When America's Enemies Are Also Its Friends

June 16, 2014 Topic: Grand Strategy Region: IranIraqPakistanSaudi ArabiaChina

When America's Enemies Are Also Its Friends

U.S. attempts to coordinate with Iran in Iraq are a reminder of the growing role of allies that are adversaries, too.


Why can the AAE be increasingly found amongst the U.S.’s vital relationships? In large part, structural factors drive the change. U.S. power has declined significantly since the “unipolar moment” that arrived in the early 1990s as the Cold War ended. We are now witnessing what Fareed Zakaria has called “the rise of the rest”—that is, other countries have worked to improve their economies, technological innovativeness, universities, and cultural influence, thus cutting into traditional areas of American advantage. Though the U.S. still enjoys many core strengths, its economy was rocked by the 2008 financial crisis, and its national debt has mushroomed. Other countries are increasingly inclined to be assertive, or to act against U.S. interests.

Another structural factor is economic interdependence, a phenomenon that the United Nations notes “has grown extraordinarily as a consequence of enormous technological progress and policies aimed at opening national economies internally and externally to competition.” Dependence on other countries in the economic sphere similarly facilitates the growth of AAE relationships.


This is not to say that errant foreign policy has not influenced the rise of AAEs.  When the U.S. was one of the world’s only two superpowers, and later enjoyed its unipolar moment, America could afford the luxury of having an often-amorphous foreign policy, or even making major blunders. But as U.S. power goes into relative decline, the country must sharpen its foreign policy. The U.S.’s decision, for example, to announce that Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria was a “red line,” only to reveal that it had no plan in place once that eventuality occurred, is far more problematic in this emerging system. Such feckless policies can further the perception that America is no longer a superpower—which, in turn, emboldens allies and enemies alike to challenge U.S. positions.

To put it mildly, AAEs are not a positive development, and American planners need to minimize entanglements with them. AAEs often emerge when the United States finds itself in a position where it depends on these countries in some important way, thus limiting its flexibility. With Pakistan, the United States needed crucial supply routes; and with Saudi Arabia, America needed oil. And in Iraq today, the White House appears to believe that Iranian intervention could potentially negate the need for direct American involvement.

Reducing areas of U.S. dependence is critical. Sometimes, though, such entanglements are unavoidable. That’s why it is important to gain a better understanding of the dangers they pose. The crisis in Iraq is a case in point.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. Jonathan Schanzer is the vice president of research at FDD.