The United States’ struggle for global primacy with Russia and China has taken place primarily in Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific but is increasingly spilling over. With Washington’s bilateral rivalries forcing third-parties to choose sides, the Middle East is particularly vulnerable as it looks into a post-Covid world. Instead of offering sticks, the United States ought to offer carrots if it wishes to see a prosperous region.
The bipartisan consensus forming on Capitol Hill and in Washington at-large on the perceived threats emanating from the Kremlin and the Zhongnanhai has produced a plethora of sanctions and policies that seek to stifle the rise of any peer competitors. By focusing so narrow-mindedly on their own geopolitical self-interests, the US government risks undermining any recovery in the Middle East, which is desperately needed. In practice, these policies do not simply target Russia and China but rather countries that wish to cooperate with them.
American coercive diplomacy has already produced numerous obstacles for regional development. In a bid to limit Russian as well as Iranian influence in the Levant, the United States has continued to pressure its allies to avoid any Syrian-Gulf rapprochement that would be indispensable in any serious reconstruction effort in the war torn country. Similarly, the Caesar Act, intended to weaken the Syrian government through sanctions, has had the effect of increasing the price of basic foodstuffs while the Syrian pound lost two thirds of its value in 2020. Knock-on effects in neighboring Lebanon, which is already seeking to recover from the devastation of its main harbor, have already been profound.
Even within its own sphere of influence, the preference for allies to be deterred rather than induced has had little meaningful success. Most notably, despite threats of the implementation of the self-explanatory Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, Turkey proceeded to purchase Russian S-400 missiles. In addition to sanctions, the pending removal of Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter partnership has likely just opened up more avenues for Russian-Turkish defence cooperation (such as in the Caucasus) while simultaneously creating a rift in NATO and reinforced anti-American sentiments in a country that hosts US nuclear warheads; meanwhile, countries like Saudi Arabia and India have gone on to purchase S-400 missiles themselves. The only tangible outcome has been the release of an American pastor from jail.
Despite the threat of American retaliation, the allure to look north- and eastward remains. With China being the only major economy to have recovered from the pandemic and Russia being able to offer cheaper and effective weaponry, the pull away from the United States is likely to continue as long as the latter relies primarily on coercive means. Longtime US allies have begun to hedge their bets. Egypt has purchased fighter jets from Russia; China and Saudi Arabia have held joint naval exercises (as have China, Russia, and Iran); and Iraq has purchased T-90 tanks from Russia. Deepening ties are not constrained to the realm of military partnerships. Nuclear energy, space exploration, and more recently vaccine sharing are just a few of the many venues of cooperation where China and Russia have led in.
A policy of isolating countries, such as by preventing European countries from trading with Iran, will only force countries to double down on their remaining ties as exemplified by the $400 billion Sino-Iranian investment plan. Though the Maximum Pressure campaign is largely identified with the Trump Administration, third-party complications are likely to remain as they did before Donald Trump took office. For example, as a result of the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, European citizens who held dual citizenship with countries like Iran or who had visited them since 2011 were no longer eligible to travel to the US without a visa, angering not only the Iranian government but also irritating US allies across the Atlantic.
Despite the current situation, the United States has the potential for a more proactive approach that can win both hearts and minds. Currently lacking anything that even remotely compares to China’s bold Belt and Road Initiative, the US has the capacity of replicating its post-war success in Europe. In 2020, the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum recently published a white paper on A Modern Marshall Plan for the Middle East, which proposes a multilateral framework that could “minimise the risk of state failure in the region” while simultaneously engaging both China and Russia as well as the states in the region in meeting their core needs.
The United States is not a complete stranger to the use of carrots over sticks in the Middle East. During the Trump Administration, material and political inducements have aided in the breaking through long standing deadlocks. In exchange for normalizing relations with Israel, Trump offered F-35’s to the United Arab Emirates, removal of Sudan from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list, and recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. However, these acts have largely been transactional and with an incredibly narrow set of policy objectives primarily limited to the US-Israeli alliance with little regard for the region’s self-interest and long-term development. Similar tactics can be used in the context of a new strategy.
With wars in places like Syria, Yemen, and Libya as well as numerous countries juggling their diplomatic relationships, the opportunities to establish a Middle Eastern Marshall Plan are plentiful. Since the nature of the tasks faced by these states range, so do the number of avenues in which the US can participate in. None of the major challenges that will need to be tackled, such as health, education, and infrastructure, can be solved individually or even bilaterally so it is imperative that the prospect of development is not tied to an external country’s geopolitical ambitions.
The growing antagonism directed towards Russia and China, though not identical, are increasingly melding the economic with the politico-military elements of international relations. It is therefore imperative to tackle any region-wide development goals with an understanding that the two should not be conflated. Syria, therefore, has the potential of acting as a test case for any tripartite cooperation. Instead of pursuing a “with us or against us mentality” that has been a key characteristic of American foreign policy for decades, a decade of proxy warfare can be overcome by combining US economic might, Russian geopolitical influence, and Chinese infrastructural skill while simultaneously lifting millions out of poverty and repatriating millions more.
Though the Biden Administration does not exhibit the same tendency for superpower confrontation as some in the Trump Administration have, such as former National Security Advisor John Bolton or former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the new White House has failed to meaningfully disavow much of the same underlying tendency. Biden’s decision not to immediately roll back Trump-era tariffs on China suggests that third-parties in the Middle East may have to wait a while before being able to proceed with the knowledge that they will not have to choose between one or the other. Additionally, the Biden Administration will face significant pressure not from just Congressional Republicans but also a majority of Democrats too to not ease up but rather ratchet up the New Cold War.
Concrete steps, such as lifting sanctions on countries (including European ones) that do business with state-backed Chinese or Russian firms or ceasing the invocation of national security as a justification to prevent economic competition, are prerequisites before any major joint Marshall-like plan can be implemented. If not, it risks not only hampering development but also producing zones of mutual exclusivity; instead of an iron or bamboo curtain, a sand curtain could divide the Middle East for a generation with Russia and China on the one side and the US and its allies on the other.
Only by implementing measures that do not result in a zero-sum game will the Middle East’s major actors, namely Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, be able to join any multistate concert. Without their participation, which becomes harder to encourage in a New Cold War, any US initiatives will likely fail. By assuring them that they can freely engage with all parties, even if leaning more towards one side than the other, the conditions for a truly cooperative developmental approach will emerge.
With China having already eclipsed the US economically when measured by purchasing power parity and set to overtake it in nominal terms by 2028, and Russia showing no sign of retreat from the Middle East, the window for the United States to be a leader in reconstruction and regional integration is quickly closing. By deploying its immense human and financial capital now, the United States could reshape its role in the region and shift away from a primarily military profile in favor of an increasingly developmental one. This also has the capacity of converging US and EU foreign policies and avoids antagonizing allies who wish to look both West and East.
Rather than clinging on to the hope that the Middle Eastern countries will decouple their economies from their biggest trading partner and isolate a major military power, the United States would be better served pursuing a policy that attracts while taking note of the region’s own, and not purely Washington’s, needs.