Ideologies, alliances and underbalancing in the new Middle East Cold War

By F. Gregory Gause, III, Texas A&M University

*This memo was prepared for the the “International Relations and a New Middle East” symposium.

It is a very popular short-hand to portray the international politics of the post-Arab Spring Middle East as a simple tale of Sunnis v. Shiites, with Saudi Arabia and Iran leading the respective sectarian camps—a Middle East version of the 30 Years War. However, the reality of alliances and alignments in the new Middle East cold war (Gause 2014; see also Ryan 2012; Salloukh 2013) is much more complicated than that, which makes it an interesting case for testing more general ideas about alliances. This brief discussion paper will explore two issues regarding Middle East alignments in this period: 1) what explains the “underbalancing” (Schweller 2004) that can be observed against Iran in the current regional picture; and, following from that, 2) how to best explain alliance patterns in the region—by balance of power logic, the sectarian lens or a variant of Walt’s balance of threat (Walt 1987) framework that emphasizes ideology and domestic regime security issues, and thus is informed by the constructivist emphasis on identity.

Few of the alignments discussed here fall under more formal definitions of alliance, in terms of a written agreement between states for mutual support in specific circumstances. But the cooperative frameworks are enduring enough to qualify as alliances from a theoretical perspective, in that the parties involved have borne costs to support each other. Alignments might be the more accurate descriptor, but I will use the two words interchangeably. Many of the alignments discussed are not between two states but between a state and a non-state actor. I grant that the motives driving the behavior of non-state actors can be very different than those of states. Non-state actors are primarily concerned with their fortunes within the fractious politics of their own states. States usually have broader motives in making their alliance decisions. I will focus here on the states’ behavior, though many of their most important alliances are with non-state actors.

“Underbalancing” and the New Middle East Cold War
A notable but underappreciated element of the current political configuration of the Middle East is the fact that a strong regional alliance against Iran has not come together. Iran is the undoubted winner in the past decade of regional upheaval. It is the most influential player in Iraqi politics now, having close relations with the ‘Abadi government, sponsoring if not controlling a number of Shiite militias and maintaining a cooperative relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government (exemplified by its supplying arms to the KRG during the Islamic State offensive of the summer of 2014). Its client, Hezbollah, remains the dominant force in Lebanese politics. Iranian support has been essential to the preservation of the Assad regime in Damascus, even as other rulers challenged by the Arab Spring have fallen. While Tehran’s relationship with the Houthis is not as strong or as direct as that with Hezbollah or the Iraqi militias, the success of the Houthis in Yemen further contributes to the regional sense that Iran is on the march. Efforts by other regional powers to challenge Iranian gains have all failed, whether Turkish and Saudi support for the Syrian opposition (though different elements of it), Saudi financing of the March 14 coalition in Lebanon and military aid to the Lebanese government, or the Saudi and Emirati campaign in the summer of 2015 against the Houthis.

By pure balance of power logic, the region should have witnessed a Turkish-Saudi-Israeli alignment aimed at checking and rolling back Iranian power. All three states worry about Iranian power. Israel and Saudi Arabia both seem to identify Iran as their major threat. Two-thirds of that hypothetical balancing alignment, a Turkish-Saudi understanding, makes perfect sense by the sectarian logic that many believe is driving regional politics. But neither the trilateral nor the bilateral balancing alignment against Iran has emerged. This is a perfect example of “underbalancing.”

Mark Haas (2014) provides a framework to understand why we are seeing this clear example of regional “underbalancing.” Haas argues that it is not simply power that defines the structure of an international system. Identity also structures the system. States that share common ideas about appropriate and legitimate principles of governance will tend to group together. In systems characterized by ideological bipolarity, where the great powers divide between two overarching systems of governance, alliances will tend to follow ideological lines and be very stable. But when there are more than two transnational ideological principles present in the system, being put forward by great powers, the likelihood of underbalancing increases.

Haas (2014: 729) argues that in cases of ideological multipolarity, state leaders will eschew alliances that seem logical from a power perspective because they dislike and fear the ideological stance of a potential ally: “Thus, all other things being equal, a shift from ideological bipolarity to multipolarity will make it more difficult for at least some states to form alliances because there are likely to be fewer ideologically acceptable allies in the system. The greater the impediments to alliance formation, the less efficient the balancing process will be against potential threats.” His paradigmatic example is the refusal of conservative politicians in Great Britain and France to consider an alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. He adds another impediment to effective balancing in ideological multipolarity, already recognized in more Realist accounts of alliance behavior (Christensen and Snyder 1990): the greater incentives for buck-passing. Why pay the price for balancing a threat if a third party will do that for free? So in ideologically multipolar situations, the likelihood of underbalancing is considerable.

The Middle East is currently in a situation of both power multipolarity and ideological multipolarity. Iran puts forward a transnational Islamist model that it claims should apply throughout the region, though its strongest appeal is to fellow Shiites. The Iranian model rejects monarchy, seeing it as illegitimate. It also challenges the American-led regional order that prevailed since the end of the Cold War. Saudi Arabia is directly challenged by the Iranian model, particularly among its own Shiite minority. It supports fellow monarchs and discourages democratic reform both at home and, in its support for the coup of then General, now President al-Sissi in Egypt, abroad. Turkey under AKP rule has supported a version of Islamist democratic reform in the Arab world, particularly in backing Muslim Brotherhood movements. While one can hardly call the Islamic State a great power, it is propounding a transnational salafi ideological model that shares elements of Saudi Arabia’s conservative official version of Islam, Iran’s revolutionary rejection of the current regional system and AKP Turkey’s Sunni Islamist populism but is a direct threat to all three states. Meanwhile, the Israel of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is following a barely-veiled colonialist project in the West Bank that makes it anathema to public opinion throughout the Muslim World.

Haas’s model of ideological multipolarity fits the current Middle East like a glove. The Saudis seem uncertain as to who is their greater threat, Iran or the Islamic State. The seemingly natural Turkish-Saudi balancing alliance against Iran (both want to see Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq reduced) is impeded by Saudi fears that the Turkish model of populist, democratic Islamism will aid the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world. While the Saudis clearly want to roll back Iranian influence in the Arab world, they have also declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Turkey partnered with Qatar, another regional player that had bet on the Muslim Brotherhood, to encourage Islamist opposition to the Assad regime but now seems to be torn between the goal of Assad’s removal and the fear that both ISIS and Kurdish groups in Syria have become the more salient threats to Turkish security. Ankara, which historically has had decent relations with Israel, for ideological and domestic political reasons has now chosen to distance itself from Jerusalem. The desires of some of Israel’s friends in the United States to foster a Saudi-Israeli connection against both Iran and the Islamic State have not been realized, because Riyadh cannot contemplate an open relationship with the Netanyahu government.
Balancing What? Sectarianism, Balance of Power and Balance of Threat
The underbalancing that Haas predicts in ideological multipolarity is driven to a great extent by fears related to regime security. Leaders worry about the domestic effects of transnational ideological messages, and thus are leery of partnering with regional allies whose own principles of legitimate domestic governance are in conflict with their own. In this way, using Haas’ framework of ideological multipolarity to explain underbalancing in the Middle East is consistent with past work on regional alignments that has argued for the primacy of regime security considerations and the importance of transnational ideological factors in driving alliance decisions (Gause 2003/4; Ryan 2009; Rubin 2014).

Straight balance of power logic, defined narrowly as balancing behavior against threats defined by material capabilities, cannot provide as comprehensive an explanation for underbalancing in the contemporary Middle East. It can certainly explain why the Saudis and even the Turks are worried about increased Iranian influence in the Arab world. But it cannot, almost by definition, explain underbalancing. The alignments one would expect under balance of power theory—Saudi-Israeli, Saudi-Turkish, Turkish-Israeli—have not been realized, at least so far.

Sectarianism, the most popular framework for understanding the current dynamics of regional politics, is also unsatisfactory at explaining underbalancing. A sectarian perspective would assume that the Sunnis would flock together, but that has not happened. No alliance of Sunni regional powers, that would bring together Saudi Arabia and Turkey along with Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, has appeared. Rather, alliance patterns among the Sunni states are driven more by ideological compatibility and regime similarity. Saudi Arabia is closely aligned with other monarchs and with the anti-Muslim Brotherhood regime of Gen. al-Sissi in Egypt. Turkey has been more closely aligned with Qatar under Shaykh Hamad, when Doha was more actively backing Muslim Brotherhood causes, with Egypt under the brief Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, and with the Hamas administration in Gaza.

This is not to argue that sectarianism is unimportant in the current alignment picture in the region. There is an elective affinity between Iran and Shiite groups: Hezbollah, various Iraqi Shiite militias, perhaps even the Houthis, even though they are not Ja’faris but Zaydis. The Muslim Brotherhood looks to Sunni powers historically more than to Iran for support (though Iran has been supportive of Hamas). Lebanese and Yemeni Sunnis look to Saudi Arabia for help. But sectarianism’s importance comes from the weakening or breakdown of state authority in many places where, for a variety of reasons, sectarianism has been a salient part of political identity. Lebanese, Syria, Iraqi and Yemeni politics all have important sectarian elements. As the state has seen its grip loosen (or completely collapse) in these places, sectarian identities have come to the fore in local struggles for power. Sectarian groups naturally look to their co-sectarians in the region for support—Shiites to Iran and Sunnis to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. These local groups invite the outsiders into their own domestic conflicts. The sectarian template emerges from below; it is not imposed from above.

Domestic regime security best explains the alignment behavior of the regional players in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia supports fellow monarchs and an Egyptian government that stands against democratic Islamist populism. Turkey finds Syrian Kurds as threatening as the Islamic State, because of its continuing worry about Kurdish identity politics in Turkey itself. The seemingly “natural” Turkish-Saudi alliance, anticipated both by strict balance of power logic and by sectarian understandings of regional politics, has not occurred because the two states are leery of the underlying tensions in their domestic legitimation formulas—democratic Islamist populism v. salafi monarchism. Israel, the strongest military power in the region, is an unacceptable alliance partner for any regional state because of the potential domestic political consequences of an open partnership with Jerusalem.
Haas (2014: 732) does point out that alliances across ideological lines in ideological multipolarity are hardly impossible; they are just harder to achieve than Realist interpretations of balance of power theory would predict. He argues that if powers in different ideological poles come independently to view a third power as both their most salient power threat and their most salient ideological threat, then a balancing alliance can form against that third power across ideological lines. Thus, the Western democracies and the Soviet Union eventually allied against Nazi Germany, though it took quite a while for the parties to finally settle into that alliance.

Haas follows Peter Katzenstein in asserting that, “identities cannot be stipulated deductively. They must be investigated empirically in concrete historical circumstances” (2014: 720, see also 741-49). British and French conservatives were much more worried about the ideological threat of the Soviet Union in the 1930’s than were British and French socialists. Were the left in power in London at that time, or in Paris for more than a few months at that time, the obstacles to the alliance that was eventually formed between the democracies and the Communists would have been lessened. Leaders’ perceptions of threat are the key element here. Those perceptions can change over time, or new leaders with different perceptions can come to power.

There are a few tentative indications that just such a change may be afoot in the ideologically multipolar Middle East. The new Saudi King Salman seems to be less focused on the domestic political threat to the Saudi regime posed by the Muslim Brotherhood than was his predecessor. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might be feeling his current regional isolation more than in the past. His February 2015 visit to Riyadh occasioned speculation from both sides that a rapprochement was in the works. The capture of Idlib by a coalition of Islamist elements of the Syrian opposition at the end of March 2015 might (and I stress might) signal a new willingness for Saudi and Turkish clients in Syria to cooperate. The Yemeni Islah Party, of which the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood is a component, recently announced its support for the Saudi bombing campaign against the Houthis. In their current Yemeni campaign, the Saudis seem to have set aside their previous aversion to support a local Muslim Brotherhood.

These are all straws in the wind. But they raise the possibility that the new Saudi king is re-evaluating his predecessor’s ranking of the threats faced by Riyadh, downplaying the Muslim Brotherhood threat to Saudi domestic regime security, and thus opening up the possibility of a Turkish-Saudi alliance against Iran. Of course, the successful conclusion of the P5+1 talks with Iran could lead other regional parties to conclude that they have to do their own deals with Tehran, or it could increase balancing incentives against the Iranians. Much will depend on the course of Iranian foreign policy in the wake of the recent nuclear agreement. If a real rapprochement develops between Iran and the United States, that would be the kind of change in “concrete historical circumstances” that could occasion a wholesale revision of the regional pattern of alignments.

F. Gregory Gause, III is the John H. Lindsey ’44 Chair and head of the international affairs department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

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