Know Your Allies

People can be sadly ignorant about who their real friends are laments Steve Saideman.

By: /
21 June, 2012
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

I am so confused. Well, everyone else is so confused that I am confused. Why are people so ignorant about a) who is an ally, and b) which allies are most important?

There is a new survey run by folks out of Dartmouth that is making news because the opinions are so appalling in their ignorance. It shows, for instance, that the majority of Republicans believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that Obama was born outside of the United States.

What caught my eye was this: 

Treaties Graph

This is so wrong. Article V! Article V! Inclusion in NATO means that the U.S. has formal treaties with all of the alliance’s members, including Latvia, Turkey, and Romania, not to mention Germany. Is it really the case that only 40 per cent of Americans think the U.S. has a formal treaty committing it to the defence of Germany? I guess people forget that much of the Cold War involved the defence of Germany – or perhaps they think it no longer matters.

At least many Americans seem to know about the U.S.’s ties to South Korea and Japan. But any points they gained on those answers are lost by their response to the question of Israel.

More than 55 per cent of Americans surveyed said the U.S. was required, by treaty, to defend Israel. In fact, more people said this of Israel than of any other country. I guess people confuse talk and arms sales with formal treaties. Check out the State Department’s list of Collective Security Arrangements. Israel is not listed, nor is any country in the Mideast except for Turkey (which is included in NATO). Of course, events in 1990-91 demonstrated that the U.S. does not like it when major oil-producing countries are invaded or threatened.

What is going on with this Israel obsession? Canada’s defence minister, Peter MacKay, has told the Israelis that, “a threat to Israel is a threat to Canada.” Now, one could say that Canada cares about Israel, but there is no way that Israel’s security is directly related to Canada’s. How about indirectly? Maybe if one stretches some logic to the breaking point.

But Canada – or at least Peter MacKay – is not alone in thinking that Israel is of the utmost importance. Consider Americans’ responses to the following question: 

Allies chat

Great Britain as the most important foreign ally of the United States? Hmmm. Israel as the second-most important foreign ally, according to Republicans and independents? These sorts of responses beg the question: What do we mean by “important”? Countries that contribute to American security? Obviously not, since that would be … Canada. Canada shares responsibility for North American air space and provides a pretty secure border. Nevertheless, Canadians are often frustrated with how the U.S. takes Canada for granted. Really, though, this is a sign of success. (Would that Israel had neighbours that it could forget about!)

On the other hand, if by “important” we mean countries where the U.S. sends more defence dollars than anywhere else, or whose domestic and foreign affairs cause more trouble for the U.S., the responses to this question kind of make sense.

The same challenges hold for MacKay’s stance: Why is Israel so important to Canada? Canada has limited reach, so it could not help Israel that much. More importantly, Israel’s adversaries have limited reach, so they cannot affect Canada except via terrorism. Israel has a modest impact on the Canadian economy, so that can’t be it. And while the power of the Israel lobby in the U.S. is pretty exaggerated, it is not clear how heavily domestic Israeli interest groups would weigh on Canadian foreign policy. In the U.S., the strange thing has been the interest and influence of evangelical Christians in this area. Is there a parallel in Canada? Are the Conservatives more obsessed with Israel than the Liberals or NDP? If so, is it because of this constituency?

I am asking questions here rather than providing answers or guesses because I simply do not understand it. Elevating Israel to the highest levels of a country’s foreign-policy priorities makes sense if one is in the same neighbourhood. Israel is a significant player in its region, and so should be considered important to countries like Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa. But the U.S. and Canada have many other interests in the world, many of which are closer to home. Yes, there is some sort of obligation to Israel as a result of the Holocaust and due to common democratic ties and all the rest, but these do not make Israel No. 1 or No. 2, or even No. 3, for either country. I’m not suggesting that the U.S. and Canada should ignore Israel, but rather that, while they should see it as a significant country, they should not consider it to be the most important country for their interests.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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