Hegemonic Quicksand

Hegemonic Quicksand

Mini Teaser: Global domination is a self-defeating goal. Global leadership is not.

by Author(s): Zbigniew Brzezinski

For the next several decades, the most volatile and dangerous region
of the world--with the explosive potential to plunge the world into
chaos--will be the crucial swathe of Eurasia between Europe and the
Far East. Heavily inhabited by Muslims, we might term this crucial
subregion of Eurasia the new "Global Balkans."1 It is here that
America could slide into a collision with the world of Islam while
American-European policy differences could even cause the Atlantic
Alliance to come unhinged. The two eventualities together could then
put the prevailing American global hegemony at risk.

At the outset, it is essential to recognize that the ferment within
the Muslim world must be viewed primarily in a regional rather than a
global perspective, and through a geopolitical rather than a
theological prism. The world of Islam is disunited, both politically
and religiously. It is politically unstable and militarily weak, and
likely to remain so for some time. Hostility toward the United
States, while pervasive in some Muslim countries, originates more
from specific political grievances--such as Iranian nationalist
resentment over the U.S. backing of the Shah, Arab animus stimulated
by U.S. support for Israel or Pakistani feelings that the United
States has been partial to India--than from a generalized religious

The complexity of the challenge America now confronts dwarfs what it
faced half a century ago in Western Europe. At that time, Europe's
dividing line on the Elbe River was the strategically critical
frontline of maximum danger, with the daily possibility that a clash
in Berlin could unleash a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, the United States recognized the stakes involved and
committed itself to the defense, pacification, reconstruction and
revitalization of a viable European community. In doing so, America
gained natural allies with shared values. Following the end of the
Cold War, the United States led the transformation of NATO from a
defense alliance into an enlarging security alliance--gaining an
enthusiastic new ally, Poland--and it has supported the expansion of
the European Union (EU).

For at least a generation, the major task facing the United States in
the effort to promote global security will be the pacification and
then the cooperative organization of a region that contains the
world's greatest concentration of political injustice, social
deprivation, demographic congestion and potential for high-intensity
violence. But the region also contains most of the world's oil and
natural gas. In 2002, the area designated as the Global Balkans
contained 68 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and 41
percent of the world's proven natural gas reserves; it accounted for
32 percent of world oil production and 15 percent of world natural
gas production. In 2020, the area is projected to produce roughly 42
million barrels of oil per day--39 percent of the global production
total (107.8 million barrels per day). Three key regions--Europe, the
United States and the Far East--collectively are projected to consume
60 percent of that global production (16 percent, 25 percent and 19
percent, respectively).

The combination of oil and volatility gives the United States no
choice. America faces an awesome challenge in helping to sustain some
degree of stability among precarious states inhabited by increasingly
politically restless, socially aroused and religiously inflamed
peoples. It must undertake an even more daunting enterprise than it
did in Europe more than half a century ago, given a terrain that is
culturally alien, politically turbulent and ethnically complex.
In the past, this remote region could have been left to its own
devices. Until the middle of the last century, most of it was
dominated by imperial and colonial powers. Today, to ignore its
problems and underestimate its potential for global disruption would
be tantamount to declaring an open season for intensifying regional
violence, region-wide contamination by terrorist groups and the
competitive proliferation of weaponry of mass destruction.

The United States thus faces a task of monumental scope and
complexity. There are no self-evident answers to such basic questions
as how and with whom America should be engaged in helping to
stabilize the area, pacify it and eventually cooperatively organize
it. Past remedies tested in Europe--like the Marshall Plan or NATO,
both of which exploited an underlying transatlantic
political-cultural solidarity--do not quite fit a region still rent
by historical hatreds and cultural diversity. Nationalism in the
region is still at an earlier and more emotional stage than it was in
war-weary Europe (exhausted by two massive European civil wars fought
within just three decades), and it is fueled by religious passions
reminiscent of Europe's Catholic-Protestant forty-year war of almost
four centuries ago.

Furthermore, the area contains no natural allies bonded to America by
history and culture, such as existed in Europe with Great Britain,
France, Germany and, lately, even Poland. In essence, America has to
navigate in uncertain and badly charted waters, setting its own
course, making differentiated accommodations while not letting any
one regional power dictate its direction and priorities.

To Whom Can America Turn?

To be sure, several states in the area are often mentioned as
America's potential key partners in reshaping the Global Balkans:
Turkey, Israel, India and--on the region's periphery--Russia.
Unfortunately, every one of them suffers serious handicaps in its
capability to contribute to regional stability or has goals of its
own that collide with America's wider interests in the region.
Turkey has been America's ally for half a century. It earned
America's trust and gratitude by its direct participation in the
Korean War. It has proven to be NATO's solid and reliable southern
anchor. With the fall of the Soviet Union, it became active in
helping both Georgia and Azerbaijan consolidate their new
independence, and it energetically promoted itself as a relevant
model of political development and social modernization for those
Central Asian states whose people largely fall within the radius of
the Turkic cultural and linguistic traditions. In that respect,
Turkey's significant strategic role has been complementary to
America's policy of reinforcing the new independence of the region's
post-Soviet states.

Turkey's regional role, however, is limited by two major offsetting
considerations stemming from its internal problems. The first
pertains to the still uncertain status of Atatürk's legacy: Will
Turkey succeed in transforming itself into a secular European state
even though its population is overwhelmingly Muslim? That has been
its goal since Atatürk set his reforms in motion in the early 1920s.

Turkey has made remarkable progress since then, but to this day its
future membership in the European Union (which it actively seeks)
remains in doubt. If the EU were to close its doors to Turkey, the
potential for an Islamic political-religious revival and consequently
for Turkey's dramatic (and probably turbulent) international
reorientation should not be underestimated.

The Europeans have reluctantly favored Turkey's inclusion in the
European Union, largely in order to avoid a serious regression in the
country's political development. European leaders recognize that the
transformation of Turkey from a state guided by Ataturk's vision of a
European-type society into an increasingly theocratic Islamic one
would adversely affect Europe's security. That consideration,
however, is contested by the view, shared by many Europeans, that the
construction of Europe should be based on its common Christian
heritage. It is likely, therefore, that the European Union will delay
for as long as it can a clear-cut commitment to open its doors to
Turkey--but that prospect in turn will breed Turkish resentments,
increasing the risks that Turkey might evolve into a resentful
Islamic state, with potentially dire consequences for southeastern

The other major liability limiting Turkey's role is the Kurdistan
issue. A significant proportion of Turkey's population of 70 million
is composed of Kurds. The actual number is contested, as is the
nature of the Turkish Kurds' national identity. The official Turkish
view is that the Kurds in Turkey number no more than 10 million, and
that they are essentially Turks. Kurdish nationalists claim a
population of 20 million, which they say aspires to live in an
independent Kurdistan that would unite all the Kurds (claimed to
number 25-35 million) currently living under Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi
and Iranian domination. Whatever the actual facts, the Kurdish ethnic
problem and the potential Islamic religious issue tend to make
Turkey--notwithstanding its constructive role as a regional
model--also very much a part of the region's basic dilemmas.
Israel is another seemingly obvious candidate for the status of a
pre-eminent regional ally. As a democracy as well as a cultural kin,
it enjoys America's automatic affinity, not to mention intense
political and financial support from the Jewish community in America.

Initially a haven for the victims of the Holocaust, it enjoys
American sympathy. As the object of Arab hostility, it triggered
American preference for the underdog. It has been America's favorite
client state since approximately the mid-1960s and has been the
recipient of unprecedented American financial assistance ($80 billion
since 1974). It has benefited from almost solitary American
protection against UN disapprobation or sanctions. As the dominant
military power in the Middle East, Israel has the potential, in the
event of a major regional crisis, not only to be America's military
base but also to make a significant contribution to any required U.S.
military engagement.

Yet American and Israeli interests in the region are not entirely
congruent. America has major strategic and economic interests in the
Middle East that are dictated by the region's vast energy supplies.
Not only does America benefit economically from the relatively low
costs of Middle Eastern oil, but America's security role in the
region gives it indirect but politically critical leverage on the
European and Asian economies that are also dependent on energy
exports from the region. Hence good relations with Saudi Arabia and
the United Arab Emirates--and their continued security reliance on
America--is in the U.S. national interest. From Israel's standpoint,
however, the resulting American-Arab ties are disadvantageous: they
not only limit the degree to which the United States is prepared to
back Israel's territorial aspirations, they also stimulate American
sensitivity to Arab grievances against Israel.

Among those grievances, the Palestinian issue is foremost. That the
final status of the Palestinian people remains unresolved more than
35 years after Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the West
Bank--irrespective of whose fault that actually may be--intensifies
and, in Arab eyes, legitimates the widespread Muslim hostility toward
Israel.3 It also perpetuates in the Arab mind the notion that Israel
is an alien and temporary colonial imposition on the region. To the
extent that the Arabs perceive America as sponsoring Israeli
repression of the Palestinians, America's ability to pacify
anti-American passions in the region is constrained. That impedes any
joint and constructive American-Israeli initiative to promote
multilateral political or economic cooperation in the region, and it
limits any significant U.S. regional reliance on Israel's military

Since September 11, the notion of India as America's strategic
regional partner has come to the forefront. India's credentials seem
at least as credible as Turkey's or Israel's. Its sheer size and
power make it regionally influential, while its democratic
credentials make it ideologically attractive. It has managed to
preserve its democracy since its inception as an independent state
more than half a century ago. It has done so despite widespread
poverty and social inequality, and despite considerable ethnic and
religious diversity in a predominantly Hindu but formally secular
state. India's prolonged conflict with its Islamic neighbor,
Pakistan, involving violent confrontations with guerrillas and
terrorist actions in Kashmir by Muslim extremists benefiting from
Pakistan's benevolence, made India particularly eager to declare
itself after September 11 as co-engaged with the United States in the
war on terrorism.

Nonetheless, any U.S.-Indian alliance in the region is likely to be
limited in scope. Two major obstacles stand in the way. The first
pertains to India's religious, ethnic and linguistic mosaic. Although
India has striven to make its 1 billion culturally diverse people
into a unified nation, it remains basically a Hindu state
semi-encircled by Muslim neighbors while containing within its
borders a large and potentially alienated Muslim minority of
somewhere between 120-140 million. Here, religion and nationalism
could inflame each other on a grand scale.

So far, India has been remarkably successful in maintaining a common
state structure and a democratic system--but much of its population
has been essentially politically passive and (especially in the rural
areas) illiterate. The risk is that a progressive rise in political
consciousness and activism could be expressed through intensified
ethnic and religious collisions. The recent rise in the political
consciousness of both India's Hindu majority and its Muslim minority
could jeopardize India's communal coexistence. Internal strains and
frictions could become particularly difficult to contain if the war
on terrorism were defined as primarily a struggle against Islam,
which is how the more radical of the Hindu politicians tend to
present it.

Secondly, India's external concerns are focused on its neighbors,
Pakistan and China. The former is seen not only as the main source of
the continued conflict in Kashmir but ultimately--with Pakistan's
national identity rooted in religious affirmation--as the very
negation of India's self-definition. Pakistan's close ties to China
intensify this sense of threat, given that India and China are
unavoidable rivals for geopolitical primacy in Asia. Indian
sensitivities are still rankled by the military defeat inflicted upon
it by China in 1962, in the short but intense border clash that left
China in possession of the disputed Aksai Chin territory.
The United States cannot back India against either Pakistan or China
without paying a prohibitive strategic price elsewhere: in
Afghanistan if it were to opt against Pakistan, and in the Far East
if it allied itself against China. These internal as well as external
factors constrain the degree to which the United States can rely on
India as an ally in any longer-term effort to foster--let alone
impose--greater stability in the Global Balkans.

Finally, there is the question of the degree to which Russia can
become America's major strategic partner in coping with Eurasian
regional turmoil. Russia clearly has the means and experience to be
of help in such an effort. Although Russia, unlike the other
contenders, is no longer truly part of the region--Russian colonial
domination of Central Asia being a thing of the past--Moscow
nevertheless exercises considerable influence on all of the countries
to its immediate south, has close ties to India and Iran and contains
some 15-20 million Muslims within its own territory.
At the same time, Russia has come to see its Muslim neighbors as the
source of a potentially explosive political and demographic threat,
and the Russian political elite are increasingly susceptible to
anti-Islamic religious and racist appeals. In these circumstances,
the Kremlin eagerly seized upon the events of September 11 as an
opportunity to engage America against Islam in the name of the "war
on terrorism."

Yet, as a potential partner, Russia is also handicapped by its past,
even its very recent past. Afghanistan was devastated by a
decade-long war waged by Russia, Chechnya is on the brink of
genocidal extinction, and the newly independent Central Asian states
increasingly define their modern history as a struggle for
emancipation from Russian colonialism. With such historical
resentments still vibrant in the region, and with increasingly
frequent signals that Russia's current priority is to link itself
with the West, Russia is being perceived in the region more and more
as a former European colonial power and less and less as a Eurasian
kin. Russia's present inability to offer much in the way of a social
example also limits its role in any American-led international
partnership for the purpose of stabilizing, developing and eventually
democratizing the region.

Ultimately, America can look to only one genuine partner in coping
with the Global Balkans: Europe. Although it will need the help of
leading East Asian states like Japan and China--and Japan will
provide some, though limited, material assistance and some
peacekeeping forces--neither is likely at this stage to become
heavily engaged. Only Europe, increasingly organized as the European
Union and militarily integrated through NATO, has the potential
capability in the political, military and economic realms to pursue
jointly with America the task of engaging the various Eurasian
peoples--on a differentiated and flexible basis--in the promotion of
regional stability and of progressively widening trans-Eurasian
cooperation. And a supranational European Union linked to America
would be less suspect in the region as a returning colonialist bent
on consolidating or regaining its special economic interests.

America and Europe together represent an array of physical and
experiential assets with the capability to make the decisive
difference in shaping the political future of the Global Balkans. The
question is whether Europe--largely preoccupied with the shaping of
its own unity--will have the will and the generosity to become truly
engaged with America in a joint effort that will dwarf in complexity
and scale the earlier, successful joint American-European effort to
preserve peace in Europe and then end Europe's division.

European engagement will not occur, however, if it is expected to
consist of simply following America's lead. The war on terrorism can
be the opening wedge for engagement in the Global Balkans, but it
cannot be the definition of that engagement. This the Europeans, less
traumatized by the September 11 attacks, understand better than the
Americans. It is also why any joint effort by the Atlantic community
will have to be based on a broad strategic consensus regarding the
long-term nature of the task at hand.

Somewhat the same considerations apply to Japan's potential role.
Japan, too, can and should become a major if somewhat less central
player. For some time to come, Japan will eschew a major military
role beyond that of direct national self-defense. But despite its
recent stagnation, Japan remains the globe's second-largest national
economy. Its financial support for efforts designed to enlarge the
world's zone of peace would be crucial and ultimately in its own
interest. Hence Japan--in conjunction with Europe--has to be viewed
as America's eventual partner in the long-term struggle against the
many forces of chaos within the Global Balkans.

Formulating a Strategy

In brief, America may be preponderant, but it is not omnipotent. It
will need a broadly cooperative strategy for coping with the region's
explosive potential. But as the successful experience of shaping the
Euro-Atlantic community has shown, burdens cannot be shared without
shared decision-making. Only by fashioning a comprehensive strategy
with its principal partners can America avoid becoming mired, alone,
in hegemonic quicksand.

Given that the area's problems involve an almost seamless web of
overlapping conflicts, the first step in a comprehensive response is
to define priorities. Three interrelated tasks stand out as central:
(1) resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is so disruptive to
the Middle East; (2) transforming the strategic equation in the
oil-producing region from the Persian Gulf to Central Asia; and (3)
engaging key governments through regional arrangements designed to
contain WMD proliferation and the terrorist epidemic.

Arab-Israeli peace is the most urgent need, because it is essential
to the pursuit of the other two. Immediately at issue is the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose specific resolution has to be the
proximate goal. But there is also the larger reality of Arab
hostility toward Israel, which breeds tension in the Middle East and
ricochets Muslim hostility against America. That condition can only
be ameliorated by a fair and viable peace that eventually fosters
constructive Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, thereby diluting Arab
animus and inducing Arab acceptance of Israel as a permanent fixture
on the Middle Eastern scene.

Adding urgency to the issue is the risk that the Euro-Atlantic
alliance could split asunder on the Middle Eastern rock. Although
America is the dominant external power in the Middle East, its
relations with Europe could come under severe duress as transatlantic
views diverge over how best to engage the region. For decades since
the abortive Franco-British Suez adventure of 1956, the area from the
Suez to the Persian Gulf has effectively been an American
protectorate. Gradually, the protector shifted from a pro-Arab to a
pro-Israeli preference while successfully eliminating any significant
European and, later, Soviet political influence from the region. The
decisive military victories in the 1991 and the 2003 campaigns
against Iraq firmly established the United States as the sole
external arbiter in the area.

After the September 11 attacks, the more conservative elements in the
American political establishment, particularly those with strong
sympathies for the Likud side of Israel's political spectrum, have
become tempted by the vision of an altogether new order imposed by
the United States on the Middle East as a response to the new
challenge of terrorism plus proliferation. The pursuit of that vision
has already involved the forcible termination of Saddam Hussein's
dictatorship in Iraq, and it could portend action against the Ba'athi
regime in Syria or the Iranian theocracy. In the name of democracy,
there have also been calls for the United States to distance itself
from the current rulers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt and to press for
internal democratization, even at cost to America's interests in the

It is already evident that the European Union, as it begins to
identify its own foreign policy interests, will not remain merely a
passive observer or compliant supporter of whatever the American
policy is in the Middle East. In fact, it is precisely with regard to
the Middle East that the European Union is beginning not only to
shape its first truly joint and comprehensive strategy but also to
challenge America's monopoly in regional arbitration. In the Seville
Declaration of June 22, 2002, the EU took the important step of
formulating a concept of a peaceful solution to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was significantly at variance with
America's. Intensifying U.S.-EU disagreements over the aftermath of
the war against Iraq and possible political change in Iran may
further encourage European assertiveness.

In the short run, America has the power and the will to disregard
Europe's views. It can prevail by using its military might and
temporarily prompt reluctant European accommodation. But the European
Union has the economic resources and financial means to make the
critical difference to the region's long-run stability. Thus, no
truly viable solution in the area will be possible unless the United
States and the EU increasingly act in common. The Middle East is at
least as vital for Europe as Mexico is for America, and the EU--as it
slowly defines itself--will increasingly attempt to assert its
position. Indeed, it is in the Middle East that European foreign
policy, for the first time since the Suez debacle of 1956, could
explicitly define itself against America.

Nevertheless, the Euro-Atlantic community's emerging cleavage over
the Middle East is reversible. There is remarkable international
consensus regardingthe substance of an eventual Israeli-Palestinian
peace treaty. There are even drafts of the likely peace treaty that
go considerably beyond the vague "roadmap" that the Bush
Administration reluctantly endorsed in the spring of 2003. The real
issue, how to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to cross the t's
and dot the i's, will be a challenge despite the actual support for a
compromise peace among the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Left to
themselves, they have proven unable to bridge their lingering
differences or transcend their embittered suspicions.

Only the United States and the European Union together can decisively
accelerate the process. To do so, they will increasingly have to
spell out in substance, and not just in procedural terms, the
outlines of an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Broadly speaking, there is
international consensus that its basic framework will include two
states, territorially defined by the 1967 lines but with reciprocal
adjustments to permit incorporation into Israel of the suburban
settlements of Jerusalem; two capitals in Jerusalem itself; only a
nominal or symbolic right of return for the Palestinian refugees,
with the bulk of returnees settling in Palestine, perhaps in vacated
Israeli settlements; a demilitarized Palestine, perhaps with NATO or
other international peacekeepers; and a comprehensive, unequivocal
recognition of Israel by its Arab neighbors.

The internationally sponsored adoption of a viable formula for the
coexistence of Israel and Palestine would not resolve the wider
region's manifold conflicts, but it would have a triple benefit: it
would somewhat reduce the focus of Middle Eastern terrorists on
America; it would disarm the most likely trigger for a regional
explosion; and it would permit a more concerted effort by the United
States and the European Union to address the region's security
problems without seeming to embark on an anti-Islamic crusade. The
resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict would also facilitate
American efforts to promote the progressive democratization of the
adjoining Arab states without appearing, in Arab eyes, to exploit the
democratization issue as yet another pretext for delaying a
comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian accommodation.

Given America's new prominence in the political life of the Arab
Middle East in the aftermath of its occupation of Iraq, it is
essential that U.S. policymakers not be seduced by doctrinaire
advocates of an externally imposed and impatient democratization--a
democratization "from above", so to speak. Sloganeering to that
effect in some cases may reflect contempt for Islamic traditions. For
others it may be tactical, rooted in the hope that the focus on
democratization will provide a diversion from efforts to press both
the Israelis and the Arabs to accept the compromises necessary for
peace. Whatever the motivation, the fact is that genuine and enduring
democracy is nurtured best in conditions that gradually foster
spontaneous change and do not combine compulsion with haste. The
former approach can indeed transform a political culture; the latter
can only coerce a political correctness that is inherently unlikely
to endure.

Similarly, creating a stable Iraq after the 2003 military
intervention is a formidable and prolonged task that can only be made
easier by U.S.-EU collaboration. The fall of the Iraqi regime could
reopen latent border issues with Iran, Syria and Turkey. These could
be dynamically complicated by the Kurdish issue, while the internal
animus between Iraqi Sunni and Shi'a believers could unleash
protracted and increasingly violent instability. Moreover, Iraq's 25
million people, generally considered the most nationalistically
self-conscious of all the Arab peoples, may prove less pliant to
external domination than expected. A long, costly and difficult
recovery program will have to be managed in a volatile and
potentially hostile environment.

More broadly, American-European cooperation in promoting a stable and
democratic Iraq and in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace--in
effect, a "regional roadmap"--would create more favorable political
preconditions for addressing the unsatisfactory strategic equation
that prevails in the oil- and natural-gas-producing areas of the
Persian Gulf, Iran and the Caspian Basin. Unlike energy-rich Russia,
the states of this zone--from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan all the way
down to Saudi Arabia--are almost entirely exporters, but not major
consumers, of the energy that is extracted from their ground. They
have by far the world's largest reserves of oil and natural gas.
Since reliable access to reasonably priced energy is vitally
important to the world's three economically most dynamic
regions--North America, Europe and East Asia--strategic domination
over the area, even if cloaked by cooperative arrangements, would be
a globally decisive hegemonic asset.

From the standpoint of American interests, the current geopolitical
state of affairs in the world's principal energy-rich zone leaves
much to be desired. Several of the key exporting states--notably
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates--are weak and politically
debilitated. Iraq faces a prolonged period of stabilization,
reconstruction and rehabilitation. Another major energy producer,
Iran, has a regime hostile to the United States and opposes U.S.
efforts on behalf of a Middle Eastern peace. It may be seeking WMD
and is suspected of terrorist links. The United States has sought to
isolate Iran internationally, but with limited success.

Just to the north, in the southern Caucasus and Central Asia, the
newly independent energy-exporting states are still in the early
stages of political consolidation. Their systems are fragile, their
political processes arbitrary and their statehood vulnerable. They
are also semi-isolated from the world energy markets, with American
legislation blocking the use of Iranian territory for pipelines
leading to the Persian Gulf and with Russia aggressively seeking to
monopolize international access to Turkmen and Kazakh energy
resources. Only with the completion, several years from now, of the
U.S.-sponsored Baku-Çeyhan pipeline will Azerbaijan and its
trans-Caspian neighbors gain an independent link to the global
economy. Until then, the area will be vulnerable to Russian or

Essay Types: Essay