It’s Difficult to Keep Allies in Line In the Post-Ideological Era

by Shireen T. Hunter

In the last several years, the United States has found it increasingly difficult to gain the support of all of its allies, especially those in the Middle East, for its regional plans and policies.

A dramatic example was the disagreement between the United States and its Middle East allies over the decision to reach a negotiated settlement to the Iran nuclear file. Key American allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia openly and vehemently campaigned against the prospective agreement. The late Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Bin Faisal, even went to Vienna in the last hours of the nuclear negotiations in order to prevent its successful completion. The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, used the UN podium and a joint session of the US Congress for his campaign against the nuclear.

Both American allies would have preferred either a direct military attack on Iran, at least on its nuclear facilities and possibly also its missile sites and other sensitive military targets, or a continuation of harsh economic sanctions. From their perspective, the first option made sense. A US military attack on Iran, if successful, would have drastically weakened a regional rival and potentially even opened the way for its gradual disintegration. This expectation was obviously unrealistic, because any conflict with Iran would have had regional repercussions, especially in the Persian Gulf, potentially posing security threats to one of the most ardent supporters of an American attack on Iran, notably Saudi Arabia.

By contrast, had America heeded its allies’ preference and chosen the military option, the risks that it could have become entangled in another debilitating war in South-West Asia were considerable. Therefore, at least in regard to Iran’s nuclear file and more broadly regarding a possible normalization of US-Iran relations, US interests and those of regional partners fundamentally diverged. The latter’s goal was to use American power to eliminate a regional rival, while the US wished to prevent nuclear proliferation and, if possible, turn Iran from an antagonist to a more cooperative regional actor.

The Syrian Challenge

The United States has faced similar challenges in other parts of the Middle East. In Syria, for example, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have supported groups that America considers radical. America wants to use the Kurds in its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), while Turkey considers the Kurds a more serious threat to its interests and security than the Islamic State. Egypt, another US regional partner, prefers that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, remain in power as opposed to the Sunni-Islamist-dominated setup most likely to come to power should Assad fall. Israel might prefer this latter option, because such a post-Assad government would be hostile to Iran and the Hezbullah.

In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are still supporting the Taliban. The latest display of what is an obvious policy disconnect between America and its regional allies and partners is Turkish-American disagreement regarding the current operation to defeat IS forces in Mosul. Turkey, which has always wanted Kirkuk and Mosul because of their energy resources, is upset that the Iraqi central government, with American help, might regain the city. Such a success would strengthen Iraq and undermine those favoring Iraq’s partition. Realistically, America should want a united but obviously friendly Iraq. This would help achieve a viable balance of political power in the region, which the US-led invasion shattered in 2003. A more sustainable balance of power would help restore regional stability and in time possibly even allow the formation of regional security structures.

The United States is not the only country trying to retain influence among regional partners with diverging interests. Russia is having trouble keeping Armenia under its thumb while courting Azerbaijan. It wants a strategic relationship with Iran while at the same time reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab States. It wants to restore its damaged relations with Turkey while also keeping Bashar al-Assad in power. Meanwhile, China, as its regional reach extends, will face similar dilemmas. In fact, it already has some of these problems. It wants to gain influence in Afghanistan, where pro-India sentiments are strong, but it is committed too much to Pakistan. It wants close relations with Iran while it is promoting the Pakistani port of Gwader against Iran’s Chabahar.

Reasons for Divergence

Part of why this is happening has to do with age-old tensions between the more global interests of big powers and the more parochial and regional concerns of their allies and partners. As a great power, the United States faced this challenge even in the Cold War of East-West ideological conflict. Many tensions in NATO over the years have at least partly derived from this fundamental factor.

However, the end of the Cold War and the accompanying ideological struggle has further intensified real and potential conflicts of interest between major global players and their regional allies. In the Middle East, the elimination of the Soviet threat has added to this growing distance. Before, America and its allies were all afraid of Communism. But now some US allies are more afraid of liberal democracy than of even IS-type Islamist extremism. Moreover, no matter how hard one tries to make it so, Iran simply is not a credible global threat.

In terms of the future of international politics, regional issues are more likely to determine local actors’ policies than the pattern of their international alliances. Great powers will find it increasingly difficult to bring together their bickering local allies. Moreover, as new great powers, such as China and eventually India, appear on the scene, options for local actors will increase. In this context, alliances, especially those not rooted in deep cultural and philosophical foundations, such as that between the United States and Europe, will become more volatile and shifting.

Under these circumstances, the best option to avoid future conflicts would be to use what remains of the West’s, especially America’s, global superiority, to restore to the extent possible the rule of law and reassert principles such as the inviolability of international borders, the repudiation of the acquisition of territory by war, the establishment of regional security structures, and an end to unilateral military interventions and to bogus coalitions. The rule of law, in other words, must take precedence over the rule of the jungle. Such an order should be supported by attempts to create one or more stable balances of power both internationally and regionally. The history of the post-Cold War era shows how the disruption of balances of power internationally and regionally has led to increased levels of conflict.

In the end, all countries are likely to benefit from such a law-based order. However, in order for this alternative to succeed, the strong as well as the weak need to be held accountable.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. excellent analysis! which explains-also to European allies – the overall challenges to the Western alliance and the need to be active allies in the rule of law context.

  2. Another excellent analysis! If these problems and the undeniable new cold war are allowed to fester or grow they will lead to direct confrontation between the West and Russia, probably also supported by China. The unipolar world that was created following the collapse of the Soviet Union is unravelling. Instead of trying to establish “full spectrum dominance” all over the world, the time has come to reach out and create a global system of collective security. Instead of demonizing various Middle Eastern countries and fanning the flames of sectarianism we should push for reconciliation. If unable to rule the world single-handedly, the United States still has the power to push other countries towards peace, rather than continuous wars. Instead of continuing business as usual, the next US Administration should push other countries, especially the Middle East, towards a system of collective security. This would be America’s greatest legacy of the period of her global domination that it established peace rather than trying in vain to build a global empire. The alternative is proxy wars, perhaps leading to a global conflagration.

  3. 1. Does it never occur to the USA that it does not need to rule the globe and that its choice of allies and its interference in so many part of the globe does more harm than good?

    2. “the best option to avoid future conflicts would be to use what remains of the West’s, especially America’s, global superiority, to restore to the extent possible the rule of law and reassert principles such as the inviolability of international borders”

    sounds far away from the present,often illegal, behavior of the USA, its support of overthrow of elected governments as in Honduras, perhaps Brazil and Venezuela, and of course its unfailing support of Israel and US interference in Syria because it does not like the leader chosen by the Syrians.

  4. The “herding cats” syndrome . . .

    Maybe European leaders are getting fed up with always having to move against their own best interests. That’s what happens when Washington works at driving a wedge between Russia and Europe. It’s high time Europe started putting Europe first.

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