Discussion Paper: Alliances in the Middle East
F. Gregory Gause, III
University of Vermont
Middle East Studies Association Convention
December 4-6, 1998
The Middle East is a laboratory for the study of alliances and alignments, understood as a "formal or informal relationship of security cooperation between two or more sovereign states" (Walt 1987: 1). (I will use the term alignment to indicate an informal security relationship. Whether formal or informal, the key to determining whether an alliance has been contracted is the willingness of at least one of the parties to pay a cost in some tangible way to support the other.) Regional multipolarity and intense security conflicts make alliances an essential element of the foreign policies of all the regional states. The importance of alliances is highlighted in a number of the most widely read works on Middle Eastern international relations by regional specialists (Kerr 1971, Seale 1986, Safran 1985, Taylor 1982). International relations scholars have used the region to test propositions and develop theoretical arguments about alliances (Walt 1987 ; Barnett 1998). Recent work on Middle Eastern alliances has been characterized by a number of different theoretical approaches: neo-realist, constructivist, "neoclassical realist" (Rose 1998 coined the term; see also David 1991), rent-seeking (Brand 1994). We have the makings of an interesting debate that can both illuminate our understanding of the region and contribute to larger theoretical debates in international relations, if we are self-conscious about how we choose our research topics, test our hypotheses and present our findings.
Work on Middle Eastern alliances falls into two broad empirical categories: studies of alliances among regional powers and studies of alliances between local states and extra-regional great powers. While occasionally a work will combine the two (both Walt 1987 and Barnett 1998 examine both kinds of alliances), more often authors concentrate on one or the other. There is a large literature on Soviet policy in the region (eg., Heikal 1978, Freedman 1982, Rubinstein 1977, Smolensky 1991, Golan 1990), focused on Moscow relationships with its various Middle Eastern clients. That literature is now being enriched by the opening of archives and post-Cold War freedoms (Israelian 1995, Wehling 1997). An even larger corpus exists examining the US-Israeli relationship (eg., Safran 1978, Schoenbaum 1993, Ben-Zvi 1993, Mansour 1994) and its diplomatic counterpart, the peace process (eg., Quandt 1993, Telhami 1990, Spiegel 1985). Efforts to examine the U.S. relationship with other regional clients are far less numerous (eg., Bill 1988, Sick 1985, Gerges 1994). L. Carl Brown (1984) made the quest by outside powers for regional dominance, and their inevitable failure, one of the leitmotifs of his synthetic treatment of Middle East international relations. Scholars more interested in theoretical issues than the specifics of regional politics have used the superpower competition in the Middle East to test general theories of patron-client relations from various theoretical perspectives (David 1991 on the motivations of clients seeking patrons, Miller 1995 on crisis dynamics and patronsí commitments to clients).
The regional studies literature on these great power-local power alliances have yielded a few insights that are now part of the conventional wisdom: patronsí efforts to organize the region for their own purposes have largely failed; clients have more room to maneuver in their relations with patrons than the disparity in power relations would indicate; patrons and clients frequently have different, at times conflicting, aims. Brown (1984) is an excellent summary of those insights, though his contention that patterns of patron-client relations in the region are the product of a distinctive Middle Eastern diplomatic culture is highly questionable. But there has been little effort to develop more ambitious theoretical agendas in the study of Middle Eastern patron-client relations. Most works are content to identify patterns and continuities in discrete patron-client relationships. Students of the U.S.-Israeli relationship often contend that their subject is sui generis, dismissing the idea that it could be usefully compared to other such ties or that their case could suggest more general international relations hypotheses.
The recent exception to this trend has been in examining the motives of Middle Eastern states in seeking out great power patrons. Here a serious, if not self-conscious in many cases, debate has been joined. Walt lays out a clear neo-realist case for the primacy of security motivations -- security against external attack or pressure -- in smaller states' decisions to seek Great Power allies (Walt 1987, Walt 1988). He explicitly rejects rent-seeking explanations, contending that foreign aid follows from alliance decisions made on security bases (Walt 1987: Chapter 7), and equally explicitly rejects ideological or identity explanations, contending that ideology in such cases "may be more of a rationalization than a cause" (Walt 1987: 214).
Walt has been challenged by proponents of all three other theoretical approaches in their accounts of what motivates states to seek out Great Power allies. Steven David, arguing largely from the case of Egypt, emphasizes that leaders of unstable, poorly institutionalized regimes seek out allies, particularly at the Great Power level, to combat their domestic enemies, not respond to foreign threats (David 1991). Martin Malin (1995) has, once again working from the case of Egypt, made a very strong case that the primary motivation in Gamal cAbd al-Nasir's maneuverings between the superpowers was to get financial and military aid. Malin calls cAbd al-Nasir's statecraft "entrepreneurial," de-emphasizing classic security considerations as motivations for his behavior. Barnett and Levy (1991) also emphasize the need for external aid as an important consideration of both cAbd al-Nasir's and Sadat's strategies toward the Soviet Union. Michael Barnett (1998) argues that Arab statesí relations with Great Powers is severely constrained, if not dictated, by the changing norms of Arab identity. Leaders motivations for Barnett have much more to do with maintaining domestic stability (not challenging popularly held beliefs about the propriety of relations with outside powers) and forwarding their regional profile, and very little to do with classic responses to external threat.
These very different approaches to understanding alliance motivations of clients in patron-client relations should frame a new debate within the study of Middle East international relations. Testing their very different (in some cases mutually exclusive) claims contribute to our understanding of how regional politics works, and at the same time advance larger debates in international relations theory.
The second category of empirical work on Middle East alliances treats relations among the regional states themselves. A number of the classic works on regional politics concentrate on the topic (Seale 1986, Kerr 1971). New scholarship on the Arab-Israeli conflict, much of it by Israeli scholars, emphasizes the centrality of inter-Arab alignment patterns and tentative Arab-Israeli relationships on Arab-Israeli outcomes (Rabinovich 1991, Maddy-Weitzman 1993, Sela 1998, Shlaim 1988). This work, however, has not generated the same level of consensus or generally accepted insights as the empirical work on Great Power-regional power alliances mentioned above. Perhaps for this reason, the theoretical debate on regional alliances is joined in a much more self-conscious way.
The starting point for that debate is Walt's The Origins of Alliances (1987). His powerful and parsimonious (though not unproblematic) neo-realist account of inter-Arab and other regional alliances has led to a sustained, and in many cases very high quality, debate. Walt's emphasis on threat and balancing behavior has been the starting point even for those analysts who, in the end, reject his conclusions about what drives regional alliances. The greatest strengths of Waltís analysis of regional alliance dynamics are his explicit theoretical framework, the clarity of his hypotheses, and his forthright assertion that Middle Eastern alliances are not unique, that they can be comprehended by theoretically generalizeable, neo-realist principles.
The major problem in Waltís account, at least in my view, is the plasticity of his notion of "threat," which includes a number of elements (geographic proximity, offensive power, aggregate power, and aggressive intentions). This broad notion of threat in turn leads to problems of coding. In a multipolar regional system like the Middle East, states can face different kinds of threats from different sources. Walt provides no guidance for how states will prioritize among the threats they face. It then becomes difficult to say definitively whether a certain regional alliance is motivated by desires to balance against one kind of threat, or bandwagon with another kind of threat. In his desire to show that even in the Middle East, where one would assume that neo-realist alliance theory might not apply, balancing behavior predominates, Walt also underplays the importance of trans-national ideologies like Pan-Arabism and political Islam. He limits his discussion of ideology to the proposition that countries which share ideological platforms will ally together, and thus concludes that ideology is not a central motivation for alliance behavior. He folds the more interesting ways that ideologies affect regional international politics into his general discussion of "aggressive intentions," denying ideology an independent causal role.
If Walt downplays ideology, Barnett (1998) makes it (and the related concept of "identity") the centerpiece of his analysis. Working from constructivist theoretical assumptions, Barnett presents an account of inter-Arab politics in which leaders are motivated and constrained by the dominant understandings of Arab identity in their foreign policy decisions toward Israel, the Great Powers and each other. He explicitly identifies Waltís neo-realist reading of regional alliances as the primary alternative explanation, and endeavors to demonstrate the superiority of his theoretical approach in explaining alliance outcomes. The strengths of Barnettís work in some ways mirror those of Walt. He too links his hypotheses to larger theoretical debates and is explicit about his variables and causal arguments. His emphasis on ideology and identity captures an important factor in regional politics, long recognized by regional scholars, in a disciplined and theoretically sophisticated way. In my view there are two major problems with Barnettís approach. First he fails to specify just when identity issues will control decisions and when they will be overcome by more conventional security concerns. Many Arab states have violated what Barnett refers to as the "norms of Arabism" in dealing with each other, Israel and the Great Powers. Second, while arguing that the "norms of Arabism" change over time, Barnett is deliberately fuzzy about what causes those changes.
If Barnett is the first scholar to analyze Middle Eastern alliances from an explicitly constructivist viewpoint (Lynch 1999 is soon to follow), he is certainly not the first to emphasize ideology and identity issues. Less theoretically informed, more specifically regional accounts of Middle East international relations published over the decades have been emphasizing these same factors. Fouad Ajami (1978-79, 1998) has made the declining significance of Arab nationalism the central explanatory variable for changes in regional international politics. Gamil Matar and cAli al-Din Hilal [Disuqi] (1983), in what is the most sophisticated treatment in Arabic of regional political dynamics that I have found, identify Arab nationalist feelings as both the glue that holds the system together and its most important behavioral property. Less attention has been paid, in literature on regional international relations, to an equally important ideological/identity factor: Islam. Piscatori (1986) demonstrated the theoretical and practical compatibility of Islam and the state system, and other works have treated the particular effects of the Iranian revolution on regional politics (Ramazani 1986, Esposito 1990). However, little systematic effort has been made to understand how trans-national Islamist political ideologies have affected foreign policy outcomes in the region (for one recent effort, see Eickelman 1997).
In many ways the "neoclassical realist" approach tries to straddle the neo-realist/constructivist divide. Neoclassical realists accept fundamental realist assumptions about the centrality of power and security concerns in regional politics and the balancing proclivity of states. Their novel theoretical insight is to place domestic state-building and regime security concerns at the forefront of Middle Eastern statesí foreign policy goals. For neoclassical realists, foreign policy is one more tool in leadersí efforts to get and keep power domestically. Classic works of regional international politics like Seale (1986) and Kerr (1971) provide, though not self-consciously, neoclassical realist readings of inter-Arab politics. The best recent example of a self-aware and theoretically sophisticated neoclassical realist approach is Malik Muftiís Sovereign Creations (1996). Mufti provides a detailed account of how various regimes in Syria and Iraq used Arab nationalist ideology and Arab unity efforts to gain the necessary breathing space in the region to consolidate their regimes domestically and marginalize their domestic opponents. He views Arab leaders not as bound by normative understandings of Arabism, but rather as cynical exploiters using those norms to balance their regional opponents and destroy their domestic opposition.
The neoclassical realist framework provides a theoretically informed basis from which to examine Middle Eastern regional politics (full disclosure Ė I am working on a project on war and alliance decisions in the Gulf that is premised very much on neoclassical realist assumptions). However, neoclassical realist approaches do not approach the parsimony and conceptual clarity of either neo-realism or constructivism. While neoclassical realists will argue for the primacy of domestic political concerns in statesí alliance decisions, they have not developed specific hypotheses about what kind of alliance behavior we should expect from what kind of domestic motivations. Will states bandwagon with external supporters of their domestic opponents, or balance against them? David (1991) presents cases where both results ensued. The task for those working in the neoclassical realist framework is to generate more specific hypotheses that can be tested against those of the other theoretical approaches.
The rent-seeking explanation for regional alliance behavior is a model of parsimony and conceptual clarity. Best exemplified by Laurie Brandís (1994) work on Jordanís inter-Arab alignments, this approach is based on a simple premise: states will ally with those from whom they will receive the most cash. Rent-seeking has been an important dynamic in regional alliance behavior since the rise of petro-dollar diplomacy in the 1970ís. It has been a factor in decisions (at various times) by Egypt, Syria, the former Yemen Arab Republic and Jordan to align with Saudi Arabia. At least part of Egyptian, Syrian and Turkish alignment motivations in the Gulf War of 1990-91 can be attributed to rent seeking. Brand has introduced an important and previously under-theorized element into the study of regional international politics.
That being said, the rent-seeking (or, as Malin terms it, "entrepreneurial statecraft") approach must still address a number of important issues before it can validate its ambitious claims. First, the concept of rent has to be defined more specifically. Brand included just about any kind of economic exchange in her analysis. Government to government deals were given equal weight with exchanges between outside governments and local Jordanian actors (companies, groups, etc.). At least some of her examples, particularly of efforts by Iraq to cultivate relations with sub-state actors in Jordan, could be more accurately seen as Iraqi attempts to penetrate Jordanian society. She folds together aid given directly to the Jordanian government by regional states with more diffuse trade agreements between countries, whose benefit to the Jordanian regime is much less direct. Concentrating specifically on government-to-government aid exchanges seems to me to be a practical way to focus theory-building efforts in this area. Second, those seeking to develop this paradigm have to focus on when rent-seeking is not important, when it is overridden by other alliance motivations. Saudi money could not prevent Egypt from signing a peace treaty with Israel, or Syria from allying with Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. Jordan gave up hundreds of millions of potential aid dollars from the Gulf monarchies in aligning with Iraq in 1990-91. Specifying the scope conditions for rent-seeking behavior is a central theoretical task.
The Middle East provides an ideal region in which to test these various theoretical approaches, both in the fields of patron-client ties and of regional alignments. Controlled comparisons can be developed in which these competing theoretical approaches would predict different kinds of alliance behavior, and students can examine just how the Middle Eastern states behaved. The multi-polar nature of the region, its myriad conflicts, and sustained outside power interest in it provide numerous data points for such comparisons. The most important step toward theoretical cumulation in this regard is for all of us who work on these questions: 1) to be aware of these theoretical debates, 2) to construct our research designs in such a way as to test competing theoretical approaches, and 3) to report our findings in such a way that scholars interested in alliance questions in general, but perhaps not focused specifically on the Middle East region, will find compelling reasons to read and cite those findings.
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