This book and the study of the Middle East
This study takes the Middle East to be constituted around an Arab core, with a shared identity but fragmented into multiple territorial states; the core is flanked by a periphery of non-Arab states – Turkey, Iran and Israel – which are an intimate part of the region’s conflicts and an integral part of its balance of power (Cantori and Spiegel 1970; Ismael 1986: 5–13). Because the Middle East’s unique features defy analyses based on any one conceptual approach to international relations, this study will deploy a combination of several to capture its complex reality.
The Middle East is arguably the epicentre of world crisis, chronically war-prone and the site of the world’s most protracted conflicts. It appears to be the region where the anarchy and insecurity seen by the realist school of international politics as the main feature
of states systems remains most in evidence and where the realist paradigm retains its greatest relevance. Yet neo-realism’s1 a-historical tendency to assume states systems to be unchanging, made up of cohesive rational actors, and everywhere the chief determining
factor in shaping state behaviour is quite inadequate to understand the Middle East. The regional system, recent and unconsolidated, has been contested by its units as much as it has shaped them and realism’s assumption that conflict is chiefly the inevitable byproduct
of a states system’s anarchy misses the main causes of the Middle East’s exceptional war and instability.
Rather, this study will argue that the roots of conflict and much state behaviour are to be found in the peculiar historical construction of the regional system. One aspect of this was an extremely damaging form of core–periphery relations. The insights of structuralism, 2 the approach to international relations most concerned with such relations, are invaluable to understanding how the Middle East was entrapped in a core-dominated system not of its
own making, whose flaws generate intense conflict and whose constraints limit the ability of local peoples to pursue their own destinies and solutions. A second aspect of this was the unique misfit between identity and sovereignty, nation and state, inflicted on the
region, a conundrum better addressed by constructivism. Its insistence that systemic structures are not just material configurations of power and wealth and include the cultural norms that derive from identity, helps to understand how the region’s powerful
supra-state identities lead to a unique contestation of the state sovereignty which underlays the stability of other regional states systems.
Secondly, this study will argue that the state and sub-state levels are at least as important as the system level in shaping state behaviour. Pluralism’s4 problematising of the state points to how far realism’s assumption of cohesive units pursuing agreed ‘national
interests’ can be misleading in a region where states have been fragmented and permeable: whether states become such ‘rational actors’ is, in fact, highly contingent on a process of state formation that is very much incomplete. The consequent importance of analysing
state formation, domestic politics and leadership world views makes the pluralist method of disaggregating the state especially relevant in analysis of the Middle East.
Finally, while the Middle East’s conflicts are chiefly rooted in societal-level reactions to the flawed architecture of the region, this study acknowledges that, once differential reactions are institutionalised in inter-state rivalry and war becomes pervasive, then, as
realism expects, the security dilemma increasingly shapes regional relations, motivates the consolidation of states, and forces state elites to follow ‘reason of state’. In this situation, the balance of power does, indeed, become the main key to regional order.
This book will survey the international relations of the Middle East through an examination of three of its central aspects or problems:
(1) The emergence of a unique regional system, itself a product of core–periphery relations (treated in chapter 2) and the conflict of identity and sovereignty (examined in chapter 3); (2) The determinants of Middle Eastern states’ international behaviour: chapter 4 examines state formation and chapter 5 the foreign policy process in the Middle East. Chapter 6 uses comparative analysis to elucidate
how the interaction between the system level and particular state formation paths shapes similarities and differences in states’ international behaviour. (3) War and order: chapter 7 examines wars, attempts to create regional order and how these have impacted on
the structure of the regional system, which, in turn, has reshaped the states that make it up. Chapter 8 assesses the renewed destabilising impact of international attempts to reshape the regional order in an age of unipolarity and globalisation.