter of months.

The US response to the changes in the Horn of Africa mirrored the Soviet moves: its relations with Somalia improved greatly and it dropped its support for Ethiopia. Cold warriors in the media and academia duly aligned their commentaries with the new superpower narratives. Yet the local issues of nationalist ambitions underlying the Eritrean-Ethiopian-Somali relationships remained unchanged.

One element that worked against the bipolar model was the Non-Aligned Movement, which first made an impact (though not with that name) with the 1955 Bandung Conference. The member states of the movement differed greatly in their politics, but found common ground on a range of issues, including decolonisation and the rejection of hegemonist behaviour by any great power, whatever its professed ideals.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was only one superpower, but the world has changed considerably since then. China has become increasingly powerful, for one thing; for another, the USA has had its fingers burnt in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most Americans have a reduced appetite for foreign entanglements.

In this context, medium powers carry greater weight in their regions, and each has its own goals. Nevertheless, there are still proponents of interventionist policies who, deprived of a bipolar framework of global politics, still resort to a rather less-impressive binary framework, with the US and the other good guys pitched against the "Axis of Evil", "terrorism" or latterly, Iran and its so-called proxies.

Yet again, this top-down approach refuses to acknowledge and deal with local issues and particular causes.

Take the case of Yemen. When the regime of Ali Abdullah Salih was overthrown by an 11-month long uprising that began in 2011, it was replaced by a new government approved - unopposed - in a referendum. The new regime of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi was and remains recognised as Yemen's legitimate government. But there was a basic problem with it: the government excluded from power two large constituencies.

The Southern Movement brought together numerous South Yemeni groups and parties that wanted the South, a separate state before 1990, to have devolved powers; some wanted to secede. In the northern part of Yemen, Ansar Allah, the movement more generally known as the Houthis, wanted more say over the affairs of its region. In 2014, the Houthis seized control of the capital, Sana'a, and pressed southwards, reaching Aden, the former southern capital.

President Hadi fled into exile, but was able to return to Aden with support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Worldwide news broadcasts at the time showed what were said to be pro-government forces celebrating their victory; there must have been very few people well informed enough about Yemen to recognise that the flag they waved was that of South Yemen, not united Yemen. It now represents a movement that, rather than wanting to see an internationally recognised government restored to power over a united Yemen in Sana'a, sees its priority as the establishment of a restored South Yemeni state.

Meanwhile, to the north-east of Aden, a large swathe of Yemen fell into a twilight zone where the strongest local influence was armed al-Qa'eda affiliates.

There are a number of clear local Yemeni problems here: inadequate representation of Yemen's different communities, exclusion of the young people who spearheaded the uprising in 2011, the grievances of the South, which may well only be soluble now by accepting its right to secede, and the failure to achieve economic progress for the country at large. Yet the war in Yemeni is commonly represented as one pitting "Iranian-backed Houthi rebels" against a legitimate government backed by Saudi and UAE allies that simply seek the restoration of its authority.

It is another version of that top-down perspective that subsumes the basic local factors in a conflict within a broader context to serve non-local needs. Iran certainly has sympathy with the Houthis, but, despite the constant reiteration that they are Iranian-backed, their opponents don't seem to do a good job of quantifying what this backing amounts to. The repetition of the theme of Iranian support serves to sideline all the issues behind the Houthi movement and the discontent of many other Yemenis with all the warring parties (Houthis included).

It also discourages questioning of the motives of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Saudi government has long followed interventionist policies against any country or movement in the Arabian peninsula that it saw as disturbing the conservative and authoritarian status quo. North Yemen was torn by war in the 1960s following the overthrow of the monarchical regime of the Imam. The Saudi government supported a movement to restore the Imam, based precisely in those strongly Shi'ite northern areas that now provide the bedrock of Houthi support, and Nasser's Egypt supported the Republican government in Sana'a. The conflict ended with Egyptian withdrawal and the squashing of any radical impulses in the North Yemeni regime.

Both the Saudis and the UAE have staked out other interests in Yemen. In Mahra governorate, bordering Oman, Saudi troops took security control in 2017, saying that their aim was to prevent arms smuggling to the Houthis by Iran, but locals suspect that their aim is longer-term domination and the construction of an oil pipeline from southern Saudi Arabia to the port of Al-Ghayda. The Emiratis have cultivated close ties with the Southern Transitional Council, which wants South Yemen to be a separate state once more; in the event of that taking place, they could expect a handsome payoff.

A simple "Iran and its proxies vs the West/regional stability/the Sunnis" approach to the Yemeni conflict can be seen to obscure the complex reality of what is happening there and offer no pointers towards finding a solution.

There are situations in which the intervention of an external power exacerbates or reshapes how a conflict develops, but even then, there is no substitute for investigating and trying to understand the local factors that led to that conflict and made local actors receptive to a foreign involvement.

The quest to build a more peaceful world is ill-served by approaches that stress broad international alignments and ignore the reality on the ground. It is harder work, but that is the way to uncover the fundamental forces at work and the ambitions and grievances that need to be taken into account in order to achieve durable solutions.

  • The writer is a freelance writer.