Why No Middle Eastern Metternichs?

An inclusive and legitimate regional security agreement could be the answer to the Middle East's most serious problem: an instable order.

As U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, recently negotiated the denouement of Russia’s very own “Syrian Missile Crisis” in Switzerland, the fate of the Middle Eastern stability is once again subject to the Great Powers.

The Obama administration’s unilateral threat of use of missile strikes against Syria, which was not authorized by the United Nations, has thus far been stopped by a Russian proposal for Syria to hand over its chemical-weapons stockpile and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Reminiscent of October 1962, the Syrian president insists that the initiative is contingent on the U.S. ceasing “its policy on threatening Syria.” Such quid pro quo is subject to a myriad of technical problems in finding and destroying the stockpiles in a warzone. It also represents a considerable leap of faith by the U.S. government to test Syrian and Russian assurances and commitment to an international monitoring regime. Most importantly, however, negotiations take place in the shadow of the U.S.-Iranian nuclear standoff. So what’s at stake is not so much human security for Syrians or regional stability, but Obama’s nonproliferation credibility towards Iran, as well as Putin’s chauvinistic vision of Russia’s place in the world.

Once again, the Middle East is a pawn in great power politics.

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the popular uprisings since 2010, the international relations of the Middle East have been far from stable. Alignments and alliances between regional states have always been subject to domestic politics, regime survival, wars with Israel or the manipulation by outside powers during and after the Cold War. There has never been a collective security pact for the Middle East nor any effective economic or political union like the EU, ASEAN or NAFTA. However, with the political changes and violent conflicts associated with the Arab Spring, international relations of the Middle East have become an even more complex web of enemies, friends and backstabbing allies.

One of Henry Kissinger’s greatest books, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822 (which was his PhD thesis at Harvard) analysed how two European statesmen, British foreign secretary, Viscount Robert Castlereagh, and Prince Klemens von Metternich, Austria’s foreign minister, created the “Concert of Europe,” a sustainable peace between European powers following the Napoleonic wars. Metternich, who ultimately would become the inspiration for Kissinger’s policy of détente with China and the USSR during the Nixon administration, was described by Kissinger as a statesman of the equilibrium. The Austrian aristocrat wanted to create and maintain a sufficient balance of power to ensure system stability amongst European powers rather than trying to defeat a specific foe. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Metternich forged a peaceful balance of power and redrew the post-Napoleonic political map of Europe. European peace was maintained by containing the forces of nationalism and democratization. By subduing demands for checks on monarchical rule and national self-determination, the “Concert of Europe” was the first international regime based on collective security and created a stable peace on the Continent, which—with the exception of the Franco-Prussian War between 1870-1871—would last a hundred years. Europe, ravaged by centuries of war, would experience no major conflict until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

As statesman, Henry Kissinger practiced Metternich’s qualities, divorcing diplomacy from morals and ideology or concerns about the internal politics of other countries. To Kissinger, stability was the primary goal of diplomacy. Other great statesmen like Otto von Bismarck’s unification of Germany, Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik (post-war Germany’s version of détente), Helmut Kohl’s commitment to European integration and management of German reunification after 1989, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s leadership before, during and after the Second World War and even the EU’s policy of constructive engagement with Iran until 2003 mirrored this commitment to stability.

Why is there no peace?

But why does the Middle East have no Metternichs?

Why is there no Congress of the Middle East, capable of maintaining regional peace and security?

The answer to this question has to be attributed to both the nature of regional political systems and the curse of geopolitics. The Middle East has thus far not produced an indigenous collective security system or even an alliance system close to the Concert of Europe, never mind NATO. There certainly has been no shortage of efforts.