William J. Burns and Marwan Muasher

The Middle East today embodies the powerful political, economic, and social currents that are reshaping the international landscape. The centrifugal forces of sectarianism, authoritarianism, populism, and extremism are pulling the region apart, leaving in their wake the kind of instability and human tragedy we have not seen since the aftermath of the First World War.

While Malcolm Kerr first published The Arab Cold War more than a half century ago, his seminal work remains as good a guide as any for understanding the roots of today’s tumult—and for understanding the long-term trajectory of the Middle East, its people, and its place in the world. His example as a student, an educator, and a human being committed to the region where he lived and worked is a powerful one to emulate, especially at this moment of testing.

Kerr had his own extraordinary example to follow. As volunteers for Near East Relief in Aleppo in 1919, his parents Stanley and Elsa Kerr helped thousands of Armenians (mostly children) fleeing genocide. They went on to settle in Beirut, where they worked at the American University of Beirut—the same university Malcolm Kerr would eventually lead before his assassination on its campus in 1984. He studied the region, in the words of the late Edward Said, “sympathetically but critically.” He lived and died in the service of that belief. He dedicated his life to working with the next generation of Arab thinkers and doers. Although not an Arab, Kerr was in many ways a son of the region—dispassionate in his diagnosis of its dysfunctions, but a passionate believer in the promise and potential of its people.

The Arab Cold War tells the remarkable story of Egypt’s relations with its fellow Arab states during the era of Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir. It is a story of big personalities, big ideas, big gambles, and even bigger setbacks. Kerr’s objective, as recounted in the preface of the book’s third edition, was “to dispel the notion of Arab politics as a projection of decisions” made in other capitals. He was ahead of his time in exposing the overstated focus on the role of foreign powers, and the tendency of regional leaders to blame others for their own shortcomings and downplay local agency. “To grasp the spirit of the Arabs’ political life,” Kerr wrote, “we must recognize that their society, for all its crises, possesses its own vitality. Even the most influential foreigners are peripheral to the Arabs’ own conceptions of their world and their visions of its future.”

That remains as true today as it was in Nasir’s era. What is also true, and what Kerr made vivid in his characteristically understated way, is how the region’s competing “isms”—nationalism, socialism, pan-Arabism, Islamism—have been less about paving a road to a more hopeful future, and more about advancing narrow interests, smothering competing voices, and masking debilitating political, social, and economic deficits. The gap between the sloganeering and formalities of governance on one hand and the brute realities of political life on the other only grew wider, and the sense of indignity only grew deeper and more pervasive.

Another steady feature of the region is the attraction toward simplistic views of regional rivalries in an effort to graft a semblance of order onto a disordered landscape. Whether they are the revolutionaries or counter-revolutionaries of that era or this one, these artificial blocs cloud more than they clarify, narrowing the room for compromise and diminishing the appetite and capacity for tolerance.

In the aftermath of the 1967 war, Kerr concluded that Arab politics “have ceased to be fun.... As one who all his life has had friendships and memories among the Arabs to cherish,” he wrote, “I have found no relish in describing” the war and all its disastrous dislocations.

Kerr would not find today’s state of affairs any more uplifting. The profound failures in governance that he observed so clearly a half-century ago finally produced the Arab Spring, and the mix of hope and chaos and conservative reaction that followed. The politics of the Arab world are still brittle. Relations among its governments are broken, with each meddling recklessly in the affairs of the other and creating a target-rich environment for adversaries of all stripes to take advantage. The aspirations of its people remain dampened and deferred.

Kerr’s work, therefore, is unfinished—but his legacy is more relevant and important than ever. And there has never been a more important moment to recall Malcolm Kerr’s example—his intellectual honesty, generosity of spirit, and genuine belief in the promise of a region so often consumed by its dysfunctions. His was a life extraordinarily well-lived, cut tragically short in the war-torn city he loved. That is why we’re honored to republish this book, and to dedicate the Carnegie Middle East Center in his name.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace established its Middle East Center in 2007 in Beirut to inform and support policymaking on critical issues in the Arab world. Guided by an Advisory Council of distinguished Arab thought leaders, the center has established a multidisciplinary network of experts from across the region who have a personal stake in its future.

Over the past decade, the Carnegie Middle East Center has evolved into a respected source of independent research and analysis, a crucial source of scholarly work from and by the region. By promoting new ideas and initiatives to advance political, social, and economic reform, it aims to help the region transition toward a more pluralistic, peaceful, and prosperous future.

Malcolm Kerr never allowed the region’s troubles to dissuade him—he never ceased to believe in what was possible for the Arab world and the Arab people. With the support of generous donors who share our admiration for Malcolm Kerr and dedication to this important work, our Center will carry on that legacy—continuing to provide a public space for the next generation of Arabs to debate, discuss, and write their own future.

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