In August 1907, Russia and the United Kingdom signed the Anglo-Russian Convention, which settled their geostrategic differences and brought them into a rough alliance after nearly a century as bitter and bloody adversaries. Their confrontation around Eurasia had produced in part or whole the disastrous slaughters of the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War, the British invasions of Afghanistan in 1839 and 1878, numerous crises over the Turkish straits, and the endless, wasteful competition across central Asia known as the Great Game. To at least some contemporary observers, the agreement seemed to be a sign of greater peace to come.
There was one problem: the Anglo-Russian Convention wasn’t the product of more peaceful attitudes in London or St. Petersburg, but of a dramatic shift in the balance of power and the rise of a new threat. It was the belligerence of Wilhelmine Germany that made the Convention possible, even necessary, for both countries—and far from stemming conflict, the Convention made it far worse. Now backed by England (in addition to France), Russia asserted itself more forcefully in the Balkans, egging on a terroristic Serb regime against Austria and so transforming a Balkan crisis into the horror of World War I. If Britain had continued to oppose Russian interventionism in the Balkans as it traditionally had before the 1907 Convention, history would have taken a very different course and that war, and the bloody 20th century it inaugurated, might have been avoided.
The lesson of the Anglo-Russian Convention is that a diplomatic event that brings a close to one longstanding geostrategic rivalry may not be the great boon it appears. Instead, it might be a harbinger of worse to come. And there is reason to be concerned that this is precisely how we might eventually look back on this week’s announcement that the UAE will normalize relations with Israel, in return for Jerusalem’s agreement not to annex any of the West Bank.
Was this a positive development? From one vantage point, sure. It represents one more Arab government giving up on nearly a century of conflict with Israel. There are rumblings that other Arab states may soon (or eventually) follow. That seems entirely plausible, given the covert warming of ties between Israel and various Gulf and Maghreb countries over the past two decades, although it’s hardly inevitable. If it were to happen, it would put to rest one of the most vexing, chronic conflicts of the 20th century.
But this is the 21st century. The Arab-Israeli conflict has not been a defining factor in the geopolitics of the Middle East for decades. There has not been a conventional war between Israel and an Arab state since 1982. The 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah, the closest we’ve come, was notable because of how many of the Arab states condemned Hezbollah. Indeed, for at least 30 years, the threat to Israeli security has come overwhelmingly from the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance,” not from the Arab states.
Of course, like Europe in the early 20th century, the Middle East has seen its geostrategic problems multiply in the early 21st century rather than abate, despite the fading of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Just as Europe then still suffered from the epochal aftereffects of the industrial revolution, so the Middle East is being turned inside out by the impact of the equally profound information revolution. The result has been massive economic, cultural, and demographic shifts that inevitably create political turmoil. Iran’s Green Revolution of 2009; the Arab Spring of 2011; the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sinai, Turkish Kurdistan, and—to some extent—Iraq—are all part of this upheaval.
The unrest itself has created new opportunities for Iran, which has used the chaos and civil war to help its allies across the region. Today, Hezbollah rules Lebanon. Iran has greater sway in Syria and Yemen than ever before. It wields considerable influence in Iraq, albeit less so at this moment than six months ago for reasons that might pass all too soon.
Yet of far greater geostrategic importance to the Middle East has been the disengagement of the United States. Both the Obama and Trump Administrations have simultaneously denied this and bragged about it, but the reality on the ground is far more straightforward. Both Obama and Trump steadily distanced themselves from the problems of the region, despite the constant warnings of their diplomatic and military advisors along the way. And just as the rise of a belligerent Germany overturned all the dynamics of Europe, so the disengagement of the United States has done the same in the Middle East. Because the United States was the most powerful force in favor of the status quo, so our withdrawal has emboldened those actors seeking to overturn the regional order. Iran and its allies are the most obvious and successful of these beneficiaries, but so too are various radical Sunni Islamist groups. Predictably, America’s detachment has terrified our allies, and that fear has pushed them to take actions they never otherwise would have—some good, some dangerous, some both at the same time, like Israel-UAE normalization.
For all its economic and military strength, Israel remains a small, beleaguered country, at least psychologically. Of course, Iran is trying to do everything it can to turn that perception of menace into a strategic reality: bolstering Hezbollah and Hamas; building a vast military infrastructure in Syria; reaching out to radical Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Jordan; mounting cyberattacks against Israeli infrastructure, and so on. Because of its small size, extreme casualty sensitivity, and historic ghosts, Israel’s inclination—and its strategic doctrine—is to strike hard and fast at potential threats before they can become existential. That is what it has been doing for years in Syria, waging a war of attrition with Iran and its allies to try to prevent Tehran from building a military base there to open a new front against Israel.
The UAE has pursued a similar approach to its security concerns over the past two decades, albeit without quite the capabilities or psychological scars of the Israelis. Along with Saudi Arabia, the UAE intervened with conventional land and air forces in Yemen, employed its air force and covert support in Libya and Syria, and led the blockade of Qatar by the other Gulf states. Yemen is a particularly important case to understand. There, the UAE and Saudi Arabia decided to intervene in 2015 to prevent a military victory by what they saw as an Iranian-allied Shi’a militia, the Houthis. However, they did so only after repeatedly asking the United States to do more to prevent the expansion of Iranian power in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq to no avail. Their leaders explicitly said that since the United States wasn’t going to act to limit the Iranian threat, they felt they had no choice but to do so themselves. Thus, the fear of growing Iranian power in the face of a retreating America pushed the Emiratis and Saudis to embark on a risky and bellicose course of action.
It is no accident that both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have begun nuclear programs in the past dozen years. These are both ostensibly for power generation and to save their oil supplies for export, not for producing weapons. Of course, so too was/is Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran claimed, and Saddam’s, and North Korea’s, and the list goes on. In private, Gulf leaders will say that they fear that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons and without the United States to protect them, they feel they may have no choice but be able to match Iran to deter it.
It gets worse when you recognize that none of these countries—not even Israel—has the same military or intelligence capabilities as the United States. We are usually better able to gauge the level of threat in the Middle East than our regional allies, the Iraq WMD fiasco notwithstanding. Other countries, starting with Iran, won’t pick fights with the United States the way that they will with one another. Iran is wary of Israel, but it may be less so in future as its own capabilities and those of its allies expand. Meanwhile, it has never shown any fear of the Arab states.
Thus, just as the 1907 Anglo-Russian convention closed out one of the great conflicts of the 19th century only to help enflame the great conflict of the 20th century, so the Israel-UAE agreement must be seen as part of the ending of a 20th-century conflict, but also as potentially the beginning of a new 21st-century conflict that may dominate the Middle East. In that Middle East, without an American hegemon to keep a lid on aggression, status quo powers as diverse in other ways as Israel and the UAE have no choice but to find common cause. To band together as best they can to fight their common enemy, as the British and Russians did in 1907. All of this is a recipe for greater tensions, fear, conflict, and potentially outright war.
We may be putting to bed one great regional conflict, only to watch another arise. And that should temper our enthusiasm for the latest turn of events, no matter how positive it may seem in the short term.