Paul Pillar

Nixon's Principles and a Multipolar Middle East

Perhaps the most successful U.S. diplomacy of the past half century was the management by Richard Nixon, aided by Henry Kissinger, of relations with other major powers in the early 1970s, and in particular the triangular diplomacy involving the Soviet Union and China. Although some of what Nixon and Kissinger did was specific to the issues and circumstances of the great power politics of their time, their performance holds some transferable lessons. We should think carefully about the major attributes of their diplomatic approach and strategy.

They were not stuck in a bipolar mold, even though the Cold War was widely perceived as a world-shaping bipolar confrontation. They did not conceptually divide the world into good guys with whom to cooperate and bad guys to be opposed or shunned.

They did not let diplomacy be limited by repugnance over someone else's domestic policies. The U.S.S.R. of the 1970s was a sclerotic and intolerant dictatorship, and China at the time was still wracked by the volatile extremism of the Cultural Revolution.

They had no particular attachments to other states that got in the way of their diplomatic maneuvering. Alliances were tools to be employed when appropriate in pursuit of U.S. interests, not impediments to that pursuit.

They used relations with each power as leverage in managing U.S. relations with other powers. The Soviets probably would have preferred that there had not been a rapprochement between the United States and China, but it was not up to the Soviets to determine that. The U.S. administration did not let any foreign state veto initiatives it made toward other foreign states.

The lessons can be applied to global great power politics of today, but the lessons also are scalable. They can be scaled down to a single region. The great power diplomacy of Metternich, an object of Kissinger's early studies, was practiced within the confines of Europe. Moreover, the principles apply not just to triangular contexts such as the U.S.-Soviet-Chinese dynamic of the 1970s but to situations with more than three centers of power and action. Applying those principles to any region in which there are such multiple players, each of which is important to U.S. interests, is the best way to advance U.S. interests in the region in question.

The Middle East of today is such a region. It is more fractured than Metternich's Europe or Nixon's global great power world, but it has several players that each present to the United States elements of both conflict and cooperation. Each has interests that parallel those of the United States, but each also has other pursuits and practices that cause problems for the United States. The players could be counted and grouped in different ways, but the principal ones are fairly obvious.

There are, for example, the Persian Gulf monarchies and especially the most sizable and significant one, Saudi Arabia. On one hand the Saudis share with the United States interests in the physical security and stability of the Gulf region, stability in the oil trade, and checking extremist violence. On the other hand they have an agenda that diverges from that of the United States and leads to some sharp disagreements with Washington and even troublesome behavior, such as with how the Saudis' sectarian concerns shape their policy toward Syria and how their opposition to democratization (and hang-up about the Muslim Brotherhood) shapes their policy toward Egypt.

There are the Arab republics, which demonstrate a wide range of current problems and opportunities but of which Egypt is the most important by virtue of size and weight. The shared interests with the Egyptians center on stability and countering violent extremism, as well as other ones having to do with military cooperation. The divergent interests currently have mainly to do with Egypt's sharp turn away from democratization and political rights. The problem in this regard for the United States is not one of American repugnance over someone else's domestic policies but instead of the United States being associated in many other people's minds with this type of harsh authoritarianism.

There is Israel, where again there are shared interests involving counterterrorism, as well as some involving military and technical cooperation. The divergent interests have to do most of all with Israel's clinging—for religious or economic reasons the United States does not share—to occupied territory seized in war. The United States shares in the opprobrium and the costs, including ones involving the motivation of extremist violence, of this occupation, which is widely considered in the Middle East and beyond as profoundly unjust. The Israeli proclivity for quick use of military force in surrounding territories and states also is contrary to U.S. interests, both because of similar opprobrium and because of the destabilizing effects within the region of such military action.

There is Iran, which still has some of the same basis for parallel U.S. and Iranian interests as there were at the time of Nixon and the Shah. Today there are, for example, important shared interests regarding stability in Afghanistan and Iraq. Divergent interests have mostly to do with Iran's relations with clients and allies elsewhere in the region, which have helped to shape its policies in places such as Syria.