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Historical Constants and Strategic Surprise

The Strategic Surprise of the Agreement between Beijing and Tehran and the Suggestion of a Six-Power Concert

The agreement between Beijing and Tehran falls under the definition of strategic surprise, i.e., events that entirely appertain to the political realm and mark a change or an about-turn in the balance among the powers. New alliances, the breakdown of alliances, the overturning of coalitions, diplomatic openings or unexpected military sorties: these are the regular novelties of international politics that Arrigo Cervetto wrote about. However, if the agreement was an unforeseeable event in itself, the long-term objective economic and political trends. that have determined it and made it possible are entirely investigable.

The invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR at the end of December 1979 was interpreted by the United States as a potential threat to the oil routes of the Persian Gulf, and it was a contemporary revival of the Great Game, which had set the British Empire against the Tsarist Empire in the 19th century. This is not the place to analyse whether the Russian threat at the beginning of the 1980s was real or just a pretext brandished by the American administration of Jimmy Carter and his Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. The opening up of archives, memoirs and historical research have demonstrated that the Russian sortie in Afghanistan was actually defensive in order to protect the USSR from the contagion of the instability of the Central Asian republics and that the fomented by Washington with a dual purpose — to put pressure on Moscow and thereby to condition its allies in Europe and Asia.

Our Marxist analysis of international relations at the time understood how to identify the lines of force that were hidden behind those events. It was doubtful that Moscow really had the strength to challenge the United States in the Persian Gulf; in warm seas, wrote Cervetto, sharks swim better than bears. And the Gulf artery was multidimensional as it also concerned Europe and Japan: in making sure that the Strait of Hormuz would remain an open door — this would become even clearer in the crises of the 1980s — Washington was addressing Bonn, Paris, London, Tokyo and also Rome. In January 1980, the American strategy was summed up in what would go down in history as the Carter Doctrine: Any attempt on the part of any external force to take control of the Gulf region will be considered as an attack on the United States’ vital interests; this aggression will be repelled by all means necessary, including military force.

The agreement between Beijing and Tehran, a kind of quasi-alliance lasting for twenty-five years, calls into question the fate of that doctrine. Not by chance, a comment of the South China Morning Post suggests that the Carter era belongs to the past. In discussions of a wider scope — including that of Gary Sick, who was responsible for the Middle East in Brzezinski’s National Security Council (NSC) — America’s interest in preventing any hostile control of the Persian Gulf dates back to the post-war period beginning with the time of Truman. This guarantee is considered in continuity with; and in succession to, the role the British Empire played in the region.

In the version of Justin Vaïsse, the author’ of a biography of Brzezinski, the Carter Doctrine in the strict sense dates back to 1977, i.e., before the catastrophic crisis in Iran that would lead to the fall of Reza Pahlavi and before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. An NSC document elaborated for Carter was based on the idea of seeing a balance with the USSR in all the dimensions of power, not only the military one. In that context, the notion of economic diplomacy — i.e., the concept of the use of economic tools for political purposes — emerged. From this aspect came the conception of a strategic use of the energy connection, which was linked not only to the Persian Gulf.

Therefore, in Carter and Brzezinski’s version, Iran was crucial to preventing the USSR from having access to the warm seas. And from the very beginning our analysis saw the plurality of the interests involved, given the centrality of this energy artery for all the world’s players. Over the decades since then it has been a question of following the American doctrine’s transformations according to the changes in power relations, characterised first of all by the irruption of Asia.

In all the critical junctures, our point of observation has been identifying every sign of the appearance of China and India, following Japan, in the Gulf area. America’s military interventions in Iraq, in 1991 and 2003, are the most obvious examples of these transformations. With George Bush St.’s first Gulf War, hot on the heels of the collapse of the USSR, Washington confirmed itself at the centre of every balance on both the European and the Asian front. With the second conflict, George W. Bush’s war by choice, the United States already intended to forestall China, confirming its grip on the energy routes in order to condition China’s rise.

The 2003 war dragged on for years amidst growing difficulties and doubts in Washington, and ended unexpectedly with a sizable withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. The United States, it was said, was suffering from war fatigue; the choice of retrenchment, a relative retreat to an inward-oriented policy, ,made by the Obama administration, was also based on that observation. America, concluded Henry Kissinger, was confirming a historical difficulty in proportioning its military commitment to its political and strategic ends, and regularly saw the crumbling of internal consensus to its strategic aims abroad.

Taking stock of that conflict, too, we began to estimate that the Carter Doctrine was no longer sufficient, or that in any case that the United States no longer had the force or the will to offer itself as the sole guarantor of the Gulf routes. This observation gradually developed in the subsequent crises and became fully evident in the war in Syria which allowed Moscow to wedge itself in. And it was confirmed most recently in September 2019, with the attack of pro-Iranian Shiite militias on Saudi oil installations. The assassination of General Qasem Soleimani four months later did not dispel the doubts made explicit in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung at the moment of Washington’s lack of response to the Saudi episode: American voters are tired, it was argued, and believe that the cost of guaranteeing the world order is too high; the abdication of this responsibility, which America as a world power had assumed for many decades, forms an explicit part of President Trump’s programme. When Joe Biden’s team theorises a foreign policy for the middle class, we can add that, at least, this seems to be a continuation of the intention of the previous administration.

In parallel with the transformation of the American position there has been an evolution in the European, Russian and Chinese positions. The most important is the markedly European initiative of the JCPOA agreement on Iranian nuclear power, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated with Tehran by the EU and the 5+1, i.e., the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain — plus Germany. When Donald Trump’s United States denounced the treaty unilaterally and applied sanctions that transformed the dollar-based SWIFT payment system into an extra-territorial juridical weapon, the most significant European action was the implementation of the INSTEX system which circumvented the United States: this attracted interest in Russia and China, but remained potential for the reserves of European companies, which feared retaliation on the American market. In any case, Europe, China and Russia have kept the JCPOA agreement alive, and now the return of the Biden administration to that table is the outcome of both European reluctance to accept American unilateralism and the new correlation of forces generated by the agreement between Tehran and Beijing.

Specifically, as a mirror image of the American transformation and European evolution, we need to analyse the Chinese transformation. Some years ago, we referred to the theses of Wu Bingbing, an Arabist of the CISS, the University of Beijing’s Center of International and Strategic Studies. What emerged from Wu’s theses was a considerable Chinese caution in the Middle East and a reactie game with the American presence in the area, in which Beijing backed Iran without neglecting Saudi Arabia, the other pillar of the correlation of regional forces. In fact, China’s ‘Iranian’ leaning formed a counterweight to the United States’ ‘Saudi’ commitments, but it was also a complementary pressure and therefore geared to the balancing game in the area.

In the long term, in confirmation of Wu Bingbing’s version, we have seen China make its appearance on the Middle Eastern stage, but remain reluctant to make explicit steps that would reveal it as responsible for, or at least as a participant in, the regional order. The crux of the agreement between Beijing and Tehran is this: to what extent does this signal a qualitative leap, with the passage from direct commitment to a quasi-alliance that shifts the equilibrium of the balance. Various comments in the The Wall Street Journal and the Washington CSIS take this line. They see the consequences of American disengagement and, above all, the failure of the line of maximum pressure implemented by Trump: Beijing has slid into the political space left open by the unilateral denunciation of the JCPOA.

An essay by Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan for Foreign Affairs allows a more general reflection on the crisis in the world order of which the Iranian event is a manifestation. Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and directed the political planning of the State Department for part of the Bush Jr. administration, while Kupchan is a professor at Georgetown University and held posts in the NSC of the Clinton and Obama administrations. Their joint text can therefore be ascribed to a bipartisan consensus of the American foreign policy establishment, or at least of the traditionally entrenched currents of the East Coast.

According to these authors, the international political system is at a historical inflection point, and as Asia continues its economic ascent, two centuries of Western domination of the world, first under Pax Britannica and then under Pax Americana, are coming to an end. Even if the Western democracies get over their crisis and the trends towards polarisation and illiberal populism, they will not be able to forestall the arrival of a world that is both multipolar and ideologically diverse. Such periods of tumultuous change come with great peril: history demonstrates that great-power contentions over hierarchy and ideology regularly lead to major wars.

According to Haass and Kupchan, the best vehicle for promoting stability may be a global concert of major powers, based on the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe which united Britain, Russia, France, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A global concert today should have six members: China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia and the United States. Democracies and non-democracies would have equal standing, and inclusion would be a function of power and influence, not values or regime type. It is no longer realistic to aim at globalising the Western order, in a world made up of democracies committed to maintaining a rules-based international order: the political cohesion of the West cannot be taken for granted, and in any case the Western democracies have neither the capability nor the will to anchor an interdependent international system and universalize the liberal order that they erected after World War II.

We will not delve into the arguments with which Haass and Kupchan use to draw a parallel between their proposal of a global concert and the nineteenth-century European concert; but we should recall that a similar suggestion — which we analysed as hypothetical hexapolarism — was put forward by Kissinger in the epochal transition marked by the collapse of the USSR.

Three aspects deserve attention. Firstly, according to Haass and Kupchan, the international system will have characteristics of both bipolarity and multipolarity: the United States and China will be two peer competitors but ideological and geopolitical competition between them will not encompass the world. On the contrary, the EU, Russia, and India, as well as other large states such as Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey, and South Africa, will likely play the two superpowers off each other and seek to preserve a significant measure of autonomy. In this respect, the new six-power concert would be similar to the five-power concert of the nineteenth century, with two major powers — the United Kingdom and Russia — and three powers of lesser rank — France, Prussia, and Austria. In other words, we can observe that it is true that Haass and Kupchan reject the hypothesis of a G-2 as a U.S.-Chinese condominium, but their six-power concert implies in any case a 2+4 dynamic: convergences or divergences between Washington and Beijing would not cease to be the dominant characteristic of the contention.

Secondly, Haass and Kupchan imagine a concert that would act through informal consultations and de facto convergences, in which none of the concert’s members would be a revisionist power bent on aggression and conquest. It would be a forum in which its members can make transparent their core security interests and strategic ‘redlines’. If an aggressor state that routinely threatened other members’ interests were to emerge, it would be expelled from the group, and the remaining members of the concert would rally against it. In other words, in out Marxist terms of the dialectic of unity and scission of imperialism, it is true that the six-power concert would embody the unitary moment. But the two authors also contemplate a possible breakdown in consensus and the formation of hostile groups: although the stress is on unity, scission is in no way excluded.

Thirdly and finally, Haass and Kupchan see a global concert as a better suited tool for establishing stability in multipolarity, thanks to the flexibility of informal relationships. The analogy is with the practice of contact groups set up from time to time to deal with regional crises. Examples include: the six-party talks — the United States, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas — that addressed North Korea’s nuclear programme; the so-called Normandy grouping — Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Kiev — that has been seeking a diplomatic resolution to the Ukrainian crisis; and the P5+I coalition that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. In a certain sense, write the two authors, the concert can be understood as a standing ‘contact group’ with a global purview.

In a comment in la Repubblica, Marta Dassù is sceptical; she writes that the realpolitik-like vision of the CFR proposal might please Henry Kissinger but is far from the approach of the Biden presidency. This is true, but it is also true that the Haass-Kupchan formula is more than a simple intellectual provocation: it signals that a significant bipartisan current of the foreign policy establishment, well represented in the CFR, for its part is sceptical about the prospect of a league of democracies as a counterpoise to Russia and China. All the more, because the specific example of the various contact groups already in existence is revealing: whether one likes it or not, Moscow and Beijing are already seated at the negotiating table over the Korean question, the Ukrainian crisis and the Iranian nuclear deal.

China cannot be isolated, aS Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger points this out in the FAZ, quoting precisely the Haass-Kupchan line in the CFR; the very succession of balancing moves that preceded and followed the Anchorage summit between the prominent figures of American and Chinese foreign policy confirms this. The Americans mustered up QUAD, held bilateral meetings on defence with Japan and South Korea, and participated in the NATO and European Council summits. The Chinese received the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Beijing and sent theirs, Wang Yi, on a mission to Ankara, Riyadh and Tehran, where the Sino-Iranian quasi-alliance was sanctioned. All you need to do is to look at the map — they argue in Beijing — in order to see that China has friends all over the world. China, the FAZ comments again, is challenge ing the West’s claim that it represents the international community.

Another two aspects of Wang Yi’s mission deserve attention. According to M.K. Bhadrakumar, an Indian analyst and former diplomat, Beijing is testing the waters in the Middle Bast for a payment system that would bypass the dollar. Dong Dengxin, of the University of Wuhan’s Finance and Securities Institute, writes as follows in the Global Times: Washington has been abusing SWIFT to arbitrarily sanction any country at will, which sparked global dissatisfaction. If China and Russia could work together to challenge the dollar hegemony, a laundry list of countries would echo the call and join the new system. The payment system, observes Bhadrakumar, is linked to the trading system and Dong suggests the use of the yuan as the clearing currency: At first, the system could push forward a trial run in Central Asian countries and countries and regions along the routes of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [i.e., terrestrial and maritime Silk Road]. As its influence grows, the system is poised to draw in other countries in Europe and ASEAN.

For the moment, adds Bhadrakumar, China is not seeking a confrontation with the United States: CIPS, the Chinese payment system, simultaneously competes with and is a partner of SWIFI. However, Beijing is indeed testing the waters, and the use of the digital yuan could challenge the hegemony of the dollar. China’s accusations of digital authoritarianism are also made against this background, while the Silk Road is maturing as an access route to the internationalisation of the yuan. Dong Dengxin, we observe, does not mention INSTEX and Europe, but the yuan as a monetary weapon conserves a certain ambivalence: it may act as a challenge also to the EU and the euro and/ or as an offer to negotiate. However, from the strategic surprise of the agreement between Beijing and Tehran the impression remains that Europe’s delayed times, also made evident by the INSTEX episode in the Iranian crisis, are being hotly pursued by the Chinese times.

A second aspect requires us to return to Wu Bingbing’s theses. In his opinion, China began to break away from its low profile and strategic position of prudence in the Middle East in the course of the 1990s. We summed up these theses in September 2012 [Beijing Linkage between the China Sea and the Middle-East Balance Internationalist Bulletin October 2012]:

The first change occurred in the 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the almost complete withdrawal of Russia from the Middle East, and the US once again found itself with a ‘dominant role’ in the Middle East.

At the same time, the newly independent Central Asian countries became targets of the expansion of Iranian, Turkish and Saudi influence. Civil war in Afghanistan brought the Taliban regime into power in 1996. As a result, the inner region of northwest China, Xiangtan, until then relatively isolated, found itself surrounded by neighbouring countries ’seen as a theatre of combat among the regional powers, and also between the USA and the other great world powers. At that time, the Middle East, though not a neighbouring region of China, began to be regarded as a ’strategic extension’ relative to the security of the western part of China. Given the dominant role of the United States in the region and the GCC reluctance to develop closer relations, ‘Iran was the only possible choice as China’s pillar in the Gulf region’.

A second, more radical transformation, occurred in the past decade. The threat of Islamic terrorism revealed by I September 2001, the Iran nuclear programme that was uncovered in 2002, and the Iraq War in 2003 led to ‘fundamental changes’ in the Gulf region. As Wu writes, China supported the United States in its anti-terrorist war in Afghanistan and ‘acquiesced to Washington in the Iraq War’. This observation merits attention: George W. Bush’s ‘political war’ aimed to condition China by reasserting US control of the Persian Gulf energy artery; Beijing reacted by excluding a head-on clash.

Today, Wu’s report tells us that this response was also a tactical manoeuvre through the strengthening of relations with the Saudi monarchy and the Gulf emirates. After China joined the WTO, the energy demand soared and China became the main market for Saudi oil, importing more than the United States in 2009. Despite being the linchpin of US strategy in the region, Riyadh ‘found that it was necessary to hold a more balanced position in its international relations’ by strengthening Saudi relations with its Asian and European counterparts. Since then, Saudi Arabia — together with Iran — has become another linchpin in China’s policy in the Gulf region. The challenge for Beijing is the extent to which it can manoeuvre around ‘the pro-American regime in Saudi Arabia and the anti-American regime in Iran’.

Wu’s conclusion is that China is finding that more and more of its core national interests are in the Gulf region: this is why it defines the Middle East as its ‘Greater Neighbouring Area’. This means according it a higher position in China’s foreign strategy. We observe, however, that by so doing it establishes an organic and definitive link between Beijing’s strategic interests and the Middle-East area.

We also observe that the link between the Middle East and Central Asia looks like the Chinese version of the formula of the ‘arc of crisis’ coined by Brzezinski, and that the ‘Greater Neighbouring Area’ is a mirror image of the American ‘Greater Middle East’, stretching from the south shore of the Mediterranean to Afghanistan.

This was the state of affairs in 2012. It is obvious that the new correlation in which Xinjiang has found itself since the 19gos implicates the Uyghur question. This is now raised as a political campaign that has resulted in sanctions by the Biden administration and soon followed by those of the European Union. Bhadrakumar reports that, in Riyadh, Prince Mohammad bin Salman has supported the Chinese position on Xinjiang and Hong Kong, rejecting every attempt on some parts to sow discord between China and Islamic countries.

This is a crucial issue: in the meeting with Lavrov and in Ankara, Wang Yi also exchanged reassurances with the other possible interlocutors on the Uyghur question, namely Russia and Turkey. This is not the first time the United States has handled the explosive material of ethnic-religious demands without actually mastering its implications. The support organised by Brzezinski, with Saudi complicity to the Pashtun populations against the USSR, led to the Taliban regime and Al Qaeda and form this emerged the new conflict in Afghanistan that has bogged down the United States. After twenty years, Washington has decided on an unconditional withdrawal that smacks of defeat and is fraught with unknown factors.

The 2003 war in Iraq, with the dissolution of the balances guaranteed by Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, gave birth to the chain of causes that led to ISIS and the war in Syria.

It is hard to say just how far Washington intends to stir up an Islamic question in China using the Uyghur question as a bargaining chip. What is certain is that history demonstrates that a two-handed policy can also be full of unwanted consequences.

Lotta Comunista, April 2021