Middle Power Mojo

I got some pushback via email on this post about Turkey, and the idea of formulating American foreign policy to take advantage of the leverage offered by regional “Middle Powers.” In particular, the question was raised whether having the same policy as Turkey vis à vis Iran is more important than preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and more generally whether harmonizing policy with our regional allies should trump our own policy goals. The short answer is no.

The longer answer is that the Turkey-Iran example is complicated by the fact that I think we’re trying to impose a flawed tactic (sanctions), in order to achieve an unrealistic strategic goal (containment). And the result is that countries like Turkey, India, and Pakistan, to say nothing about China and Russia, are lukewarm at best. Now, I’m not at all naive about the Iranian regime, and I think that it would be a strategic disaster if it acquired a nuclear weapons capacity. Not for any existential threat it posed to Israel, and much less to us (because I think that Tehran is susceptible to strategic deterrence), but for the destabilizing impact it would have on regional and global non-proliferation. More importantly, it’s a safe bet that the Turks have no burning desire to see a nuclear-armed Iran. For that matter, neither do the Russians.

So, to walk the whole thing back a bit, I’m suggesting two things. First, and this was the central argument of my post, we should focus on enlisting the key regional leverage points, which I called the “Middle Powers,” to do the heavy lifting for us in terms of regional policy, because for a whole host of reasons, the lighter our footprint right now, the better. Second, to do that, we need to start by finding the common policy goals with our regional allies, and use that as the starting point for formulating policy. In the case of Iran, that would be preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, but not necessarily containment. America is no longer in a position where it can impose unpopular policies on its regional allies, so we need to find ways to achieve our goals through generating consensus, not twisting arms.

A third point, but one that is more difficult to standardize, involves identifying regional players who have got their mojo (for lack of a better word) working and piggy back on their momentum. Turkey, for instance, has demonstrated a very impressive ability to achieve its foreign policy goals over the past several years. France under Sarkozy has shown a knack for picking winners. It would be foolish to let pride keep us from taking advantage of our friends’ lucky streaks.

It goes against years of instinct and habit, but until we restore both our soft and hard power, American influence might be best applied by enlisting savvy and sympathetic Middle Powers, and then following their lead.

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