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Dear Israel, America is just not that into you

US foreign policy is driven by national interests, and these don't always include having Israel's back

America is a bit of a tart. They tell lots of other countries they’re allies, which works for the US. It’s not so good for a country like Israel which thinks it’s in a Special Relationship. The best relationship advice to give them is that Uncle Sam is just not that into you.

There was an episode in the sixth series of Sex and the City, ‘Pick A Little, Talk a Little’, in which Carrie’s boyfriend Jack Berger tells Miranda, ‘he’s just not that into you’. The phrase has been a durable one even outside Sex and the City geekdom: you think you’re in a serious relationship, but the other person doesn’t.

The United States doesn’t like commitment. That is, America has, as a matter of longstanding policy, avoided alliances. When George Washington wrote his 1796 farewell address to the American people, he was clearly concerned that the young and weak American states would ally themselves to Britain, France or Spain, and thereby become permanently weak. In remarkably clear language, Washington wrote, “an attachment of a small or weak towards a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.”

As decades of constant war between Britain and revolutionary France were just beginning, the United States had declined to join the war on the French side, and had concluded a new treaty with Great Britain. Washington was likely concerned that the United States would effectively move from being a British colony to French satellite to British satellite.

Washington’s assessment of alliance was that it encouraged sentimental attachments to favoured foreign powers. ‘Sympathy for the favorite nation,’ he wrote, ‘facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.’

Washington means that it does no good to think of other countries as ‘friends’ because it clouds your judgement of your own national interests and gets you involved in other people’s troubles.

Washington recommends the young United States should instead pursue foreign policy based on dispassionate analysis of national interest. Subsequent American governments were not afraid to operate closely with other countries and to call them ‘friends’; but they have been very reluctant to commit themselves in alliance.

What is the difference between operating closely (as, perhaps, in coalition) and alliance? According to the American reference Black’s Law Dictionary, an alliance is, ‘A union or association of two or more states or nations, formed by league or treaty, for the joint prosecution of a war, or for their mutual assistance and protection in repelling hostile attacks. The league or treaty by which the association is formed. The act of confederating, by league or treaty, for the purposes mentioned.’

If there is no league or treaty in which states join together to make war or commit to mutual defence, then there is no alliance. If the US is not committed to send its young men and women to die to defend your soil, the US is not really your ally.

The United States has entered into this sort of alliance very, very rarely.  For instance, when the US joined the Allied side in the First World War, the US did not actually become an ally of Britain, France, Belgium, Japan, and (by that point) Italy. The US ‘associated’ itself with the Allies, and separately went to war with Germany and later with Austria-Hungary ( and never with Bulgaria or the Ottoman Empire).

When the US joined the Allies in the Second World War, it created a league called the United Nations with very narrow terms of alliance:  every member state committed to devote ‘its full resources’ to fighting whichever Axis nations it was fighting, and not to make a separate peace with any of the Axis nations. This was actually an alliance.

Right now the only states that the US is pledged to defend by the terms of alliance are the signatories of the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO), Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines.

The NATO alliance has very explicit terms of mutual defence:  according to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, an attack against any NATO state is an attack against all NATO states, and all NATO states are required to come to the assistance of the attacked state. By this treaty the United States is pledged to make war to defend the sacred soil of Bulgaria as though it were Burlington, Vermont. This is a real alliance.

The US has a similar alliance agreement which commits America to come to the defence of Japan and South Korea. US agreements with Australia and the Philippines are weaker.

Then there is the category of nations that the US only pretends to have alliances with, the ‘major non-NATO allies’. This category includes real allies Australia, Japan and South Korea; New Zealand, which had the same alliance as Australia until a falling-out about nuclear weapons on US warships; Egypt and Israel (jointly bribed with an annual bag of money and this phoney alliance to keep off each other’s throats); in the Middle East and North Africa: Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Tunisia; in the Americas, Argentina; and in South Asia:  Afghanistan and Thailand.

Israel is in this category of ‘major non-NATO allies’, which opens up certain categories of military and security assistance. Without a stronger treaty this is not actually alliance. The stack of defence agreements between Israel and the US — and there is a stack — do not require the US to do much more than treat secret Israeli documents as secret. The US is not required to share intelligence with Israel (as one Jonathan Pollard could tell you in detail), though they do when it suits them. About the most powerful agreement Israel has with the US is the one which permits the US to keep military stores in Israel which Israel can borrow if the Yanks aren’t using them.

That is, if Israel is attacked (as Israel often is), the United States is not bound to do anything at all. The US is not Israel’s ally. He’s just not that into you.

So when the miserable Ann Coulter rather gruffly remarked that the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination seemed to be talking rather a lot about Israel, she had a point. The American Right views noisy but uncommitted support for Israel as a foreign policy touchstone. In a country where sophisticated understanding of foreign affairs is not widespread among voters, and where a candidate for the presidency (or at least for the vice-presidency) has expressed scepticism about the value of conducting diplomacy altogether; Israel is very, very special.

Israel is not special because the US needs a stable democracy in the Middle East; it doesn’t. The US has historically preferred reliable dictatorships to stable democracies.

This is not because President Obama is an evil, pro-Iranian Muslim extremist socialist (because he isn’t). This has been true of successive American administrations of any party. Bush Forty One (as Old Man Bush is called in Aaron Sorkin scripts) was as hard on Israel as any modern American president since Dick Nixon.

Israel is not special to America because American and Israeli interests are generally aligned: they arguably aren’t. (Turning Syria into a chaotic Islamist mess was definitely not in Israel’s interest, but then it probably wasn’t in America’s interest either). Israel is not special because big American-based multinationals do business there: they do business everywhere. That’s why they’re called multinationals. Israel is special for the Republican candidates because it’s a foreign country that Americans have heard of and that Americans know is very certainly not their enemy.

So whatever Americans of any political stripe say, don’t believe that America is Israel’s ally. America says that to all the girls. He’s just not that into you.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is Principal at Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy consultancy. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.