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Stabilising the Middle East: lessons from the US rapprochement with China

President Nixon’s meeting with China’s Communist Party Leader Mao Tse Tung in 1972 began closer ties between the two countries. Wikimedia/Office of Presidential Libraries

Now, as at the time of the Vietnam war, the global primacy of the United States is increasingly being questioned.

Among the reasons are its role in the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the continued and rapid rise of new great powers, ongoing domestic social and political decay as well as the protracted and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In addition, the US has been unable to develop a policy toward Iran independent of Israeli veto power – leading to a more dangerous and unstable Middle East.

But the US can learn from some of its experiences from almost 40 years ago when it reached out for closer ties with another country to promote regional security.

History repeating

While still embroiled in Vietnam, the then American leadership was beginning to sense changed circumstances. In a historic move President Richard Nixon visited Beijing in 1972, the first time a US president had given any open recognition to the People’s Republic.

Supported by Kissinger’s advice, Nixon decided to form an alliance of convenience with China against the USSR, while also accepting the opening up of China to the rest of the world.

Less than ten years earlier, US, Soviet (and Australian) foreign policy-makers and hawks had been calling for “surgical de-nuclearisation” of an isolated China that had seen itself, with good reason, as existentially threatened by both of the nuclear super-powers.

Raul P/Flickr

The rapprochement initiated by Nixon and warmly received by China meant that the latter could then be “contained”, in large part through its increasing international economic interdependence. It meant a firm rejection of the failed US policy of China’s enforced isolation.

Nixon’s balance-of-power policy with respect to China in the context of the Soviet Union could thus be viewed as a rational response to a setback to US global primacy aspirations, as a consequence both of the Vietnam debacle and because of America’s relative economic decline.

The US−Iran problem

Fast forward 40 years and American foreign policy hawks are again calling for wars of “regime change” or “surgical de-nuclearization”, this time on Iran on the pretext of the latter’s alleged (but as yet unconsummated) nuclear weapons aspirations.

One such strident voice has recently been that of Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, who has surrounded himself with neoconservative advisers. As for the Obama Administration, like its GW Bush predecessor, it continually claims that it will “use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon”. There has been talk of “bunker-busters”.

Against these hawkish calls, many other US commentators oppose preventive war on Iran. One such powerful critique has been by Harvard’s Stephen Walt. Taking a slightly different tack, the leading US foreign policy “structural realist” Kenneth Waltz has recently argued that, as in the case of China, Iran’s aspirations toward a nuclear deterrent are perfectly rational and reasonable in terms of its own national security.

This is especially so in the light of very real threats from Israel and the US. He also notes that once China actually acquired its own international nuclear deterrent in the early 1960s it necessarily became a more responsible international citizen.

This does not mean that we need to go all the way with Waltz’s severely parsimonious rationalism. The US could hardly be expected to accept a nuclear Iran as a totally desirable outcome. However, what makes sense is to accept that Iran’s aspirations toward a level of nuclear capability (perhaps not unlike Japan’s) would allow mechanisms of a stabilising mutual deterrence to emerge vis-à-vis both Israel and the Arab Middle East in particular.

A worsened regional arms race need not result.

First steps

A first practical step would be to withdraw punitive economic sanctions now in place on Iran. Such harsh measures are more likely to harden Iran’s resolve.

Another step toward such a rational and prudent US strategy would be to decisively take “off the table” the option of “preventive war” on Iran ─ that is, aggressive war. As in the case of the war on Iraq (2003), this option is illegal under the UN Charter, and for good reason.

The path of US-Iran engagement in the above terms would by no means remove the option of future defensive war on Iran should it plausibly threaten to use such weapons unprovoked, or to wage aggressive war against its neighbours.

However, even such a graduated and “defensive war” option would need to be weighed carefully in the light of prevailing circumstances.

Israel’s role

Israel would be one of the main losers if the Middle East were to descend into greater chaos as a result of military strikes on Iran. Yet Israel’s hawkish leadership has been shrill in threatening its own “preventive war” on that country.

Unfortunately, Israel’s foreign policy hawks have been dangerously emboldened by several factors. The first is the forty years or so in which Israel has possessed the only (albeit “ambiguously” denied) nuclear weapons capacity in the region, not to speak of its being at a comparable level to China, France and the UK in terms of delivery and “second strike” capabilities.

This unchecked power has not been a stabilising force in the region, especially given that this has been heavily supported by US military aid over the same period. US domestic politics has also played a role with undue influence exerted by a loose coalition of forces favouring war.

Developing a rapprochement with Iran, as the US did with China, would not be easy. But the US does have the power to address the central issues constructively.

As discussed in journalist Stephen Kinzer’s book, there are many reasons for US foreign policy cooperation with Iran, not least in retrieving dangerous situations in Afghanistan and Iraq as the US withdraws as rapidly as its declining prestige will allow.

Former prime minister Gough Whitlam walks with President Nixon as he leaves the White House in July 1973, with Henry Kissinger and officials walking behind them. Wikimedia/Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

Australia’s role then and now

But the US would only take a less bellicose direction if there was effective pressure domestically and from the rest of the world, including from such allies as Australia, a country with a history of opposition to even-handedness on the Palestine question.

That Australia can play either positive or negative roles is well demonstrated by the related histories of our relations with China and Vietnam. Then opposition leader Gough Whitlam’s coinciding visit to China in 1971 indicated a degree of international awareness.

He set out to correct the then coalition government’s support of hawkish US policy directions evident in both its ill-conceived commitment to land-war in Asia and its ideologically-based opposition to normalising relations with China.

That pressure from the then coalition government did the US no favours and did nothing to advance our own security is a relevant lesson for Australia now.

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Australian forces arriving in Vietnam. The Conversation will be looking at the war’s legacy throughout a number of articles over the next week.

Part 1: Forgetting the ‘American War’: Vietnam’s friendship with its former enemy

Part 2: Vietnam and Iraq: lessons to be learned about mental health and war

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