This post is part of the “International Relations and a New Middle East” symposium.
There has been a recent surge of interest in what type of impact the Islamic State might potentially have on the international system. Most provocatively, in a recent Foreign Policy article Stephen Walt suggests that should the Islamic State win (i.e. survive), the U.S. should “live with it” and rely on a policy of containment. Over time, he suggests, the international community might come to accept the Islamic State into the community of civilized nations as it has accepted other revolutionary and expansionist states in the past, because the pressures of the international system would force it to change its barbaric behavior to survive as a recognized state. Walt’s argument challenges the conventional wisdom that the Islamic State would continue expanding territorially through violence to maintain its survival and to reestablish the Caliphate in pursuit of its ideological goals.
This realist account of the socializing power of the international system on actors even as radical as the Islamic State misses a crucial piece of this puzzle. It assumes that as states interact, they learn more about each other’s capabilities and intentions, decreasing the chances of armed conflict due to misperception. Moreover, as Walt claims in his book, “Revolution and War,” revolutionary states are likely to modify their short-term behavior with this new information. But what if learning more about your adversary is destabilizing rather than reassuring? As Barak Mendelsohn argues, the Islamic State’s goal is the destruction of the international order, yet Walt proposes that this very system should socialize states. The likely impact of the Islamic State’s survival as a revolutionary state in the Middle East is better understood not by realism but through a theoretical lens that takes seriously the effects of ideas and ideology both across states and inside them.
Realism tends to focus on external military threats to state. But this is not the most important security challenge in today’s Middle East, where ruling regimes are preoccupied with threats to their survival that are primarily ideological in nature and domestic in impact. Were the Islamic State to become a permanent political reality in the form of a recognized state, my research suggests that it would be destabilizing for the region, though not for the reasons most people may assume.
An internationally recognized Islamic State would create an ideational security dilemma with its neighbors in which ideological power, not military power, would be the primary trigger of threat perception and policy. Even if IS did want to become a legitimate state, the internal threat it poses through the potential recruitment and mobilization of the citizens of Sunni Arab states would make its socialization within the Middle Eastern order extremely difficult and unlikely. Neighboring states’ perception of threat is unlikely to decline if they fear their own population may be attracted to the ideology and symbols of the revolutionary regime. And the revolutionary regime may even be encouraged by this prospect. For example, the recent attacks by IS supporters in Tunisia, Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are manifestations of the Islamic State’s challenge to the political legitimacy and authority of neighboring regimes. It is precisely these domestic and systemic challenges, even absent a balance of power threat, that could lead to outbidding wars, domestic instability and even armed conflict.
What is an ideational security dilemma? Although it is similar to a traditional security dilemma, an ideational security dilemma has a different context and currency of power. A security dilemma, at the heart of international relations, is a structural condition in which one state’s moves to acquire security, which may very well be defensive, are interpreted as threatening by other states. A purely defensive action taken out of self-interest may be interpreted by another state as intent to prepare for a future aggression, and this perceived escalation could trigger arms-racing or armed conflict. Today, this means that the efforts taken by anxious regimes to counter IS ideas and recruitment might only accelerate the spiral of conflict, especially if efforts include internal repression that drives alienated mainstream Islamists into the hands of IS or sectarianism that pushes Shiite citizens away from the state.
This is why the call for a war of ideas against IS led by Arab regimes is likely to cause more instability and conflict, not less. Consider the history of the 1950s and 1960s, the so-called Arab Cold War. The Egyptian president at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, sought to control the meaning of Arabism as the foundation of both his regional power and his domestic legitimacy. As Michael Barnett points out in his book on the topic, the ensuing competition over the meaning of Arabism led to conflict between and within states. This was an important feature of the Arab Cold War, as was the competition between two Baathist socialist Arab republics Iraq and Syria from the 1960s onward. Ideas, in the form of political ideology, were the sticks and stones that buttressed political tensions. Today, similar to the pan-Arabism of that earlier era, the Islamic State draws strength from a set of ideas that may not be specifically embraced by most Muslims in the region but whose concepts about political and social order have broad resonance and, in some cases such as Saudi Arabia, are central to domestic legitimacy.
Should IS become a recognized state, this aspect of the region’s history would likely repeat itself. During the current period of societal crises, many political actors appear to understand that they may stand to reap bigger domestic and international payoffs by invoking transnational identities. Moreover, the security motivation to project ideational power stemming from domestic pressure to shore up the regime’s legitimacy may have international implications. Revolutionary regimes often face pressure to legitimize themselves, and they may look outward especially when the ideology that drives the revolution has a universal component (consider the humanist principles of the French Revolution, the internationalist ambitions of the Bolsheviks or the social-revolutionary appeal of the Islamic revolution).
As I argue in “Islam in the Balance,” this might take the form of attacking the legitimacy of neighboring regimes for not adhering to what they deem authentic Islamic practices and beliefs. These types of ideological appeals are evident in IS propaganda, and it is reasonable to assume it would be part of any possible domestic legitimation efforts as well. IS leaders have attacked the legitimacy of the Hashemite monarchy, the Saud dynasty, Hamas and even al-Qaeda.
The Islamic State’s effort to project this ideological power will almost certainly trigger defensive reactions from threatened regimes that play out in the religious public space. Neighboring states would likely respond the way they already have but with increased intensity in the ideological sphere through ideational balancing. This non-military response aims to mitigate the communicative power of an ideational threat through resource mobilization and counter-framing. Both domestic and foreign policies will then increasingly focus on bolstering beliefs about a targeted regime’s legitimacy, defending against rhetorical attacks or undermining the credibility of the source of the ideational threat. However, by arguing on Islamic terms against an Islamist threat, these regimes will continuously move the terms of combat further and more deeply onto the Islamic State’s preferred battlefield.
The Islamic State has already triggered some of this type of balancing. Jordan has gone so far as to change its flag, incorporating Koranic verses so as to solidify its Islamic identity and promote its image of Islam that expects political loyalty. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s directives to state sponsored religious institutions have a similar goal in mind, which have instituted many changes—from implementing strict supervision of public sermons (khutbah), to calling on clerics to “correct” flawed understanding of Islam, to closing down unofficial mosques outright. Most recently, al-Azhar has launched a cyberspace offensive called the online observatory, which attempts to correct misinformation about Islam circulating online and to respond to extremist interpretations of the religion. These programs are part of Sissi’s goals to “revolutionize Islam” and employ religious institutions to balance against the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood domestically and to combat ongoing and future confrontations with extremist ideas in general.
What does this mean for U.S. foreign policy? Why does this matter? It is critical to have a nuanced understanding of threat perception, both who and what drives it, that takes into account the regional players. This includes an assessment of how non-military forms of power, such as ideology, can not only trigger military conflicts but also constitute threats themselves. The United States neither has the tools to engage in these types of conflicts nor should it try. While military assistance is certainly important, and at times vital for the survival of allies, policy makers should recognize that military power has limitations, especially when the most destabilizing elements are not sticks and stones but words.
Lawrence Rubin (@lprubin73) is an assistant professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the author of “Islam in the Balance: Ideational Threats in Arab Politics” (Stanford University Press, 2014).