The term “Diplomatic Revolution” is a phrase often applied to a shattering and shifting of status quos in international politics. In between the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War in the mid 18th century, the period from which the term originates, the French and Prussian alliance and the Austrian and British alliance underwent a sudden transformation. The Diplomatic Revolution of the 18th century saw the creation of a new European order built on two primary alliances, one between France and Austria and another tying Prussia and Great Britain. Many similar transformations and inflection points have occurred since: Germany’s thunderous rise in the 1880s and 1890s cemented an Anglo-French alliance and propagated the fear that plans for continental domination were more menacing from Berlin than from Paris. In the Middle East, one such inflection point could potentially be taking place.
Like it or not, American policy in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War has been centered around the United States’ desire to achieve regional stability by supporting existing pro-American regimes and replacing adversarial with sympathetic governments. Regional stability, to the policy planner at the State Department, the Pentagon, or the CIA, has necessitated the checking of claimants to regional hegemony by means of direct and indirect American intervention. American policymakers ought to reflect the explanation of regional stability in the future when they want the American government to entangle itself in the affairs of regions thousands of miles away. Especially since the past handful of interventions were ultimately destabilizing.
Furthermore, under the specter of such a foreign policy, it is altogether natural that sides form. The United States adopted, out of a post-Cold War hubris, a foreign policy bent on picking sides. In a world where “you are either with us or against us”, the United States constrained Middle Eastern politics into a zero sum game.
To the United States, American successes meant an expansion of the “democratic peace” just as resistance by nations such as Iran and Iraq spelled nothing other than an “axis of evil.” To those opposed to the United States, American intervention resurfaced images of Anglo-French imperialism and resistance to intervention was nothing but an expression of national sovereignty and self-determination. So long as these wholly irreconcilable perceptions of reality dominate thinking in Washington, Tehran, or Jerusalem then there will be no hope for peace in the Middle East.
It is time to shatter the zero-sum perception of Middle Eastern politics. It appears that finally the opportunity to do so has arrived. How to characterize the currents in Middle Eastern politics right now is certainly a difficult task, but many transformations are taking place. The United States appears to be deemphasizing the Middle East in favor of a “pivot” to Asia in order to address the changing geopolitical realities in the latter region posed by a rising China. Whereas in the late 1990s and early 2000s the region of primary concern to American policymakers was the Middle East, over the next few decades, American concerns will shift to East Asia.
Hussein Rohani, the new President of Iran, described as a “charmer,” “moderate,” and a “reformer” in the West appears to be directing Iranian foreign policy in a direction toward opening negotiations over its nuclear program with the United States. Whereas under President Ahmadinejad perceptions in Washington and Tehran were guided by the belief that the Iranian nuclear program was either a belligerent threat to regional peace or an expression of national sovereignty, respectively, the prospect for negotiations offers the opportunity to circumvent this impasse and to find grounds to satisfy both sides. In other words, a diplomatic victory for one nation need not imply a defeat for the other.
The United States wants Iran to either stop its nuclear enrichment program or to at least conform to international regulation. Iran needs to pursue the dual goals of relaxed international sanctions and nuclear development. Both nations must simply realize that a middle ground does exist. Such a relationship is a subtle shift, but the opportunities for actual diplomacy and actual mutual understanding are profound.
Throughout the 1950s and much of the 1960s, Communist China and the United States were hopelessly divided over the issue of Taiwan. The United States believed that Taiwan ought to remain independent from Mainland China, whereas Communist China demanded American recognition of Beijing’s claim to Taiwan as a pretext for negotiations and a détente between the two powers. So divided around one issue, the United States and China had little to non-existent contact for two decades. When their mutual desire to check the Soviet Union enabled the two powers to escape from “zero-sum” thinking, negotiations ensued and the American Chinese rapprochement became one of the key diplomatic maneuvers that eventually led to the end of the Cold War.
The United States needs a new perspective toward the Middle East. President Rohani gave a powerful sign that currents in Iranian politics could enable some degree of mutually agreeable negotiations with the United States. It is now time for the United States to break itself free from the mindset that has limited American foreign policy for the better part of the past two decades.
What does this potential diplomatic revolution mean for international politics? Optimistically, it hopes to reorient negotiations between the United States and Iran, and Middle Eastern states in general, around finding paths toward achieving mutual goals. Much of the battle in diplomacy comes in finding mutual interests to achieve. For far too long discourse on Middle Eastern Politics has been driven not by finding mutual goals but by affirming platitudes: “freedom-hating”, “imperialist”, and “tyrant” have dominated our respective vocabularies. A diplomatic revolution in the Middle East could at last orient diplomacy and foreign policy away from these embellished images and toward the pursuit of interest. The United States must realize that Iran is a modern society whose politics is not simply reducible to “anti-American.” Iran, among others, must realize that the United States is not in fact synonymous with “imperialism.”
The changing perception of interests within the Middle East and between Middle Eastern nations and the United States is perhaps the greatest opportunity for a changing diplomatic climate in the years to come.