Wednesday, March 24, 2010

That Peculiar Relationship

As I reached maturity, my thinking about international relations was much influenced by George F. Kennan, a one-time ambassador to Moscow, a sober and rational diplomat, later a marginalized factor in government but an influential academic. He advocated a kind of self-evident doctrine of the spheres of influence. Nations have interests, and they defend these the more important they are to their survival. Defense of territories, their own or adjacent, and defense of resources (access to oil, grain, or the freedom of the seas) being primary interests. Kennan therefore frowned on the pursuit of so-called idealistic ventures like the promotion of freedom and democracy abroad. President Wilson was not one of his heroes. This view pleased me. It was realistic, rational, and marked by a kind of sane humility. Such a doctrine was at the core of George Washington’s foreign policies as well.

Later, over the years, I realized that this straight-forward doctrine based on national interest is deformed not only by idealistic crusades and dangerous temptations of empire (e.g., globalism); no; it is also deformed by a powerful cultural tendency present in international affairs based on collective memory, heritage, and so-called values. This element is what produces irrational, “special,” and “peculiar” relationships—like the relationship between the United States and Israel.

Its roots ultimately go back to the clash between Christianity and Islam, the Crusades. I don’t for a minute blame the Muslims for harking back to it. That peculiar relationship with Israel is a secularized modern version of a clash of cultures that continues still—but disguised by new phrases like…well, like freedom and democracy.

Israel began by waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine; the earlier waves took place under the still prevailing Ottoman empire. Pogroms and persecution in Europe drove Jews to Palestine—and under an umbrella that was at least mildly accepting of all “People of the Book.” The Ottomans were still in charge when Theodor Herzl published his book, The State of the Jews, in 1896. The British occupied Palestine aided by battalions of Zionist volunteers during World War I. In 1917 came the Balfour declaration—projecting, without calling it a state, what Herzl had imagined:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

In such a declaration, I would suggest, the Muslim majority residing in Palestine was viewed roughly in the same way by the British as the American Indians were viewed by the immigrants who had “discovered” America. Under the British Mandate (1920), officially a grant of power by the League of Nations, violent clashes developed between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine. A minority (the Jews had 11% of the population in 1922) of largely European background—but, itself marginalized in Europe—was aiming to consolidate its power over a population that seemed not to register on any international scale to have any weight at all. Later, after World War II, and another rather massive upheaval of antisemitism in Europe, Truman’s support of Israeli statehood, crucial in the U.N., imposed a state on a region the people of which had not been consulted to vote in any plebiscite. So much for freedom and democracy.

The “special” relationship—thus between England and America—helped produce the “peculiar” relationship between America and Israel. I detect nothing resembling “national interest” here. Israel is neither strategically nor tactically important; and most of it, alas, is desert. But what there is, and plenty of it, is a cultural feeling and centuries of lingering enmity. Israel therefore is a modern, secular footprint inside the borders of the Muslim world, a beachhead, as it were, reminiscent of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in crusader days, which lasted from 1099 to 1291. Our being there lacks rhyme and reason, at least as George Kennan might have seen the matter. But then we aren’t rational, are we? So the chaos will keep churning on, the strange dance will continue. We are the big and successful boy of Britain, grown up and mighty. And we have this nasty but willful problem child we tolerate and fund, to the tune of $3 billion a year—much as Saddam Hussein once tolerated and forgave his nasty son Uday.


  1. boldly say what no one else dare say?

  2. We had a "special relationship" with Radical Islam while it was fighting against the USSR in Afghanistan.
    That worked well.

    How special is our relationship? There are nuclear weapons we pretend do not exist...rather as we pretended those in Iraq did exist.

  3. Well put, indeed.

    The sphere of international relations is a wonderous one in whose history we can see examples of the most contorted justifications for actions taken.


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