The Fraying of the International Alliance System

When it comes to the Middle East, a former boss of mine once told me “conspiracy theories, are a regional sport”. This to be fair, is still true today, although it has become increasingly hard to counter the tall tales pushed by these enthusiastic theorists. Nearing the end of Obama’s eight year tenure, the world is a very different place than the mess he inherited from the Bush administration. It is a lot messier today. 

Though, out of all the complex messes the world faces, of which many can be linked to US action and inaction; it is the damage to the international alliance system which is most worrying. One of the main reasons is that it gives further space for the immense myriad of problems the world faces, to further conflagrate. 

While many scholars have in the past argued that security alliances were a concept of yesteryear; there is no point in time since the end of the Cold War, where such alliances are not only required, but essential in dealing with the plethora of challenges the current global order faces. 

Terrorism is truly a global phenomenon in every sense today. The world is witnessing a resurgent Russia (militarily at least) and an ever ambitious China challenging the status quo. Global inaction in Syria has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children, and has resulted in the flow of millions of refugees throughout the Middle East and Europe. The future of the European Union seems tenuous, unable to deal with the refugees, economic problems, rise of the ultra-right-wing parties, and an aggressive Russia constantly banging at the door. 

Yet, instead of leading from the front, the Obama administration has further ignited the embers which heat the toxic contents of the boiling pot. Arab and European allies of the US have been shunned with disdain, while belligerent actions by Russia – especially in Syria & Ukraine – have been not only enabled, but with US partnership (Syria). Not to forget the increasingly devastating role the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism – Iran – has been allowed to play, despite promises of push back and despite the terrorist actions it has carried out against the US itself. 

It is no secret that Obama has sought to disentangle the United States away from the Middle East. This in itself would not be an issue were Obama clear in how exactly this would be done and that this move away would be tailored policy wise to the interests of America’s decades old allies. Instead, The Gulf states have been asked to ‘share’ the neighborhood with their biggest rival, whose main purpose has been a not so ‘moderate’ regional sectarian hegemony. 

All the strengths and capabilities demonstrated by today’s alliances and modern day coalitions have been made possible due their historic and cooperative nature. These formal and informal arrangements have allowed states to have a shared history in vital security and national issues, which have gone a long way in solving many problems that have plagued different regions. 

As Thucydides once argued, states align or go to war out of “honor, fear and interest”. Alliances first and foremost have always been about trust, confidence and protection. Today though, especially with US Middle Eastern allies/partners, there is very little trust, even less confidence, which further narrow the perception of protection. 

In a region wrought with debilitating ills and shattered hopes, perception is king. The perception that allies would receive the cooperation they require. That threats would be mitigated jointly, whether through force or diplomacy. The perception that such commitment is worth its weight on paper or oratory promises. If Obama’s April interview with Jeffery Goldberg – where he labelled his Arab and European allies as ‘Free-Riders’ – helped solidify long held fears regarding the Obama Administration, Ben Rhodes’ interview in the New York Times magazine all but cements that perception. That a deal with Iran, no matter what the cost, was more important than decades old alliances. One particular paragraph in the profile of Rhodes is worrisome: 

“By eliminating the fuss about Iran’s nuclear program, the administration hoped to eliminate a source of structural tension between the two countries, which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey. With one bold move, the administration would effectively begin the process of large-scale disentanglement from the Middle East.” 

From a GCC perspective, almost every single US action (or inaction) in the region (and beyond) has created serious and in certain cases existential threats. From the initial invasion of Iraq, to the withdrawal of US troops under Obama, to the Syria debacle and last but not least, Obama’s apparently most glittering legacy – the Iran deal-. 

Furthermore, the risks to the United States itself from disentangling itself from the region in such a way are considerable. A more unstable region, means the risks of terrorism increase as well, which is bound to effect America at home and its European allies (it has already begun). It is unclear how a balance between Iran and the Gulf states leads to a more stable environment. To the contrary, it would further increase the security dilemma and increase the chances of a conflict, which would effect and eventually drag in many external actors. As Ambassador Dennis Ross pointed out in a recent piece for Politico magazine, the questioning of American reliability has been taken advantage of by US adversaries. The lack of costs in behaving belligerently has emboldened states like Russia and Iran. In addition, this has led many states to look elsewhere for alternatives, which from a US strategic perspective means a decreased ability to shape and influence events globally. 

Lastly, doubts in American reliability and partnership, lead to zero-sum calculations by states (due to a heightened state of uncertainty), which most of the times would work against US interests. 

To be sure, Obama’s obvious contempt for many states in the region will not end these decades’ old alliances; for America is greater and much bigger than Obama. What it has resulted in is a realization, that the GCC states must increasingly depend on themselves and a wide range of partners to navigate the regions troubles. Current and previous administrations have always asked the states in the region to play a more active role and take more responsibility; that is exactly what this administration and future leaders will get.

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