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Why Identity Matters in Foreign Policy

By DAVID ROMANO 8/9/2017
Listening to some scholars and analysts of foreign policy, states and their leaders rationally pursue the policies that simply maximize their interests — security, power and money, mainly. From this point of view, Turkey is increasingly distancing itself from NATO, Europe and the United States because of Brussel’s refusal to admit it to the European Union and Washington’s support of PKK-aligned Kurdish groups in Syria. Russia and Iran, similarly, follow their interests when they throw monkey wrenches into various American initiatives in eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The logic of such explanations seems to fall apart under closer scrutiny, however. Turkey began distancing itself from Europe and the United States well before either seemed to even know the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria existed. During the 1990s, Russia under leaders like Boris Yeltsin enjoyed very good relations with Washington, even receiving assistance from the Americans in a number of areas. Iran under the Shah saw unremitting American praise and affection, with US President Jimmy Carter in 1978 even toasting Iran as an “An island of stability in a turbulent corner of the world" [an unfortunate choice of words, given the revolution that occurred a few months later]. 

From a strictly rational point of view, it seems unclear why Russia returned to the role of America’s opponent in the Middle East and Europe. Why couldn’t the Russians play the role of states like Germany — friendly economic competitors of America? Wouldn’t American support better protect Russia against more likely threats on its own doorstep, such as a rising China? Could Russia’s shift back to its old Soviet relations with Washington have more to do with Vladimir Putin, his background in the KGB and the way this organization socialized him to view the Americans as adversaries? 

Given a return to Russian-American animosity, what should we then make of Turkey and Iran’s relationship with America? The greatest threats to both Turkey and Iran have always been each other and Russia. In the Iranian case, the post-1979 revolutionary Islamic Republic still faced the threat of Russian ambitions on its northern border, yet nonetheless chose to abandon the Shah’s former alliance with Washington. In the case of Turkey, Ankara signed up to the NATO defense pact quite early (1952), mainly for the protection the alliance offered against the Soviet Union. Yet Turkey in the 1990s — a time during which Russia seemed to have collapsed into insignificance — enjoyed much better relations with Washington than it does today, when the Russian threat seems very real again.

The reasons for all this seem clear enough: Islamist mullahs in Iran and AKP Muslim nationalists in Turkey loathe America and Europe for ideological reasons. Whatever their real interests -- based on security, power and economics — identity-based animosity towards the West keeps getting in the way. An identity based on seeing Westerners as the opposite of themselves – as corrupt, perfidious and imperialist crusaders — eventually sunders even the most logical of alliances. It leads to phrases such as “the Great Satan,” and language such as Turkish President Erdogan’s recent accusations regarding a European “crusade” against Islam and contemporary German leaders’ “Nazi practices.” In the case of Washington, Mr. Erdogan and his bedfellows even accuse the Americans of being behind the failed coup of July 2016.

Under such circumstances, the mandarins of the US State Department and Brussels can cook up whatever policies they wish to try and salvage relations with the likes of Turkey. Eventually they must realize the futility of the exercise, however. The sooner they begin looking for new allies in the Middle East — allies not tainted by Islamism or Muslim nationalism which make good relations with the West a bad joke — the better. 

There remain plenty of Muslim actors in the region whose identity permits fine relations with the West. The monarchies in Jordan and Morocco come to mind, as well as secular parties in places like Lebanon. Even the House of Saud, as opposed to the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia that they must continually try to hold in check — manages to maintain much more cordial relations with Washington and Brussels than the Islamists and Muslim nationalists. 

The Kurds naturally come to mind here as well, given their mostly secular politics. While the small Islamist Kurdish parties do not offer much hope for great relations with the West, Kurdish parties such as the KDP and PUK of Iraq and the KDP of Iran appear decidedly and genuinely pro-Western. Others, such as the PKK and its sister groups (the PYD and PJAK), as well as the various Komala groups from Iranian Kurdistan, remain more of an open question. Their long socialization within a Marxist-Leninist discourse may well give them a tendency to view the Americans and Europeans much as Vladimir Putin does.

David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.


pre-Boomer Marine brat | 8/9/2017
Excellent analytical points. I would add Sisi's Egypt to the next-to-last paragraph. ... (I hadn't thought of "mandarins" as a characterization for Foggy Bottom, and I had a semester of Chinese history in college. It fits. I love it.)
Free Kurds | 8/9/2017
Of course identity matteres, why should it be hidden ?
A Kurd in exile | 9/9/2017
Trust me Professor Romano, like religion, leftist ideologies come second to Kurdish Nationalism for all of the Kurdish political parties and groups. If the West, especially the U.S., promises the Kurds a free and united independent state of their own, PKK, PYD, PJAK, Komala and all other Kurdish groups like them will abandon their leftist ideologies and will become the closest friends that the West had ever had. Just give them a chance!
Schkak | 11/9/2017
I totally agree with A Kurd In Exile; - I would even go futher: if the West commits to the Kurdish state the Kurds will firmly unite like one fortress and there will be neither leftists nor pseudo-islamists among Kurds. Indeed the apparent fragmentation of the Kurdish politics is due to the lack of Western support to the Kurdish independence. The West must stop denying the Kurdish factor.The West is blinde and is unable to redraw a new and dynamic strategy in the M.E. to confront with the realities on the ground.
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