A Rogue State of (Foreign) Affairs? Facing the Threat of International Decline, the United States must Reconsider Its Foreign Policy


by Lisa Couacaud


Executive Summary

  • American dominance of international affairs, driven by national interests, has resulted in short-sighted foreign policy decisions.
  • With history suggesting that no nation or civilisation is able to maintain hegemonic supremacy indefinitely, there is no evidence to suggest the United States will not follow suit — regardless of claims made by American leaders.
  • This article argues that, since the rise of American global power following WWII, developments within the Middle East have tested the United States’ credibility.
  • Once Washington’s greatest ally in the Middle East, Iran has been summarily punished by the United States following the overthrow of a CIA-installed government and the ‘loss’ of profitable oil resources.
  • With its position as the world’s superpower in a precarious position, the United States must adjust to the changing constellation of world power. US foreign policy decisions must be made that reflect long-term objectives and take into consideration the needs, wants, and, above all, the rights of other nations.

‘There’s not a country on Earth’, exclaimed a defiant US president Barack Obama while campaigning in Florida on 8 September 2012, ‘that wouldn’t gladly trade places with the United States of America’. Two years earlier to the day, in a speech titled ‘Remarks on United States Foreign Policy’, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had boldly declared that the ‘United States can, must and will lead in this new century’. Clinton, who was speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC, conjured up visions of a ‘new American moment, a moment when our global leadership is essential’. It must be asked, however, are these statements are an accurate reflection of the current situation in the face of apparent American decline? That Obama and his administration have struck a façade of denial regarding the erosion of their global standing is understandable. But, in confronting this reality, Washington must acknowledge the constellation of world power is changing and its hegemonic domination of international affairs seemingly is waning. The United States boasts an impressive slew of important allies, yet it nonetheless must begin to change its foreign policy, shore up further alliances, and regain trust and credibility that have been badly tarnished in many corners of the world. With its precarious economic position, furthermore, the United States must admit to no longer being able to afford the luxury of engaging in overseas affairs that contribute little financially and often pose additional security issues.

This article scrutinises the United States’ history of fluctuating, often hypocritical, and typically short-sighted foreign policies. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East, and, more specifically, Iran. During the early twentieth century, Iran was one of Washington’s closest and most stable allies. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, it became a ‘rogue state’ and, according to president George W Bush in his State of the Union Address in 2002, a cornerstone of the ‘Axis of Evil’. Consequently, Iran has found itself targeted by US covert actions, and contained by US-led sanctions, limitations, diplomatic isolation, and threats of overt action. Since 1979, Washington has repeatedly sent mixed messages to Tehran. It is unclear whether the United States’ objective is to constrain the current Iranian régime’s power or replace it altogether. Whereas the United States should not only acknowledge that its decisions and actions bear much responsibility for the rise in Islamic fundamentalism, but also apologise for past wrongs, the closest Iran has come to receiving an apology was from then president Bill Clinton. On 12 April 1999, during an unscripted speech retrospectively titled ‘Remarks at the Seventh Millennium Evening at the White House’, Clinton observed:

I think it is important to recognize, however, that Iran, because of its enormous geopolitical importance over time, has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations. And I think sometimes it’s quite important to tell people, ‘Look, you have a right to be angry at something my country or my culture or others that are generally allied with us today did to you 50 or 60 or 100 or 150 years ago. But that is different from saying that I am outside the faith, and you are God’s chosen’.

So sometimes people will listen to you if you tell them, ‘You’re right, but your underlying reason is wrong’. So we have to find some way to get dialog, and going into total denial when you’re in a conversation with somebody who’s been your adversary, in a country like Iran that is often worried about its independence and its integrity, is not exactly the way to begin.

Washington cannot be wholly blamed for the situation with Tehran, for it often has been the case that when one side was ready to embark on rapprochement the other was either unwilling or unable to reciprocate. Though the United States will remain, at least for the time being, the world’s only real superpower, there is considerable uncertainty over how long this can be maintained. As such, it is time for the United States to adopt longer-term foreign policies that redress past mistakes and work with the needs and desires of other nations.

In May 2011, president Obama denied the claim that western power was weakening due to emerging new powers, proclaiming: ‘That argument is wrong. The time for our leadership is now’. Change, however, is inevitable, with nations and civilisations rising and consequently falling all throughout history. The United States’ international dominance emerged out of the ashes of the British Empire. Britain’s dominance of international affairs partially was the result of its victory during the nineteenth-century scramble for territory. Like all powers at the top of the wheel of fortune, the Britons of yesteryear (like the Americans of today) asserted their position as ‘natural’ and destined to remain such. The crumbling of the British Empire, in part precipitated by the rise of nationalism, occurred surprisingly quickly.

The noticeable structural and economic weaknesses will eat away at the foundations of US international power. Parallels can be drawn with the Habsburg Empire, which, at the height of Charles V’s reign, controlled many European crowns. That the Empire crumbled, despite vast material power and resources available, is suggestive that no sphere is immune to decline. Spiralling costs due to constant warfare over 140 years were imposed upon an economy ill-equipped to cover them. Although the United States has not yet been at the zenith of international power for 140 years, the spiralling costs of its ‘Global War on Terror’, economic decline, and international overextension all suggest it soon could join its predecessors as the great nation that was.

By the end of the nineteenth century, US foreign policy in the Middle East mainly consisted of providing support for various philanthropic, missionary, and commercial enterprises. According to John DeNovo in American Interests and Policies in the Middle East, Washington possessed no real strategic stake or political ambitions in the region. It was, in fact, quite keen to steer clear of the ‘Eastern Question’. In the years preceding WWI, US foreign policy was readjusted due to agitations for reformation, with awareness that results could alter the international balance of power. The interwar years saw a build-up of good will towards the United States, laying the groundwork for a relationship that would, as US international dominance grew, irrevocably intertwine its power and security with strategically-important Arab nations.

Emerging from WWII as a world superpower, the United States sought to extend its influence in three regions deemed most important to their national interests: Western Europe; East Asia; and the Middle East. Iran’s value within the Middle East is twofold. First, there is its geographic positioning, sitting astride the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea and benefiting from the many trade routes that traverse the country; in essence, Iran is the region’s lynchpin. Second, moreover, there is the issue of Iran’s plentiful oil and gas reserves. Combined, these two factors make Iran a country that cannot be ignored internationally. During the twentieth century, US interest in Iran primarily was motivated by a desire to utilise this valuable geopolitical asset and protect it from (other) external interference and dominance. Control over the region’s resources was sought in an attempt to cement the United States’ growing position of international dominance and keep it out of reach of economic and political rivals.

Afghanistan is an example of competing interests that highlight, over time, the hypocritical nature of US foreign policy. In September 2012, president Obama declared in his ‘Remarks by the President to the UN General Assembly’ that the United States stands for ‘a belief that individuals should be free to determine their own destiny, and live with liberty, dignity, justice and opportunity’. His nation’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, however, was not driven by humanitarian motivation to rid the country of the Taliban — whom they had incidentally helped to arm and to fight in their war against the Soviets during the so-called Second Cold War in the 1980s. For geopolitical reasons, Washington had wished to control Afghanistan as a way of keeping it out of reach of Moscow in particular but also Beijing. Beyond geopolitics, the United States has no actual use for Afghanistan.

Atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein’s régime against the Kurdish people were later used by the United States as justification for violating Iraqi sovereignty and overthrowing his government. Yet, at the time of the atrocities, Washington did nothing to halt Hussein. Indeed, the Reagan administration even blocked congressional attempts to officially condemn the violence. The Kurds, at over twenty-five million people, are the largest ethnic group in the world with no country of their own. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, US president Woodrow Wilson had vowed to support the creation of an independent Kurdish state within two years. This promise, which was swiftly forgotten in the post-WWI fight to gain control of the region’s oil supplies, is emblematic of a wider history dominated by broken promises of support.

During the Iran-Iraq border dispute, the United States was persuaded to back the Shah’s plan to encourage a Kurdish uprising in Iraq (not necessarily to succeed outright, but at least to sap Iraqi resources). The Algiers Accord — the resolution to this border dispute reached at the 1975 OPEC meeting — led to the United States withdrawing its support for the Kurds, which resulted in an immediate Iraqi offence. Following the Iranian Revolution, US foreign policy turned more favourably towards Iraq, allowing Iraq to continue its human rights abuses against the Kurds with no threat of an international reprimand. Due to Iraq’s unanticipated increased strength and belligerence, however, Washington eventually acted to remove the régime it had helped to gain power in 1963. In a speech she delivered before the American-Iranian Council in Washington on 17 March 2000, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared:

…even in more recent years, aspects of US policy towards Iraq during its conflict with Iran appear now to have been regrettably short-sighted, especially in light of our subsequent experiences with Saddam Hussein.

The creation of these kinds of situations demands the reduction of the United States’ heavy geopolitical footprints on Middle Eastern territory.

Iranian/Persian memories of centuries of foreign manipulation and interference have been a constant factor in their foreign and domestic policies. The ‘Great Game’ played by Russia and Britain in their fight for dominance over East Asia, and invasions into neutral Iran by both powers during both world wars, left scars on generations of Iranian leaders. When the United States emerged as a true global power, Iranians, at least fleetingly, viewed it as a protector against Soviet/Russian and British infringements. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, however, Washington officials feared that Iran’s strategic location would make it vulnerable to Soviet influence. The increasingly nationalistic stance of Iran’s premier Mohammed Mossadegh also prompted US president Dwight Eisenhower to stage a covert operation in 1953 that removed Mossadegh, replacing him with the pro-American Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi on the so-named ‘Peacock Throne’. Removing a democratically elected leader at the cost of western democratic principles left an indelible stain on US-Iran relations. In 2011, US president Obama declared that his nation maintains awareness that it cannot dictate outcomes abroad, suggesting freedom must be won by the people within, not imposed from without. Looking back at the US-led events in Iran during 1953 remind us such awareness was not applied six decades ago.

While the Shah was on the throne, the United States viewed with favour the actions of its stable ally, turning a blind eye to human rights violations and even supporting the Iranian nuclear program it today so strongly condemns. As early as 1964, Washington was warned the Shah was riding a tiger from which he could not safely dismount. Yet, Iran was pivotal to American interests. The 1,200 mile border it shared with the Soviet Union, for instance, served as a listening post for the CIA during the Cold War. It was also one of the few Islamic countries to recognise Israel’s sovereignty and sell it oil. These factors, combined with a belief that Washington possessed no suitable alternative to power in Iran, led to continued US support for the Shah — even when his grip on the country crumbled. Many Iranians, meanwhile, viewed US ‘support’ as an excessive hold over their own government. The cessation of friendly, peaceable relations with the United States was a direct result of the uprising of anti-western sentiment that culminated in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The year 1979 marked a significant turning point in the history of US-Iran relations. For many Iranians fed up with the Shah and ‘outside influences’, the Islamic Revolution marked the beginning of a new and welcomed era. For the United States, this was the end of a prosperous relationship. The betrayal felt by Washington mirrored the betrayal Iranian’s felt following the 1953 coup. Bruce Laingen, the Charges D’Affaires of the US Embassy in Iran, recommended that his nation should welcome the changes brought by the Islamic Revolution, reiterate the belief that long-term interests still could be maintained within an Islamic Iran, and declare that Washington had no intention whatever of imposing an alternate régime upon Iran. This advice was ignored and Iran — including its oil reserves — was perceived as ‘lost’ to the Americans.

Since overthrowing a government they never actually chose to elect, Iranians have experienced 30 years of sanctions imposed on them with the most significant relating to the country’s oil and natural gas resources. On 14 September 2012, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated that the international community backed her nation’s determination to significantly cut Iran’s revenue from its oil reserves. Ostensibly, this stance is to reduce Iran’s ability to sponsor terrorism and fund its own nuclear development program; but it also could be reasonably asserted that since the United States ‘lost’ Iran’s oil following the 1979 Revolution, Washington is determined that Iran should not profit either. The United States is doing its utmost to isolate Iran from the international community, creating an image of Iran as a major threat to the free world.

For three decades and through five US presidents, Iran has been the recipient of mixed messages from Washington. Reagan declared Iran an ‘outlaw government’ and a ‘sponsor of terrorism’. George HW Bush’s inaugural address on 20 January 1989 gave the impression that the United States was open to improving relations with Iran, claiming ‘good will begets good will’. Bill Clinton’s administration followed a path of containment and provided congressional funding for covert activities designed to bring about change in the régime’s objectionable behaviour making normal relations more or less impossible. In 2006, George W Bush predicted that the United States ‘may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran’. Barack Obama has publicly acknowledged his belief that ‘in Iran we see where the path of a violent and unaccountable ideology leads’, yet he seeks a policy that does not divide the world into an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. Iran is not simply a problem for Washington, it is the problem. With Iran designated as the ‘Axis of Evil’ par excellence, it seems astounding to think that, comparatively speaking, not that long ago the United States and Iran were close allies.

Washington’s pervasive foreign policy involvement within the Middle East is driven by geo-strategic motivations. The desire to control oil resources underpins the United States’ need to reinforce its global position while conversely denying rivals access to Middle Eastern energy. Massive military spending and corresponding economic difficulties resulting from the United States’ determination to maintain the status quo now places it in a precarious position internationally. As the key player in the Middle East — with its influence felt in every nation — the United States has used diplomatic, economic, and military power in support of its national interests. These national interests have led to both overtures of friendship and full-scale military involvement.

In the words of US president Theodore Roosevelt in leaflets dropped over Egypt in October 1942:

… Behold. We the American Holy Warriors have arrived. We have come here to fight the great Jihad of Freedom….We have come to set you free…We are not as some other Christians whom ye have known, and who trample you under foot.

It is this fervent belief in American exceptionalism that impairs any ability to respect the rights of nations to self-determine their forms of government and now renders the United States unable to discern the international transformation occurring before its eyes. Yet, acknowledge this they must, for the lifespan of US international dominance is limited. The United States must learn its lessons from the half-century of terror and economic strangulation it has enforced upon Iran, fuelled by the need to punish for the overthrow of an oppressive régime originally installed at Washington’s behest. Overtures of reconciliation are required and longer-term foreign policy decisions must be implemented before the United States finds itself irrelevant as a foreign power.



Selected further reading:

Books and Articles:

Ansari, A, Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Crisis in the Middle East, Basic Books, New York, 2006.

Blum, W, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, Common Courage Press, Maine, 2005.

Chomsky, N, The Culture of Terrorism, Pluto Press, London, 1989.

Chomsky, N & Achcar, G, Perilous Power: The Middle East & U.S. Foreign Policy, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, 2009.

DeNovo, J, American Interests and Policies in the Middle East 1900 – 1939, The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1963.

Kennedy, P, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, Random House, New York, 1987.

Layne, C, ‘The Global Power Shift from West to East’, The National Interest, May/June 2012, pp.21-31.

Lennon, A & Eiss, C, (eds.), Reshaping Rogue States: Preemption, Regime Change and U.S. Policy toward Iran, Iraq and North Korea, The MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2004.

Litwak, R, Regime Change: U.S. Strategy through the Prism of 9/11, Woodrow Wilson Centre Press, Washington, 2007.


Electronic Resources:

For news articles, interviews, and details of US Foreign policy: ‘United States Institute of Peace: The Iran Primer’, http://iranprimer.usip.org

For specific US policies relating to Iran: US Department of State website: http://www.state.gov/p/nea/ci/ir/

‘A conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’, Council on Foreign Relations, 8 September 2010, Retrieved 22 October 2012, http://www.cfr.org/diplomacy/conversation-us-secretary-state-hillary-rodham-clinton/p22896

‘In Florida, Obama Says US Not a Nation in Decline’, Newsmax, 8 September 2012, Retrieved 11 September 2012, http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/obama-florida-campaign/2012/09/08/id/451168

‘Mitt Romney: US foreign policy “must change course”’, BBC News Online, 9 October 2012, Retrieved 12 October 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-19874429

‘What have been the role and effects of US foreign policies and actions in the Middle East?’ PBS Global Connections, 2002, Retrieved 11 October 2012, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/globalconnections/mideast/questions/uspolicy/

© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Lisa Couacaud, A Rogue State of (Foreign) Affairs? Facing the Threat of International Decline, the United States must Reconsider Its Foreign Policy. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/a-rogue-state

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