Iran considers itself to be an enemy of the United States of America. Just this week Iran held its annual parades at which “Death to America!” is an official chant. Unsurprisingly Israel’s death is also called for, but so is Saudi Arabia’s. Given the sentiment, you would think that the danger of America drifting into the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be that we would carelessly drift in on the Saudi side. While that is a concern, the path of least resistance is for the United States to be drawn into the war on the Iranian side. I will explain.
American foreign policy is implemented by a nest of institutions including treaties between nations and treaties that create international organizations like NATO. It is easy for critics of this order to remember George Washington’s warning against “entangling alliances,” but in truth these institutions served America well for a long time. They held the world together during the Cold War, and prevented a fall into the darkness of authoritarianism represented by the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and others. Their success is why they are so entrenched in guiding our national decisions about where and how to act. Their weakness is the weakness of all successful, large human organizations from General Motors to IBM: when times change, they cannot.
Though no one has realized it, these systems point the United States towards entering the Saudi-Iran war on the Iranian side. The current conflict over Qatar shows why. The United States has a treaty with Qatar governing our relationship because we have a large number of troops deployed there. This treaty’s specific terms are classified, but it is widely reported to obligate us to defend Qatar against attack. As the Saudis press Qatar on diplomatic and economic fronts, the Turkish and Iranian governments are trying to sway the Qataris to join them in alliance against the Saudis. If Qatar rejects the Saudi terms, the Turks and Iranians will back them.
Any Saudi act of war could trigger our treaty to defend Qatar. The purpose of these treaties is to make such an act unlikely. However, the Turkish military is providing food shipments via its aircraft in defiance of the Saudi blockade. One of the demands aimed at the Qataris calls on them to cease cooperation with the Turkish military. If Qatar rejects that demand and the Saudis decide they must enforce their blockade, conflict with the Turkish air force is almost assured. In this conflict, to take Turkey’s side is to take Iran’s. Just by obeying the logic of our treaty obligations, we thus could be forced into the Saudi-Iranian war on Iran’s side.
Alternatively, of course, the United States could refuse to back Qatar or Turkey against Saudi Arabia. That would break existing treaties, including potentially NATO’s Article V — the very heart of the NATO treaty. Violating those treaties is also a serious matter because America’s global position depends on faith in this nest of treaties. To take the Saudi side against the Qataris and Turks – and therefore against Iran – could undermine America’s global position by undermining faith in all such treaties.
Falling in on the Iranian side would mean assisting in the creation of an autocratic bloc with hegemony over the whole of Asia. Iran and Turkey are aligned with Russia, and the Turkish government has already made noises about entering into the Russian-Chinese “Shanghai Cooperation Organization.” The Chinese are in negotiations with Pakistan to open a naval base there, surrounding India; the Chinese are also investing in a gigantic infrastructure project that will pass through this region. Part of the purpose of such projects is to simplify the moving of armies and, more importantly, logistics for armies.
The irony is that an authoritarian global superpower is the very thing that these treaties were put into place to combat. How strange it would be if the logic of those treaties were allowed to force us into supporting the Russian and Iranian bloc.
However, undermining those treaties by violating one of them also serves the interests of these authoritarian powers. Though not as quick and complete a victory, heedlessly breaking our treaty networks also empowers China and others by disabling faith in existing defenses.
This situation should not be surprising. The logic of it is well understood in economics thanks to the work of Joseph Schumpeter. Trying to explain why Marx’s vision of ever-growing monopolies had not played out, Schumpeter argued that successful companies tend to ossify with bureaucracy and rules that prevent them from adapting as quickly as they once did to changing market conditions. As a result, smaller and more nimble firms will be able to peel off parts of the monopoly by out-competing that monopoly in spite of the advantages created by the monopoly’s economies of scale. We are seeing the same process play out in global strategy, with NATO as the monopoly and Russia, Iran, and China as the smaller and more nimble firms. They have already peeled off Turkey from our alliance; they are trying to peel off Qatar. The very logic of our own systems of defense is now being used against us, as is the ossification of our institutions.
We must escape this logic by adapting. In the immediate crisis, that means that America should take leadership of the negotiations between Qatar and the Saudis to prevent either a provocative Qatari rejection or Saudi Arabia deciding it needs to enforce its blockade.