The Dispensable Nation
American Foreign Policy in Retreat

Vali Nasr, 2014

In The Dispensable Nation, international relations academic and former State Department advisor Vali Nasr tackles one of the wickedest problems in the world with aplomb, producing a sharp and lucid summary which deserves to be required reading for anyone wishing to have an opinion on the modern Middle East. In contrast to Nasr’s other famous book, The Shia Revival (you can read my review here), The Dispensable Nation takes a far more open-ended, forward looking view, though still with a similar (yet broader) aim of understanding recent shifts of power in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Weighing in at a scant 250 pages, The Dispensable Nation certainly qualifies as a whirlwind tour. Where The Shia Revival delivered a laser-focused history of Shia Islam (as relevant to modern policy makers), The Disposable Nation is more of a scattershot, a fraying tapestry which reflects the complexity and confusion inherent in its subject. Rather than polished syllogism or tidy narrative, Nasr presents a kind of guidebook to the region’s complexity, a stream of issues to be aware of and questions to ask, and a framework from which details can be hung in the future.

It’s this willingness to embrace complexity that makes the book such a powerful read. The first few chapters are admittedly less than stellar, but the book consistently improves as it progresses, every chapter building on and enriching those before it. As new players and forces in the Middle East are introduced, Nasr displays the diplomat’s talent for getting inside the heads of the players, painting a rich portrait of the relations and motivations between the groups in the region.

Far more than the sophomoric simplism of which countries ‘don’t like each other’ (leave that to toddlers and presidential candidates), Nasr takes us into details of the internal divisions in the region, explaining why Iranian Shia leaders are involved with Saudi Sunni Hejazi minorities, or why the Pakistani Haqqani Taliban are paying close attention to Beijing’s trade policy in Kashmir, or how Chinese Uyghur minorities have effected Turkish economic policy. Importantly, Nasr avoids the shamefully common pitfall of placing the United States at the centre of all international affairs, and delves into issues that the vast majority of Westerners have never heard of, let alone worried about. It’s this approach, acting more as cartographer than helmsman, that ensures that The Dispensable Nation will remain a valuable guide to the Middle East well after the politics of the day have passed.

Insofar as the book does have an argument, it’s that modern US foreign policy has become too driven by a domestic political calculus incapable of thinking beyond the next election, and that a robust and responsible State Department is necessary if the US is to be capable of the long-term planning required. As a foreign policy expert, Nasr only alludes to the benefits this would bring, and does not clearly explain what such a model would look like, less how it may come about. Every developed country possesses a politically independent central bank, accepting the importance of setting long-term monetary policy without the destructive influence of short-sighted political concerns (personally, I’ve come to agree that a similar model is necessary for tackling climate change, though I’m not entirely sure exactly what form the solution takes there either). That being said, it’s hard to envision a democratic populace surrending any degree of control over their foreign policy, so it’s perhaps for the best that Nasr leaves this as simply a taciturn call for restraint, rather than a concrete proposal to be attacked.

In the absence of such a model, Nasr focuses on what he sees as a chain of important consequences flowing from the politicisation of foreign policy. Most important is a general retreat from diplomacy and an increasing tendency to rely on military force, the latter being faster to produce headlines and to feed the public’s demand for presidents to play the role of maker-of-tough-decisions on the nightly news.

The consequence, detailed in an explosive few chapters (yet deserving of far more work in the future) is a failure to recognise or respond to a historic shift in the balance of global power, viz. the ascendance of China in the Middle East. Not one to let brevity compromise detail, Nasr romps through trade statistics and political headlines, pointing to the tenfold growth of Chinese trade with both would-be hegemons Saudi Arabia and Iran, with a similarly spectacular rise in FDI into Turkey, showing China moving its pieces across the board already.

Safety and certainty in oil lie in variety and variety alone
- Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty

Henry Kissinger has long argued that an understanding of the game of Go (or wéiqí in pinyin Chinese) is vital in understanding Chinese strategic thought. Unlike Chess, Go proceeds not by the concentrated application of force, but the gradual surrounding and suffocation of the enemy. Whilst not calling on Kissinger’s ideas here explicitly, Nasr does note that broader Chinese stragegy reflects a priority on maintaining energy flows, with Chinese investment in Bosphorus-having Turkey complementing an increasingly aggressive posture around the Strait of Malacca, and the construction of natural gas pipelines along the New Silk Road, part of a considered strategy to ensure the gulf oil flow Eastward and to secure the energy that will be required to fuel China's modernisation race.

It would be absurd to think that the United States government is unaware of this, of course. Nasr’s argument is rather that decision-makers lack either the foresight or the political will to realise the lasting effects this could have. In the most insightful look at White House decision making in recent years, The Obama Doctrine, Jeffrey Goldberg conveys a president seeking to break free from a cold war energy-focused Middle East policy. The United States is now largely energy-self sufficient, and a net exporter of oil. While global markets still keep prices in check, it’s correct to say that Middle East oil supplies are not the lifeline they once were.

However, few countries have the resource luxuries of the United States (or the lax environmental regulations required for a large coal-seam gas sector), and Nasr notes that the supreme irony of the White House’s ‘pivot to Asia’ is that leaving China unchecked throughout the Middle East may very well grant it an energy monopoly of huge importance throughout a still oil-dependent Southeast Asia. Once again, Nasr quietly advances the case that these long-run effects are lost in the four-year cycle of presidential elections.[1]

The entirety of the Middle East in 250 pages is an ambitious meal, to say nothing of adding the future of Asia as dessert. The Dispensable Nation lights an important path, but it will take a gargantuan scholastic effort to pave the road fully. In the mean time, Nasr provides, at the very least, an excellent syllabus, an overview of the issues to know and the quiestions to ask in any future study of the region. Ultimately, The Dispensable Nation, bold as it is, is simply too threadbare to be called a single authoritative resource on the Middle East, and anyone seeking one book to understand the subject will require something far meatier. However, for anyone committed to reading in detail on the Middle East, this book provides an outstanding resource to tie all the details together.

The cover image was taken from the Karakoram China-Pakistan Friendship Highway in the Xinjiang Autonomous of China, home to China's large Uyghur Turkic ethnic community. Sometimes referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World due to the difficulty of its construction, the highway is a key economic and strategic link between China and its partners in Central Asia. Any beauty and/or desolation in the image is left to the reader to interpret as they see fit. Thanks to Chris Lim for sharing this image on Flickr.

  1. In the weakest part of the book, this underlying call for sober democracy is rendered ironic by Nasr’s odd anecdotes about working with Secretary Clinton and President Obama. These appear seemingly at random, rising out of nowhere to interrupt the reader’s train of thought before sinking back into the page, having left no discernable wake in the actual argument being presented. These little stories are so out of place that one is forced to conclude that Nasr was compelled to include them by an editor who wanted to market the ‘political insider’ angle, and who profoundly failed to grasp the point that Nasr was making about the importance of a foreign policy calculus that extends beyond the 2016 election. ↩︎