Vol. 3, No. 13 (July 01, 2010)

Azerbaijan needs to look beyond Washington in its dealings with the United States

Editorial Note:  George Friedman, the founder and Chief Executive (CEO) of STRATFOR, the internationally recognized center on world affairs, made a wide ranging presentation to the students and faculty of the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy on June 11, 2010.  Below is a selection of his comments.

The Nature of Diplomacy

Diplomacy requires first of all a clear understanding of the national interests of your country, something that is different from ideology, politics and wishful thinking.  Second, it requires a deep understanding of your enemies.  And third, you must have an objective understanding of the global system, the way in which globalization links every problem with every other and makes it harder to solve.  In the end, these three things come down to one: the need for a ruthless intellectual honesty and a willingness to avoid being driven by ideology.

Power Relations in the Post-Cold War World

Since 1991 there has been only one global power, the United States.  That situation represents a major change in the international system because for the last 500 years there had always been at least one European global power.  I am not talking about soft power because I have no idea what that is.  Rather, I am talking about “deep power”—power in depth, something that involves not only military, but economic and moral power as well.  The US has all of these elements; most other countries have only some of them.  This arrangement does not exist because the US wants it but rather because it is objectively in that position: it produces 25 percent of the world’s goods, its navy controls all the oceans of the world, it can project power anywhere.  And consequently, the US is constantly under pressure to do just that, even in places it does not want to do so. 

The Middle East as a Subset of the International System 

Let me define what I mean by Middle East: It is the region that begins in the Eastern Mediterranean and extends to the Hindu Kush, and extends southward into the Arabian peninsula.  It includes many different countries, many different ideologies, and many different interests.  But it is possible to suggest that there are currently three major regions there, three major balances of power: the Israel-Arab relationship, the Iraq-Iran relationship, and the Pakistan-India relationship.  Each has a different dynamic but two common denominators, it involves Islamic powers, and it involves the US.

Let’s begin with Arab-Israeli balance of power.  At the moment, Israel has disproportionate power over all of its neighbors.  Its neighbors are not only deeply divided among themselves, but in many cases if not allied with Israel, aligned with Israel.  Many are hostile to the Palestinians.  And this is the fundamental problem of the region.  Moreover, the Palestinians themselves are internally divided.  As a result, you have a unified competent, deep power state—Israel, surrounded by profoundly divided and conflicted enemies, not even united in the principle of the destruction of the Israeli state, not able to engage in military action at this point in the history beyond sub-national conflict. 

A Challenge for the United States

The fundamental problem for the US in this region consists of the following: It is unthinkable in the current situation within the Arab world that there will be a comprehensive and final settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  It is also not possible for the Arabs to contain Israel; to the extent that Israel is to be contained it must be by the US.  The Arabs look to the US to deal with the Israelis, the Americans look to the Arabs and say—why don’t you deal with the Israelis; and the US appears to be in the difficult position because the Arabs then explain that the US is under the control of the Jews, the American Jewish Lobby is doing that, but in fact the fundamental problem is much more direct and much more under the control of the Arabs. 

Moreover, whenever the United States changes its policies in the region, it is attacked by the Arabs.  So, in other words, if the US says we don’t want 1600 houses built in Jerusalem, which from the US point of view is an opening position on the entire question of settlements, the response from the Arab world is to condemn the US for not doing enough.  But the US is not going to take the position of the most extreme Arabs, the US may shift its policy moderately, but there is no reward for the US.  It is not as if the US made this position on housing in Jerusalem and anybody in the Arab world said thank you, we will now let you base troops here, we will fight with you in Afghanistan, or something like that. 

Thus, and this compounds the problems, the US has to motivate others to go along.  But in the United States, many people ask why should we care and what will we get?  It was very interesting to watch what happened after the Obama administration had a very serious confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu over the Jerusalem housing.  When my team read the Arab press we were told that the US and Israel had contrived this crisis for some reasons, that the US is doing it for some devious purpose to strengthen Israel and so on.  So we have some fundamental misunderstandings. 

The Israelis use this disunity to create realities because in the nature of the balance of power when the balance of power collapses, that’s what you do.  The Arab world looks to the US and says, “Stop Israel.” The US asks the question: “What is in it for me?” and the Arab states will answer, “You will be doing the just thing” to which the Israeli say, “No, no, this is the just thing” and nothing changes.  In many ways, I think there would be a greater chance of peace if Israel were confronted by stronger, more united enemies.  First, it would shape Israeli policy more effectively.  Second, it would discipline Israeli policy.  And third, it would create a basis for negotiations.  At present, there is no basis for talks when no one party can speak for all.

International Politics in the Subcontinent

We have an analogous situation between India and Pakistan.  The American interest in the India and Pakistan conflict is the balance of power.  India and Pakistan have balanced each other since the 1940s not without conflict, but each has prevented the other from emerging as a dominant power.  The US war in Afghanistan, triggered by 9/11, has put tremendous pressure on the Pakistanis.  Whether to the point of causing the regime to fail—I don’t think so, but certainly to the point of making India relatively more powerful.  Should some catastrophe happen, in which the American pressure on Pakistan would cause the Pakistanis to collapse, that would leave India as the regional power without any regional enemies and thereby create a situation not in the interest of the US. 

The End of the Iran-Iraq Balance

The balance that used to exist between Iran and Iraq has ceased.  Consequently, the US will be forced to try to reconstitute something in its place, possibly withdrawing forces from Iraq and Afghanistan because of other challenges, particularly from Russia, that are emerging.  We have no strategic reserve.  We can’t stay, but if we leave, Iran becomes the dominant conventional force in the region and this is truly the problem, it is not the nuclear weapons, because if we blew up all of Iran’s nuclear weapons tomorrow, Iran would still be the dominant conventional power in the region if the US is not present.  And therefore, the next step is to see if the US could reach some sort of understanding with Iran, in which Iran accepts the leading role in the region within limits and which the US has its interests protected in the region as well.  But then the problem becomes: how do you enforce this agreement? 

What the ‘Armenian Genocide’ Debate in the US Shows

Turkey is a very important friend of the United States, while Armenia is a minor power.  That makes the voting the “Armenian genocide” resolution in the Congress intriguing because it reflected not US policy but rather US domestic politics especially outside of Washington.  The Armenians carefully built up a network of political support because they recognized that in the US, the State Department does not run American foreign policy.  Indeed, it is sometimes the case that the city of St. Louis or the State of Montana has more power.  That is what happened in this case.  But Turkey did not act upon this reality.  It focused only on Washington, believing that because it has close relationships with the US government that is enough.  Azerbaijan can learn from this in its efforts to solve its own problems: It has spent a great deal of time trying to get attention in Washington, but that is not where the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is going to be resolved, all the more so because Washington has no more appetite for conflict.