Washington's 'Fashoda' moment The US reversal of alliances: Comparative perspectives
By Robert M Cutler
It is rare that a great power in world politics, after decades of hostility with another country, turns around and suddenly seeks to embrace that country as a friend, if not an ally.
Yet this is what the recent United States demarche towards Iran represents, unilaterally overturning years of carefully crafted economic sanctions laboriously conceived and implemented, and breaching numerous UN Security Council resolutions voted following Iran's repeated violations over the years, in bad faith, of its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The term of art for such a turn of events in diplomatic and military history is renversement des alliances (reversal or overturning of alliances), and it is so rare that one can find only a few examples in the last three centuries. This essay seeks to comprehend the present, still-evolving situation, by reason of such historical analogies. Analogies can never prove anything, but they can point in directions fruitful for understanding.
Historians canonically divide the "modern era" into the "early modern" (from the early 16th to the early 19th century) and the "late modern" (from the early 19th to the mid-20th century). Before the modern era, such reversals of alliances were not altogether unusual, whether in the consecutive systems of Mongol and Central Asian conquerors or in those of the Italian city-states, or elsewhere and at other times.
With the Treaty of Utrecht (1715), however, the European States system, formerly an unintegrated collection of international systems, became a truly comprehensive international system. This meant not just that any change in power relations in one geographic region entailed implications for power relations in other geographic regions, but moreover that every state became involved in every conflict among the members of the system. As a result, reversals of alliances became less frequent. In the modern era there are still two examples that are most notable.
The Reversal of 1756
The first is the reversal instituted by the French king Louis XV in 1756, for which the term renversement des alliances was coined. (The events of that year were alternatively called "the diplomatic revolution"). Through the Treaties of Versailles of that year, the alliance of France and Prussia against Great Britain and Austria became the alliance of France and Austria against Great Britain and Prussia.
It happened this way. Early in 1756, the British Empire and Prussia declared their reciprocal neutrality by signing the Treaty of Westminster. France experienced this as a betrayal by its erstwhile ally, "perfidious Albion". So, in 1756, France quickly abandoned her alliance with Prussia, and signed with Austria (the rapprochement had been quietly under way for several years, advocated by the king's ambassador Kaunitz in Vienna) the First Treaty of Versailles, a purely defensive pact, quickly followed by the Second Treaty of Versailles, an offensive military one. England and Prussia found themselves quickly isolated against the other powers, including Sweden and Russia.
This reversal of alliances created an alliance system that would endure until the French Revolution itself overturned not just European diplomacy but the entire States system. Yet the reversal of alliances was to become a quick disaster for French, even if it represented in the end a remarkable success for Austria.
For the fate of Prussia in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) did not depend in the last instance upon England but rather upon Russia, whose Tsar Peter III was dispatched from this life soon after coming to the throne, on the order of his Tsarina, Catherine II the Great, but not before abandoning all the conquests of his predecessors against Prussia, a move followed two weeks later by Sweden: "The miracle that saved Prussia", in Frederick II the Great's own words.
Here the main point is that there is relatively little in this constellation of forces of the European States system that resembles the context of the evolution of US-Iran relations. Iran is not even a great power, but the US remains a great power even if it is renouncing its decades-long obligations in the Middle East and retreating at near the speed of light from its prestige as the sole world superpower, diminishing its military capabilities in tandem. Also, neither the US nor Iran is a power on the European continent.
But still, there is something there. There has been a reversal of alliances, not in Europe but in the Middle East, where, after decades, Washington has abandoned Saudi Arabia and Israel to align itself with the regional power there that is dedicated to overturning the one regime and obliterating the other. One may speculate about the sources of this reversal, but its origin betrays a different logic at work, other than either traditional power-politics (Machtpolitik in historical diplomat-speak) or even the transcendence of traditional power-politics.
The consequences of this reversal of alliances do follow power-politics logic; and that is where structural similarities between the mid-18th and early 21st century emerge. For one thing, interestingly, Russia is becoming today the balance-player vis-a-vis Iran (and Israel!), much as it was with respect to Prussia in the mid-1700s.
The analogy between Prussia and Iran deserves to be developed further, but the present article can only provide suggestions. Suffice it to move into the mid-19th century, and it immediately strikes the observer that Prussia is to Austria as Iran is to Iraq. To extend the structural comparison, the US is then the British Empire to Iran's Prussia. And then Israel is France, and Saudi Arabia is Austria. This basic structure is very similar, even if the contemporary situation is more complex and less characterized by an overarching alliance-based bipolarity.
The Reversal of 1939
The second reversal of alliances in the modern era that attracts attention is the signature of the treaty between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1939, colloquially called the Hitler-Stalin Pact. The case may be made that this is not a true reversal of alliances in view of the fact that a process of Soviet-German cooperation actually began, stutter-step, with the Treaty of Rapallo (1922) between, at the time, two weak pariah states. The Bolshevik regime was an international pariah because it published secret treaties from before the First World War and undertook a public discourse advocating the proletarian revolution in the countries of the victors of that war; and the Weimar Republic was an international pariah because it was the successor regime in the country that was that war's principal loser.
Yet throughout the 1920s and especially the 1930s, the Soviet Union in fact followed a so-called "Dual Policy": on the one hand, it sought to cooperate with the West European capitalist democratic regimes in order to ensure the integrity and security, against the German threat, of the small states lying between Deutschland und Russland; and on the other hand, it sought to cooperate with Germany in the heart of the European continent itself, against the more peripherally located powers, which happened to be those very capitalist democratic regimes, chiefly France and Great Britain. Stalin's pact with Hitler was simply a final choice between one of these two alternatives, and so, arguably, was not a true reversal of alliances.
Here it is harder to see any real comparison. The United States is not a weak international pariah like the Soviet Union was in the 1920s and 1930s. But what about Iran? Could Iran's behavior today be analogous to the USSR's between the two wars? Not really. For Iran is not reversing any alliance. It is not throwing any other power over in favor of the United States. It is not Teheran's diplomatic behavior, but Washington's, that is wreaking new havoc in foreign chancelleries.
Iran's situation is not one of having simultaneously pursued two different alliance policies over the past several decades, only now to choose one of them over the other. One might suggest that the United States was before 1979 a great ally of Iran, so that the new developments only fall back into that pattern. However, such an analogy is not structurally borne out. Before 1979, Iran was not the great and dependent friend of Russia that it is today. It was not a sworn enemy of Saudi Arabia and Israel, as it is today.
The only similarity is that Iran has obtained American legitimation of its own foreign policy (analogy to the Third International, or Comintern, led by the Soviet Union) extending throughout the Middle East, including its use of its instruments Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as its informally undeclared but very well known war against the Saudi throne, in which it is now seeking with moderate success to "pick off" other Gulf states (Oman, United Arab Emirates) from their Saudi "orbit".
Comparing 1756 and 1939
It will be seen that neither of these two precedents is a perfect parallel for the recent unilateral about-face by American diplomacy vis-a-vis Iran. There are several reasons why that is so.
One is that the two reversals of alliances just mentioned were both executed by land powers in continental Europe, and also against other land powers in continental Europe. And obviously, neither the United States nor Iran is a land power in continental Europe.
Of course, the international system has gone global since then (it was before, but that was the colonial system), but even going global changes the logic of the geopolitics, since the geographic spaces that are concerned are configured differently than on the European continent alone, and moreover include bodies of water; not to mention the radical differences in communications technologies between the contemporary era (ie beginning in the mid-20th century) and the historical modern era, all of which condition not only the military doctrine and strategy of the countries concerned, but also the very configuration of the geographic and battle spaces themselves as well.
The reversal of 1756 is a less imperfect analogy than the one of 1939. The real reversal of alliances today operates in the "regional international subsystem" that enjoys relative autonomy from any "over-arching international system" that structures its component regional parts (think Cold War). The Saudis have turned their backs upon the Americans and undertaken deeper cooperation with Israel, against Iran; and while the Israelis have not turned their backs upon the Americans, they know by now full well that the Americans no longer have their own backs. And the Saudis likewise.
In the perspective of 1756, the United States takes the place of "perfidious Albion", not only through its rapprochement with Iran but also through its voluntary diplomatic retreat and the loss of prestige that results from turning its back on longtime friends and allies, and drawing "lines in the sand" only to erase them and draw new lines to be erased in their turn.
The difference is that the British Empire in the 18th century did not retreat from its global reach and, because it maintained both its power and its capabilities, experienced no loss of prestige; whereas the United States has undercut and torn down its own prestige in the region and worldwide through the diminution of its own capabilities and the abnegation of its own power. So even this analogy of the present day to the 18th century has its limits.
The experience of 1939 provides an analogy by way of contrast rather than comparison. In the perspective of 1939, both the USSR then and Iran now are "revisionist" powers. This means that they seek to revise the status quo, ie the "peace settlement" that emerged from the last system-wide war, which was the Cold War, even if it ended without system-wide military hostilities. But in the 1939 Soviet case, the USSR's partner - Germany - was also a revisionist power. So one is left to ponder whether the United States has become also a revisionist power, as it gives the appearance of seeking to overturn the international balance of power that emerged, to its own favor, from its own Cold War "victory".
Whether these short-term events are the product only of the present American political executive or will become an enduring feature of US policy further into the early 21st century remains an open question. If they cease to be short-term appearances and become a characteristic phenomenon, then this phenomenon will mark a fundamental change in the essence of American foreign policy. In that case, there will be tidal-wave consequences for world politics that will make the current reversal of alliances seem like a ripple in a light wind.
And the reversal of 1898?
"1898?" you say. "What happened in 1898?" The (yes, long-forgotten) Fashoda Incident happened in 1898. This was another event in the history of Anglo-French relations. It was not a treaty but rather a diplomatic crisis, a military confrontation, that did not, however, end with military hostilities. Fashoda (today Kodok, in the new state of South Sudan) was a French military post at a time when the delimitation of French and British spheres of colonial influence in Africa was not yet agreed, and where Lord Kitchener arrived with his orders to repulse any foreign presence in the Upper Nile.
After Kitchener presented his demands, he suggested to his counterpart, the French general Marchand, that they refer the matter to their respective chancelleries, and Marchand agreed. Given France's relative diplomatic weakness in Europe as well as its domestic instability at the time, the outcome was the French evacuation of Fashoda. (The "Fashoda syndrome" in French foreign policy became the term of art for influence-seeking in regions where the British might have an interest.)
The historical interest of the Fashoda Incident is that it was the first step leading to - the cornerstone upon which was built - the compromise that in return for acknowledging British sway over Egypt, France acquired the Western Sahara. It was the first precursor of the Entente Cordiale (1904), a series of bilateral accords that with the complementary Anglo-Russian Convention (1907) created the Triple Entente. The Triple Entente formed also a counterweight against the Triple Alliance (1882, a military alliance among Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy). As such, it "perfected" the bipolarity of the international system that exploded in World War I.
Does this diplomatic precedent shed any light upon the US-Iranian rapprochement ("drawing near"), which may become a detente ("relaxation of tensions") and gives every possible aspect of developing into an entente ("understanding")? In fact, it does, if we look elsewhere: to Syria.
Damascus threatens to be Washington's Fashoda. These events are fresh enough in recent memory (and the subject of allusions further above), that recapitulating them is unnecessary. But if Damascus is Washington's Fashoda, then what would be, by analogy (remembering that nothing can be proven by analogy), its consequences?
Its immediate consequences would be loss of US diplomatic prestige accompanied by American diplomatic and military withdrawal from the region; but in contrast to the Fashoda Incident, unlike late 19th-century France, the United States is obtaining no counterpart compensation for these losses. As a result, no entente cordiale with Iran is presaged; there are no spheres of influence to divide, because the US is abnegating its own influence.
Nevertheless, an emergent US-Iran-Russia entente over the region, analogous to the Triple Entente is actually foreseeable. It is already in evidence over Syria and Iran, where Washington's practice of "leading from behind" has had the result of handing over the real reins to Moscow, which no longer merely vetoes American actions but takes the initiative with which Washington now follows from behind. And Russia's diplomatic patronage of Iran is now decades old.
Against which New Triple Alliance would that New Triple Entente be arrayed? It would have to be on the regional, not the global level. Perhaps a combination of Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia? But here "alliance" would surely go too far. It would be more likely that the US-Iran-Russia trio establish a de facto defensive alliance (meaning an attack on one would lead the other two to defend it, at least if the one were Iran) than an entente; and more likely that the Egypt-Israel-Saudi trio establish an entente rather than an actual defensive alliance.
There are other players in the region, but in Europe a hundred years ago there were also other players. As in Europe then, so in the Middle East today, most if not all of these players are bound up one way or another with the principal protagonists and antagonists.
From Fashoda to the outbreak of World War I was only 16 years, and it is a commonplace that history accelerates in the contemporary era. The transnational civil war between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims has been under way, and not only in the Middle East, for some time already.
All historical reasoning points to the prospect that the American renversement des alliances towards Iran will only accelerate that conflict: as if things were not bad enough in the Middle East already.
Further: this transnational civil war, still intensifying, has been and remains, and will inescapably continue to be, one in which casualties also to non-Muslims, on nearly every continent, are collateral, and indeed very often not-so-collateral, damage.