Consensus seems to have been reached – We have returned to a multi-polar world, with great-power rivalry as the defining issue of the near-future. Biden’s administration has taken the baton from Trump’s on this, releasing an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance that echoes many threats raised in the 2018 National Defense Strategy.[1]

This shift in international conditions has led the U.S. and its allies (as well as defence commentators) to emphasise grand strategy once again. Most notably, the U.S. recognizes the need to increase its military presence in the Indo-Pacific, to contest China. All the while, Washington hopes to keep its ‘presence robust’ in Europe to contest Russia, and in the Middle-East to deter Iran.[2]

(Figure 1.[3])

This is consistent with Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s simultaneity guidance from 2018. During peace-time, U.S. capability is organized to deter aggression in any three potential theatres, but during war, it fights a Great-Power (which may be a multi-theatre conflict), and ‘deters opportunism’ in one other theatre. What happens to the third theatre during war? Many wargames that have been conducted suggest that if the U.S. were to thin forces between theatres, an ability to defeat China in the South China Sea would be overwhelmingly reduced. It is for that reason some already recommended the U.S. focus on the Indo-Pacific, to the detriment of other theatres.  

The hardest question in grand strategy still remains – Where to deprioritise? Many high-profile experts argue it should be the Middle-East, with some arguing for dramatic deprioritizing. Their reasoning is formidable, the primary theatres of Washington’s Great-Power rivals are NATO’s Eastern Flank and the South China Sea, respectively.[4] However, in a grand strategic sense, the Middle-East is still vital to long-term interests. Thus, these objectives remain essential in the region:

1-Prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and becoming a regional hegemon.

2-Challenge Russian and Chinese growing influence by remaining the region’s preferred security guarantor.

3-Ensure the resources of the region do not become monopolised by one power.

4-Maintain strategic presence in the centre of Eurasia ahead of a great-power conflict.

A Middle-East without the U.S.

Reinforced by recent discussions in Vienna, conditions appear ripe for Iran to become a nuclear-weapon state  in the very near-future. This seems to be the case given the absolute stances of the Iranians and Americans in negotiation.[5] The U.S. presence and ability to invade Iran immediately will at least contribute to delaying, and even halting this proliferation. The Bush Doctrine’s attempts at liberal hegemony in the Middle-East have so far failed.[6] Liberal hegemony is a foreign policy by which a state aims to turn as many countries as possible into liberal democracies like itself while also promoting an open international economy and building international institutions. In essence, the liberal state seeks to spread its own values far and wide. Like Napoleon in Spain, exporting an ideology has resulted in a draining campaign of resentment. Napoleon called his predicament the ‘Spanish Ulcer”, and he’d surely use the same term for the U.S. in the Middle-East. However, leaving the region would result in reduced contestation to Iran’s aggressive foreign policy, allowing Tehran to exercise greater influence and perhaps install favourable neighbouring governments.  With nuclear-weapons and installed governments next-door, Iran would likely become a hegemonic power over the Middle-East.

More pivotal to U.S. and Allied maintenance of the post-WWII international order are the final three objectives provided. China’s involvement in Middle-Eastern politics and investment is rapidly growing.[7] The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been likened to the Marshal Plan, and provides Beijing with significant leverage in the Middle-East.[8] The BRI has a better chance of succeeding than liberal hegemony, as Beijing creates dependence with its ‘no strings attached’ investments. Beijing does not make demands of others to become more democratic, and it can consequently build relationships based on mutualism. However, Beijing’s junior partners will become quite aware of the ‘attached strings’ when their economies rely on the CCP’s will. Chinese companies are often contracted to manage the infrastructure, giving them influence over critical strategic assets, as occurred in Gwadar Port, Pakistan.[9] In addition, Sri Lanka was forced to hand over Hambantota Port to China when it could not pay its BRI debt.[10]

Moscow sees the Middle-East as an opportunity to reassert itself as a great-power, and often paints itself as a security guarantor capable of filling a vacuum left by the U.S.[11] Its ability to simultaneously befriend Iran, Saudi Arabia and act in Syria is impressive. Without the U.S. military, Russia’s ability to put the Middle-East into a favourable order would soar, in a region where presence and personal relationships count.[12]

Most importantly, an external power or regional hegemon in the Middle-East could prevent the U.S. from communicating and coordinating among forces and allies in Europe and Asia.[13] The Suez Canal being the most essential passage. This, in combination with China’s growing control of Mediterranean port infrastructure, will complicate logistics associated with U.S. operations and reorientations worldwide. One must consider the implications that a non-U.S. dominated Middle-East would have for Washington’s strategy in other regions.

Whether to Pass on the Ulcer

Withdrawing from the Middle-East would remove Napoleon’s proverbial “ulcer”, and perhaps allowing China and Russia to become heavily embroiled in the region would be favourable? For Russia to sustain long-term military involvement in Syria, some estimate costs would be $250 billion annually.[14] However, China’s strategy is one with historical precedence for success. The BRI is likely to reshape the polarity of leverage in the Middle-East, and without creating a rival investment project, threatening those who embrace it, or even military intervention, [JR15] there doesn’t seem to be much the U.S. can do to prevent that.

Remaining in Afghanistan for strategic reasons is now almost certainly a lost cause. Presence on the eastern and western Iranian flanks was once a crucial proliferation deterrence. Now, given increased Sino-Iranian co-operation, and Pakistan’s pivot towards China and Russia, U.S. forces in Afghanistan are in grave isolation. For this reason, the Biden Administration was wise to announce its withdrawal plans for September 11, 2021, not solely the desire to end “Forever Wars”.

(Figure 2.[15])

Course of Action for the US-led Alliance System

The U.S. should continue bolstering its pivot to the Indo-Pacific. However, Washington needs to view the Middle-East through a ‘Great-Power Struggle’ prism, rather than a ‘War on Terror’ prism. Through the latter, one sees only a liberal hegemony ulcer. Through the former, one sees a geo-political space that can control a great-power rivalry, and potentially a conflict between the U.S. and one of its two major competitors.

Middle-Eastern presence may be the West’s most complex, multi-dimensional grand strategy dilemma. Similar to the Eastern Flank, NATO Allies must recognize the necessity to relieve Washington of its commitments to the greatest extent possible in the Middle-East, so it can contest Beijing in the Indo-Pacific.

France and the UK have increased presence in the Middle-East, and other U.S. Allies should perhaps do likewise, as Russia and China must not have a free hand in the Middle-East. However, This would then thin presence on NATO’s Eastern Flank.

The hardest question in Grand Strategy arises again – Where to deprioritise?


[1] The White House, ‘Interim National Security Strategy Guidance’, 2021, Interim National Security Strategy March 21.pdf.

Department of Defense, ‘Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America’, 2018, National Defense Strategy 2018.pdf.

[2] The White House, ‘Interim National Security Strategy Guidance’, 2021, Interim National Security Strategy March 21.pdf.

[3] Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis House Armed Services Committee Written Statement for the Record, 6 February 2018, p.7, Jim Mattis Armed Services Committee Statement.pdf.

[4] Becca Wasser, The Limits of Russian Strategy in the Middle East, RAND Corporation, November 2019, p.2, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE300/PE340/RAND_PE340.pdf.

Gal Luft, China’s New Grand Strategy for the Middle East, Foreign Policy, 26 January 2016, https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/26/chinas-new-middle-east-grand-strategy-iran-saudi-arabia-oil-xi-jinping/.

[5] Eric Brewer, Salvaging the Iran Nuclear Deal: Round One in Vienna, and What Comes Next, RUSI, 13 April 2021, https://rusi.org/commentary/salvaging-iran-nuclear-deal-round-one-vienna-and-what-comes-next.

[6] John Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, National Interest, 5 October 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/great-delusion-liberal-dreams-and-international-realities-32737.

[7] Gal Luft, China’s New Grand Strategy for the Middle East, Foreign Policy, 26 January 2016, https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/26/chinas-new-middle-east-grand-strategy-iran-saudi-arabia-oil-xi-jinping/.

[8] Andrew ScobellEdmund J. BurkeCortez A. Cooper IIISale LillyChad J. R. OhlandtEric Warner, J.D. Williams, China’s Grand Strategy Trends, Trajectories, and Long-Term Competition, RAND Corporation, 2020, p.115, RAND China’s GS.pdf.

[9] China Power Team, How Will the Belt and Road Initiative Advance China’s Interests?,  CSIS China Power, 8 May 2017, https://chinapower.csis.org/china-belt-and-road-initiative/.

[10] Maria Abi-Habib, How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Port, The New York Times, 25 June 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/25/world/asia/china-sri-lanka-port.html.

[11] Becca Wasser, The Limits of Russian Strategy in the Middle East, RAND Corporation, November 2019, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE300/PE340/RAND_PE340.pdf.

[12] Ibid, p.7.

[13] Seth Cropsey, A U.S. Withdrawal Will Cause a Power Struggle in the Middle East, 17 December 2019, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/12/17/us-withdrawal-power-struggle-middle-east-china-russia-iran/.

[14] Becca Wasser, The Limits of Russian Strategy in the Middle East, RAND Corporation, November 2019, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE300/PE340/RAND_PE340.pdf.

[15] Note: Map created with Geograf.in.