Discover more from Gideon's Substack
How To Win Friends and Influence Allies
It's not easy, actually, when our allies' core interests are at stake
Antony Blinken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, June 16, 2016
Once upon a time, the United States formed an alliance with a problematic country, an alliance that has perplexingly endured despite dramatic changes in the geopolitical landscape. Born in a land partitioned by the departing British in the late 1940s, it fought numerous wars with its neighbors and is party to intractable territorial disputes that regularly flare up. It secretly built a nuclear arsenal, did business with odious pariah states, and has a powerful intelligence service that is deeply distrusted by the United States. During the Cold War, it was considered an asset, but more recently it has frustrated American policymakers by routinely acting in ways contrary to American interests. Many have argued over the years that America’s relationship with the country obstructs its ability to form closer ties with more important states; some have argued that the creation of the state was a mistake to begin with. And yet it remains a major non-NATO ally.
I’m talking, of course, about Pakistan. Did you think I was talking about someone else?
Yes, I know, it’s a cheap trick, and one could easily compile a list of ways in which Israel and Pakistan are radically different cases. I don’t think anyone who believes in the U.S.-Israel relationship would appreciate the comparison to the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, and I doubt there are many Pakistani officials who would appreciated their country being compared to Israel, or vice versa. My point, though, is not to compare the two alliances in terms of their value to America, much less to compare the two countries themselves. Rather, it’s to point out an important commonality in the dynamic of the two alliances, one that has relevance for those who are agitating for the United States to reassess its relationship with Israel.
The United States has had many reasons and opportunities to distance itself from Pakistan. It has sometimes taken those opportunities. The United States has repeatedly cut off aid and cooperation with Pakistan over its secret nuclear program, and in response to military coups in the country. But after the 9-11 attacks—which were planned from Afghanistan, a country which, under Taliban rule, was allied with Pakistan—the consensus developed that American distancing had mostly had the effect of making Pakistan more opaque to the American government. That’s a major reason why, rather than turn more hostile after 9-11, the United States promptly upgraded its relations with Pakistan.
Of course, that decision can be criticized in retrospect; even as Pakistan was helping America’s efforts in some ways, it was harboring al Qaeda’s top leadership and providing a haven from which the Taliban was ultimately able to reconstitute itself and return to Afghanistan. The United States spent much of the 2010s fighting an undeclared war in Pakistan, infuriating that country’s leadership and its people. And yet, even after all that, there remains value in the relationship, even if all it does is mitigate Pakistan’s extreme fears of our growing friendship with India.
Pakistan is exceptional, but to some degree you can tell similar stories about America’s relationship with many other problematic states. We rarely see eye to eye, and as our interests diverge the goal of diplomacy isn’t to bring them to heel but to continue to have a hearing. Other countries are going to pursue their own core interests, because that is what they exist to do. And while American influence can be brought to bear at the margins (particularly if it can demonstrate ways our interests are aligned, and can be brought into better alignment), it is going to have little effect at changing their view of what their core interests are. Pakistan had very good reasons for wanting atomic weapons (reasons that Richard Nixon agreed with, by the way, but that’s a story for another time). American pressure was not going to get them to change their minds about that; at best it might slow them down, and at worst it would just cause them to change their minds about America.
The same is true with respect to Israel. Yes, Israel receives a lot of American support—but Israel is probably less dependent on American largesse than it has ever been, not only because of the strength of its economy and military but because of its steadily improving relations with numerous other countries. (Indeed, America’s support for Israel has gotten stronger as Israel’s position has strengthened, not the other way around.) But regardless, at the end of the day Israel is going to calculate its own interests the way it sees them, not the way America sees them, and the value of American support is not at the top of the Israeli hierarchy of interests, anymore than it was at the top of Pakistan’s. That doesn’t mean we have no influence at all. It just means being realistic about what our influence really buys us, particularly when it comes to what Israel itself sees as its core interests. If support isn’t buying us the policy change we want, that might be a reason to wonder if support is worth the cost, but it’s unlikely that punitive measures will be more effective. The case for distancing from Israel, then, is not that we could thereby force Israel to drastically reassess their policies, but that America would be better off not being associated with Israel’s policies even if, as a result of our distancing, those policies became worse, from either a moral perspective or from the perspective of American interests.
That is a case that deserves to be made. I bet there are aspects of it that I would agree with. But the fact that the case is so rarely made that way says a lot about the seriousness of the typical case-makers from the perspective of the national interest.