By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Time and again we hear the refrain: We shouldn’t do policy X because it might force country Z into the “other” camp. A recent article says as much “COUNTRY X support for the GROUP Y opens doors for a continued cooperation between COUNTRY ENEMY and its proxies in the region and pulls COUNTRY Z even further away from its nascent rapprochement with COUNTRY X.”
Another article also posits a similar narrative. “COUNTRY ENEMY will put intense pressure on COUNTRY Z LEADER to move closer to them and still farther away from COUNTRY Z’s partners.”
Always in these scenarios the Western state, usually the US, is said to be at “fault” because COUNTRY Z is moving away from them. The policy-maker and commentator always urges “caution” in any new policy, lest country Z be offended. No matter what happens, all other allies have to be chucked away, or not approached, lest we “lose” country Z.
Rarely do we hear this question: If country Z is our ally, then why is it working with our enemy (COUNTRY ENEMY)? The commentator always assumes that it is “us” who forced it to do this, and never asks the more logical question which is why our “friends” so often work with our enemies. Why do our “friends” so often use threats and blackmail of “well if you do X then we will be forced to work with your enemy.” Is a country a true “friend” and “ally” if it is forever teetering on running to the enemy camp, and always has to be kept as a “friend” via numerous deals and begging and appeasement?
The problem in the West is that, despite US Secretary of State James Mattis’ maxim of “no better friend, no worse enemy,” the real policy of the US over the decades has often been “no worse friend, no better enemy.” In this respect it means that the US often doesn’t really work with its true friends. Countries that are the most pro-American and that want US support, are often either shunned or taken for granted. Countries where the 9/11 hijackers originated, countries where Bin Laden lived from 2001-2011, countries that routinely incite against the US and where hatred of Americans is de rigueur and where people actively celebrated 9/11, are the ones that the US always seems to want to work hardest to be close “allies” with. These are always where the West’s “interest” lie. The “cornerstones” of foreign policy.
If foreign policy was simply constructed to always work with countries that are in the kind of middle zone between actual allies and enemies, and simply give those countries everything, while shunning allies and not doing anything against enemies, then one could understand it. If the policy was spelled out as “Our main allies are countries whose public hate us and whose leaders host terrorist organizations, but whose stated policy is to work with us sometimes while also working with our enemies,” then you could say, well ok, we are following our bizarre policy.
Western policy always seems to be like that sad kid on the playground who no one likes, so the sad kid tries to befriend a bully or the tough kids who will run him down and mock him and abuse him, but at least, via begging, he can be part of their circle. The odd thing in this all too common scenario, is that the major power, the western power, behaves like some kind of victim of an abusive relationship, always coming back for abuse and always excusing the abuse as “no, but the abuser truly loves me.”
How can one explain that time and again this is the bizarre policy. It isn’t by chance that this happens. The mindset of too many commentators and policy-makers is to put a higher value on convincing people that hate you to like you than to convince people that like you to like you more. In some ways this makes sense. A person views as a greater “conquest” a challenge that was harder. Defeating an easy rival does not bring accolades. Defeating a much stronger rival does. Obtaining something that is hard is prized over obtaining something easy. But in the common scenario the “teetering interests” rarely are obtained. They aren’t overcome or vanquished. It’s like taking a person on 100 dates and never getting a kiss. It’s just endless dating, for the sake of more dating, with the hope that “well if we don’t take the person on a date then he/she will run off with some other suitor.” But there has to come a point where you acknowledge, like the 2009 movie, He’s just not that into you.
The problem is the onus is never on the “teetering” ally to make gestures of alliance and friendship. There is no quid-pro-quo, such as we will alter our policy and you will alter yours. Instead this is just quid, without quo.
This is made all the worse because we have other allies who desperately want a close connection but who are continually kept at arms length because of the need to please the “teetering ally.” But the “teetering” ally is a sunk cost. We’ve already sunk sometimes 50 or 70 years of relations via NATO or some other alliance, into the “ally.” The idea that our interests lie with these countries, who in the last decades have done nothing but spurn us, is odd. Why not demand some steps by the “ally” while working with other friends. Why be slaves to old alliances that have become abusive.
The western mentality of “the more they hate us, the more we must like them” is as strange as it is illogical. It is built on this idea that “we” have done something wrong. At its heart is a sort of eurocentric, racist, concept built on Orientalism and the colonial legacy that says everything can be fixed by us, and therefore what is not fixed is our fault. It never ascribes to another country that their policy is simply their own, and that they are equals and they sometimes are simply no longer “allies.” There is no amount of “pleasing” that can bring them back. They actively exploit our desire to be liked by those who hate us by demanding more and more without doing anything. At the worst end of this spectrum is demanding western states often spurn other countries that crave friendship and alliance, so that countries often embracing enemies, can receive goodies.
This also creates a contradiction between stated goals, such as human rights and democracy, and actual practices which involve “interests.” Those who oppose working with actual friends tend to pretend they are simply being “realists” and “pragmatic.” They say things like, “as enticing as it might be” or “as romantic” or ” as much as it pleases our ideology”, we must not work with X because Z is being offended. But what if Z is simply not our ally and what if by working with X we might show Z that it’s time to step up to the plate.
Countries respect strength. They have learned to blackmail and threaten but they to are susceptible to the same. They often have more to lose and simply take their alliance for granted. They got used to the fact that their president can give an incitement-laden speech calling their “ally” harsh words such as “nazis” and there are no repercussions. They keep feeding the western diplomats stories about “don’t work with X because we might search for new friends.” But what they least want to hear is “ok, so search for new friends.”
The behavior of Pakistan, the US “ally” that funded and supported extremism in Afghanistan, in Kashmir and at home, that then just “happened” to have Bin Laden living there for a decade, is a prime example. But Pakistan needs the US more than the US needs Pakistan. Who are Pakistan’s other friends? Saudi Arabia? China? So what? There is no reason the US was so beholden to Pakistan year after year, always pleading and doing whatever it takes not to “offend” Islamabad. It is not the only example, there are numerous such examples, just as there are numerous examples of the opposite, countries and groups who want to work with America or the West and are continually spurned or kept at arms length like some sort of embarrassment, like some kind of mistress or something. US policy is like a bad marriage, continually doting on and trying to fix something that isn’t working, while at the same time being embarrassed that there are other suitors, all the while the other partner is running around having fun.
The problem with commentators is they don’t see allies as partners and they are beholden to “interests.” They don’t understand that the “interests” often don’t exist. Is it in a country’s “interest” to continually spurn other allies simply to please an “interest” that actively works against you. What do the “interests” achieve? What is the tangible benefit? “Well, these are our historic friends and a pillar of our policy.” But the pillar is rotten, its falling apart, it has been eroded. History is not the future. And the pillar is not a pillar, it’s an active player. We see other countries as “interests” and un-moving objects, like a rock. You clean off the dust of the rock and the moss and you work with the rock. But countries are not rocks, they are moving, they have their own orbits and interests and policies.
Countries that continually threaten “well if you do that then we might go work with Tehran or Moscow.” Ok, so go work with Tehran and Moscow. Once you’ve gotten to the point that relations are so bad that your “friend” is already threatening you with this fait accompli, there isn’t much to discuss. They’ve already opened relations and begun to balance their policy. They cannot be brought back. They have to actively want to come back. You cannot convince them. They have to have interests as well.
If the world was made up of only three countries, you, COUNTRY Z and COUNTRY ENEMY, then it would be incumbent on you to do everything in your power to get country Z on your side, if it will help defeat the enemy. But the world is made up of many more countries and policies and interests and groups. Think.