Small Wars

The Persian Gulf Needs Its Own NATO

And America needs to lead it.


This weekend, NATO will hold its 25th summit meeting in Chicago. Separated by a formidable security cordon from protesters, the heads of government attending — including President Barack Obama back in his home town — will attempt to tackle an agenda that includes the future of the military campaign in Afghanistan, implementing a missile defense plan for Europe, improving military cooperation inside the alliance, and addressing how the alliance should engage with outside partners.

Even as it struggles with its future, few would deny that NATO has been one of the most successful military alliances in history. In 1949, Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, declared the goal of the alliance was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." After achieving at least the first two during the long Cold War, the alliance has hung together for another two decades, although not without questions about its future relevance.

Are there lessons here for other would-be alliance builders? On May 13, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia hosted his own summit meeting of the Sunni Persian Gulf kingdoms (including Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman) with the hope of building a future economic and security union. At a preparatory meeting in December, Abdullah pointed to Iran’s encroachments and the uprisings swirling in the region and said, "You all know that we are targeted in our safety and security." He then warned that those who failed to cooperate with his proposal "will find himself at the back of the back of the caravan trail, and be lost." Abdullah was hoping to inject some life into the moribund Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group the six kingdoms formed in 1981 and has achieved little since.

From Riyadh’s perspective, Bahrain is an obvious place to start building the stronger alliance. For over a year, Bahrain’s Sunni royal family, with substantial Saudi assistance, has struggled to suppress an uprising by the country’s Shiite majority, a rebellion the leaders in both countries believe Tehran has catalyzed. Deeper cooperation leading to success against the revolt would both highlight the perceived threat and show the advantages deeper security and economic cooperation could bring to all six kingdoms.

Abdullah’s bid this week failed. The Gulf royals, undoubtedly wary of ceding any of their authority to an already dominant Saudi Arabia, left Riyadh on May 14 wanting, according to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, "details, and the details of the details" regarding the Saudi proposal for a deeper alliance. Although the leaders undoubtedly fear revolution and Iran, for the moment they fear the House of Saud even more.

Can Abdullah learn anything from NATO’s history? There seem to be some parallels to the challenges he perceives. In 1949, Western European and U.S. leaders saw an expansionist Soviet Union that maintained a menacing army and was simultaneously instigating internal subversion in Greece, central Europe, Italy, and elsewhere. Abdullah and his fellow Sunni royals worry about Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its support for proxy forces in Lebanon and Syria and provocateurs in Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The solution for Western leaders in 1949 was a military alliance based on the principle of collective security. Abdullah apparently wants something similar.

Yet Abdullah’s scheme is crippled by rivalry among the potential pact’s members and distrust of Saudi Arabia’s dominance and intentions. Left to themselves, Western Europe’s leaders might similarly have struggled to form an effective alliance after World War II, in spite of the motivation the Soviet threat provided. Just like the Sunni leaders today, rivalry, distrust, and incentives to hedge might have dominated their decisions. As one example of internal mistrust, Lord Ismay’s 1949 mission statement revealed that Western leaders were still worried that Germany, despite being flattened and dismembered by World War II, might once again rise up to become the dominant power in Europe, just as it had so quickly after the last world war. In addition, Europe had no history of trusting any of its other constituents to lead it, nor did it have many examples of enduring cooperation against common problems.

But Ismay’s statement also contained the solution, namely inviting in a powerful outsider, the United States, to lead the alliance. As an outsider that had no claims in Europe and was largely neutral regarding the internal squabbles among the other members, the United States was seen as a partner all the European leaders could trust and the sole force that could hold the alliance together against its self-defeating instincts. The U.S. claim to leadership was certainly aided by its overwhelming economic and military strength after the war. But Europeans also trusted the United States to lead the alliance because an ocean separated it from Europe.

The same principle explains the strength of the U.S. alliance system in Asia. U.S. allies in the Western Pacific shared an interest in deterring first the Soviet Union and now China. A major reason why they can trust the United States as a partner is because it must project its military power across the Pacific Ocean, a task that would become difficult to sustain without the allies’ cooperation. With this control over the U.S. reach, these allies have little reason to fear America asserting its own claims in the region. China, by contrast, is a large continental power whose intentions will always be questioned by its small neighbors. It should be no wonder that Beijing has so few allies in the region when Washington is available as a partner.

The United States has a strong interest in seeing Abdullah’s initiative advance. From the U.S. perspective, the most sustainable and cost-effective end-state for the Iran problem is the achievement of a stable balance of power across the Persian Gulf. Encouraging the GCC to develop into an effective military alliance is essential to achieving this balance of power. But after three decades of effort, the GCC has yet to live up to this potential, as Abdullah’s pleading reveals. And the GCC has failed because its small members do not trust Saudi Arabia.

Just as NATO needed the United States to overcome Europe’s history of mistrust and rivalry, the GCC needs the United States in order to convince the smaller Sunni countries to finally work with Saudi Arabia. As a member of the GCC, the United States would reprise the roles it has played in NATO and Asia — the dominant outsider, with no claims in the region, and a player the rest of the teammates can trust.

Getting the U.S. Senate to ratify a collective security treaty binding the U.S. military to the Persian Gulf would be a very tough sell for a country weary of engagement in that part of the world. It would seem an insuperable task to round up politicians in Washington willing to commit America in advance to more Middle East wars.

But ever since the arrival of the Carter Doctrine in January 1980, the United States has made an expanding de facto commitment to the security of the Persian Gulf region. Converting this de facto commitment into a treaty obligation to the GCC could improve its credibility and thus reduce the probability of actual conflict, as has long been the case with the U.S. treaty commitments to Europe and Asia.

In any case, the U.S. interest in Abdullah’s initiative will remain because it continues to be the best path toward stability across the Persian Gulf. This week’s meeting in Riyadh, combined with the GCC’s own sad history, shows that Abdullah’s pleas and Iran’s peril are still not enough to overcome distrust. As they ponder how to bring stability to the Persian Gulf at the most reasonable cost, U.S. policymakers should consider the model that worked so well in Europe and Asia.

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