Recurring Regional Crisis: Blame Chessboard Diplomacy

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by Shireen T. Hunter   

The assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, apparently by order of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has opened a debate on the wisdom of the West’s treatment of Saudi Arabia. This is but the latest debate among key international players—following a foreign policy setback, the loss of an ally, or a serious diplomatic embarrassment—about what was done wrong and how similar mistakes should be avoided.

Given America’s dominance in the world since the end of World War Two, such discussions often happen in the United States. Examples include the “who lost China” debate in the 1950s and the soul-searching after the Vietnam War. Much less intense debates took place after the Iranian revolution in 1979 and Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Often missing from these debates is the question of why such events keep repeating themselves. Do key players have a particular mindset regarding international affairs and a particular approach to regional issues, especially in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, that contributes to their recurrence?

International Arena as Chess Board

In 1892, George Nathaniel ( Lord) Curzon, the viceroy of India and the foreign secretary of Great Britain, wrote that such remotely romantic names such as Turkestan, Afghanistan, Trans-Caspia, and Persia “were the pieces on a chessboard upon which [was]being played out a game for the domination of the world.” In other words, such places and their peoples were pawns in the chess game of major powers. Until the 1940s, such games were also played in the Balkans, Africa, and even to some extent in the Americas. Lord Canning’s statement that “I called the new world into existence to restore the balance in the old” betrays more than a hint of chessboard diplomacy. In the Middle East, the arbitrary division of the Ottoman Empire according to Franco-British objectives is perhaps the best example of this worldview.

A popular move in this game of chess was the promotion of division along the lines of the principle “divide and conquer.” For example, during the Iran-Iraq War, Henry Kissinger said that Iran and Iraq were like two scorpions that should be allowed to fight themselves to exhaustion. Indeed, not only did Western powers let the two countries fight one another but they provided Iraq with all kinds of arms, including chemical weapons. A more principled approach would have helped prevent future wars such as the Persian Gulf war of 1991 and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. By all accounts, the Iran-Iraq War enabled the most hardline elements in the new Iranian regime to remove secular nationalists and less radical Islamists from the political scene. The United States followed a similar policy of promoting division, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, between the Sunnis and the Shias in that country and in the region as a whole.

The balance of terror and the Cold War made classical chessboard diplomacy more difficult given the division of the world into spheres of influence presided over by the West or the Soviet Union and its allies. However, the essentials of the policy remained  the same. Both sides manipulated the domestic politics of less powerful states, engineering coup d’états, fomenting revolutions (the USSR did this most frequently), removing unwanted leaders, and shifting support from one leader and country to another. During this era, because of the risks involved in a direct confrontation between the Cold War rivals, including that of a potential nuclear exchange, the great powers did not resort to direct military interventions in their ongoing game of international chess (with very few exceptions such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). Instead, the superpowers chose local clients to serve their interests.

After the 1953 coup d’état, Iran became one such client. It served as a buffer against the USSR and as counterweight to Arab radicals. But later the shah’s ambitions made him suspect. His great-power allies began to distance themselves, possibly weakening him. Only after the Iranian revolution did they come to realize the magnitude of the geopolitical consequences of the political shift in Iran. Yet their basic strategy did not change. They replaced the shah with Saddam Hussein as their regional client until he invaded Kuwait.

After both Iran and Iraq were out of the equation, there was no choice but to turn to Saudi Arabia.

The Soviet Union’s collapse changed all this. The elimination of the Cold War balance of terror allowed the great powers to indulge in direct military interventions. The United States has engaged in most such actions, but Russia and France, too, have done so as well in pursuit of their objectives. However, the result of these interventions in terms of achieving the interests of the great powers has not been very encouraging, if the great powers were indeed sincere in wanting to promote greater and more enduring regional stability. The human and material costs of these interventions for the great powers—and more so for the objects of their interventions—have been very high.

Regional Security Systems

A hallmark of chessboard diplomacy is a reluctance to develop regional security systems and mechanisms for containing and eventually resolving disputes unless they are under the direct control of one or another great power. For instance, after the British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf in 1968, neither Britain nor the United States tried to establish a more inclusive security system in the region. At the time, Iran was a pro-Western country. Instead, the United States and Britain chose the so-called “pillar” strategy and welcomed a degree of tension between Iran and Arab states like Saudi Arabia to maximize their influence over both of them.

Another opportunity came after the end of the first Persian Gulf war. At the time, more moderate elements were in charge in Iran. But the United States not only did not encourage the establishment of a security system, it pointedly excluded Iran from any such potential schemes. Instead, it chose to isolate Iran through its so-called dual containment strategy. It pursued a similar policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where it helped exacerbate regional differences and disputes.

In chessboard diplomacy, as Lord Curzon pointed out, the goal is to dominate the world. This leaves little room for power-sharing and compromise. But if history is any guide, including two world wars and the Cold War, such ambitions eventually lead to confrontations with no real winners. It also brings great misery to the pawns in the great global chess game. Yemen is the latest example of the miseries of chessboard diplomacy.

Currently, the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf, is facing a situation that if handled according to the logic of chessboard diplomacy—such as using the Saudi pawn to outsmart the Persian pawn—most likely will lead to war that could involve several great powers. Given this prospect, it’s time to adopt a different approach to international affairs, especially in the highly volatile regions. Such a different approach must be based on principle, compromise, and shared security. Larger powers should build institutions for mediating disputes and differences instead of exacerbating them.

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Shireen Hunter

Shireen T. Hunter is a Research Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her latest book is Iran's Relations with Arab States: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming May 2019).

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4 Comments

  1. article is OK as far as external influence analysis takes us. But as relevant in understanding the region is what Abdul Nasser said about complex, conflicting (and always shifting) concentric circles of identity. Ethnicity (+tribalism) is so powerful – Arabs, Turks, Persians, Kurds, Azeris, Baluch…- and sectarianism – Multi-layers of conflict from Muslim vs Christian, Jew, Hindu to Sunni vs Shia, and within from Salafi to Sufi. Overlay more “modern (some very old by American perspective) national identities (Lebanon, Iraq, Israel). The internal conflicts are far more complex and deeply rooted (thus harder to resolve) than even the Sykes Picot and all the rest. And they change in influence dramatically, as we see in Iraq-Iran, and Syria.

  2. The author shows a pragmatic view to the old and addicted conflict management system by colonial powers which the author rightly considers of no use in the post-colonialism era.

  3. Thanks Mrs Hunter for the history lesson. Colonizations of India, the ME and Africa by the mother of all Evils, Britain, continued until WWII. The Brits just handed off their atrocities to their brothers in America by 1950 because they could no longer manage the enormity of it. Colonization, creating wars and selling arms to any 2 waring parties in the ME and Africa will never end as long as they have any natural resources including precious water left and as long as consumers need those resources. The only choice is left for the people living in those regions is to fight back by any means possible as long as they need to or until eternity!

  4. Ms Hunter’s description of the problems in the Middle East are thoughtful and persuasive. But, the prescriptions are lacking substance. Building institutions is necessary but not sufficient as an approach to finding solutions in the region. From a perspective of the United States, it is important to look at the national interests. There are ten implicit and explicit interests found in strategic and policy documents. One doesn’t have to agree with them but they should be addressed in any review of the region. Again, I like the approach of Ms Hunter’s line of thinking but would like to hear more of her prescriptions to an intractable problem.

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