Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 21 – The Suez Crisis

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Book cover detail.

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the twenty-first chapter of his book, called “Leapfrogging Containment: The Suez Crisis”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

The rhetoric of peaceful coexistence touted at the 1955 Geneva Summit did little to ease the underlying tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both superpowers remained entangled in a global struggle for influence where any advancement by one was seen as a setback for the other. While Europe experienced a period of relative stability, thanks to American military commitments which checked Soviet actions, this balance did not extend globally. Shortly after the summit, the Soviet Union, under Khrushchev’s leadership, secured a significant foothold in the Middle East by trading arms for Egyptian cotton. This bold maneuver circumvented the protective buffer the U.S. had established around the Soviet borders, posing a direct challenge to American dominance in the region.

Stalin, unlike Khrushchev, had been hesitant to extend Soviet influence into the developing world, viewing these regions as too remote and volatile. The Middle East, up until the late 1940s, was largely considered a domain dominated by British and American interests. However, the Soviet’s 1955 arms deal marked a strategic pivot that inflamed Arab nationalism, escalated the Arab-Israeli conflict, and significantly undermined Western dominance, leading to the erosion of British and French stature following the Suez Crisis. The United States found itself increasingly isolated in upholding the Western influence outside Europe.

Khrushchev’s strategy began cautiously, with the arms sale initially masked as a transaction through Czechoslovakia. This move put significant pressure on Great Britain, whose imperial interests in the Middle East, particularly around the strategic Suez Canal, were critical for its oil supply. British influence in the region was already waning, as seen when Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh nationalized the oil industry in 1951, prompting the U.S. to orchestrate a coup in 1953, thus ending direct British military presence in Iran. Similarly, in Egypt, nationalist sentiments led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser resulted in the overthrow of King Farouk and posed a growing challenge to the remaining British military bases.

Nasser, a charismatic leader driven by Arab nationalism and a deep resentment towards Western colonialism, quickly became a central figure. His policies reflected a broader trend of anti-colonial sentiments in the region, challenging both British historic dominance and American attempts to integrate Egypt into its Cold War strategy. The U.S., while distancing itself from colonial legacies, failed to align with the aspirations of newly independent nations whose leaders, often authoritarian and non-committal to democratic ideals, viewed the superpower rivalry as an opportunity to secure greater autonomy.

Despite America’s efforts to oppose Soviet expansion through collective security measures, its influence in the Middle East was limited. Many regional leaders, including Nasser, leveraged Soviet support to negotiate better terms with the West without fully committing to either side. The U.S. and Great Britain, misunderstanding Nasser’s motivations and underestimating his resolve, pursued policies that sought to placate him, only to find their efforts counterproductive. Nasser continued to strengthen ties with the Soviets, thereby enhancing his negotiating position.

Ultimately, the continuous interplay of these dynamics highlighted the complexities of Middle Eastern politics, where Western powers often found their policies thwarted by local realities and Soviet strategies. Great Britain, recognizing its diminished capacity, negotiated the withdrawal of its forces from the Suez Canal Zone by 1956 under American pressure, marking the end of its major military presence in the region. This period underscored a pivotal shift in global power dynamics, where the old colonial powers receded, giving way to a new era of Cold War confrontations and the rise of non-aligned movements.

American foreign policy in the mid-20th century was marked by efforts to dismantle British imperialism while leveraging remaining British influence to establish a security framework in the Middle East aimed at containing Soviet expansion. This strategy led to the creation of the “Northern Tier”, an alliance intended to serve as a Middle Eastern counterpart to NATO, comprising Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan, with potential future involvement from Iran. However, this initiative faltered as it faced intrinsic challenges due to regional divisions and lack of a unified threat perception among its members. The Baghdad Pact, a British-sponsored alliance within this framework, suffered from limited participation and commitment, as member states were more preoccupied with domestic and regional issues than with a Soviet threat.

In an effort to undermine the influence of the Soviet Union and to counter the appeal of radical Arab nationalism led by Egypt’s Nasser, the United States and Great Britain sought to entice Egypt with economic and diplomatic incentives. Their strategies included promoting an Arab-Israeli peace and funding the massive Aswan Dam project. The peace efforts faltered, as the Arab states, fueled by lingering resentment over the establishment of Israel and the circumstances of its founding, were not inclined toward reconciliation. Meanwhile, Nasser’s demands during the peace negotiations, which included significant territorial concessions from Israel, were untenable, ensuring the continuation of the stalemate.

Concurrently, the Aswan Dam represented a major undertaking, symbolizing Western commitment to Egyptian development. Initially, both Britain and the United States hoped that supporting the dam would shift Egypt away from Soviet influence and towards the West. However, this strategy backfired as Nasser leveraged the project to enhance his bargaining power, playing the superpowers against each other to extract maximum benefits. This maneuvering reached a climax when the U.S. abruptly withdrew its funding for the dam following Egypt’s diplomatic recognition of Communist China, a move that Secretary of State Dulles viewed as a betrayal.

This withdrawal marked a critical turning point, as Nasser responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal, framing this act as a definitive stand against Western imperialism and an assertion of Egyptian sovereignty. This action, announced during a dramatic speech in Alexandria, was not only a response to the withdrawal of American support for the Aswan Dam but also a broader assertion of Arab nationalism and resistance against Western influence. Nasser’s move into the Suez Canal, symbolically charged by the mention of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French engineer behind the canal’s construction, underscored a pivotal moment in the struggle for control in the Middle East, setting the stage for the Suez Crisis, a significant geopolitical conflict that would further alter the balance of power in the region.

As the Suez Crisis unfolded, deep-seated differences among Western democracies became glaringly apparent, influencing their reactions and complicating their strategies. Anthony Eden, now Prime Minister of Britain, found himself temperamentally and physically ill-equipped to handle the pressures of leadership, especially following a major operation and given his long-standing aspirations to uphold British dominance in the Middle East. France, under Prime Minister Guy Mollet, shared Britain’s hostility towards Nasser, fueled by their own colonial interests in North Africa and concerns over Nasser’s support for independence movements there.

Both Britain and France viewed Nasser’s actions through the lens of appeasement, recalling the failures of the pre-World War II era. This perspective hardened their resolve against any form of compromise with Nasser, especially after he nationalized the Suez Canal, which they perceived as a direct threat to their influence and control over a crucial international waterway. In reaction, Eden and Mollet were prepared to take drastic measures, even military action, to counteract Nasser’s moves.

John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State, initially seemed to align with the British and French position when he arrived in London for consultations. He advocated for an international conference to address the canal’s operation, hoping to isolate Nasser diplomatically and prepare the ground for potential military action if necessary. However, the subsequent diplomacy revealed a lack of unity among the allies. While Britain and France were focused on defeating Nasser to revert to the pre-Nasser status quo, the Eisenhower administration in the U.S. was more concerned with the broader implications for Western relations with the Arab world and the risks of exacerbating Arab nationalism.

The differing approaches highlighted fundamental misjudgments: Britain and France underestimated the depth of nationalist sentiment in the region, while the U.S. overestimated the potential for aligning with other nationalist leaders in a NATO-like security arrangement. The crisis exposed the limitations of a strategy that did not account for the irreversible changes in Middle Eastern politics marked by rising nationalism.

The U.S. approach, driven by Dulles, was to treat the canal primarily as a legal and diplomatic issue, focusing on maintaining free passage rather than directly confronting Nasser’s authority. This stance led to tensions with Britain and France, who were determined not to concede the canal’s nationalization and sought a decisive action to undermine Nasser. As the crisis deepened, Eisenhower explicitly warned Eden against the use of military force, suggesting that such action without exhausting diplomatic avenues could severely strain the transatlantic alliance and alter the public perception in the U.S. towards its European allies.

The personal and strategic rifts during the Suez Crisis underscored the complex dynamics between the allied leaders, with Dulles and Eden particularly at odds. The “special relationship” between Britain and the U.S., although deepened by their wartime collaboration, was tested severely as their leaders clashed over the best course of action. The unfolding events showcased the challenges of aligning national interests and strategies among allies when faced with a volatile international crisis.

John Foster Dulles’ background and personal convictions deeply influenced his approach as the U.S. Secretary of State. Coming from a lineage of diplomats, Dulles’ career shift from corporate law to foreign policy was marked by his devout Presbyterian faith, which he believed should guide America’s international conduct. This religiously fueled exceptionalism shaped his diplomatic style, which, while grounded in a solid understanding of foreign affairs, often alienated his counterparts with its moralistic overtones. This was particularly true in his interactions with British leaders, who found his style sanctimonious and occasionally insincere.

During the Suez Crisis, Dulles’ tactics revealed the conflicting priorities between the United States and its European allies. He vocally supported the aims of Great Britain and France but resisted any military actions that could enforce these objectives. Dulles proposed diplomatic solutions like the Maritime Conference and later the Users’ Association to manage the Suez Canal, which on the surface aligned with Western interests. However, his consistent disavowal of force undermined these proposals, signaling to Nasser and the world that the U.S. would not escalate the conflict militarily. This stance effectively invited Nasser to dismiss the Western initiatives, confident in the lack of a military threat.

Dulles’ approach to the crisis was a complex interplay of legal strategy and moral persuasion, aiming to reshape canal operations without resorting to force. His legal and diplomatic maneuvers, while innovative, lacked the necessary leverage of potential military consequences, which rendered them ineffective against Nasser’s firm stance. This was exemplified when Nasser rejected the proposals from the London Maritime Conference, seeing no real threat to his control over the canal.

The situation was further complicated by Dulles’ public statements, which often contradicted his strategic intentions, particularly in his interactions with the European allies. His comments at a press conference in early October underlined a fundamental divergence in the approach to colonial issues, hinting at a broader U.S. strategy to distance itself from colonial entanglements, contrasting sharply with the British and French view which framed the crisis in terms of Soviet influence and global containment strategies.

This divergence came to a head when Dulles explicitly stated the U.S. position against the use of force in resolving the crisis, a stance that not only strained the Atlantic alliance but also highlighted the differing perceptions of the Soviet threat. While Eden and Mollet were gearing up for a decisive showdown to counter perceived Soviet expansionism, Dulles, and by extension Eisenhower, viewed the crisis through a lens wary of any military engagement that could alienate the newly independent nations of the Middle East and beyond.

Caught between Eisenhower’s strong anti-war stance and the European desperation for a firm intervention, Dulles navigated a precarious path that ultimately neither bridged the transatlantic divides nor prevented the escalation of the crisis. His reliance on moral and legal persuasion over practical military options left the Western powers without the means to assertively influence the outcome of the crisis. This disconnect between Dulles’ diplomatic rhetoric and the geopolitical realities faced by his European counterparts led to a profound reassessment of the strategic alignments within the Western alliance, showcasing the limits of diplomatic influence without the credible threat of force.

As tensions escalated in the Suez Crisis, the discord among Western democracies presented an opportunity for the Soviet Union to assert its influence in the Middle East. This involvement complicated the diplomatic landscape significantly. The Kremlin directly challenged Western interests by replacing Western aid with Soviet support for the Aswan Dam and increasing arms shipments to the region. Khrushchev’s bold declarations of support for Egypt underscored the seriousness with which the USSR viewed the conflict, signaling a readiness to back Egypt militarily if necessary.

In response to these developments and Dulles’ repeated public rejections of military force, Britain and France, feeling increasingly desperate and isolated, resolved to act independently. Their strategy included a last appeal to the United Nations, which initially seemed futile given the solidarity of the Nonaligned nations with Egypt. However, the UN momentarily appeared to provide a resolution when it facilitated an agreement on principles for managing the Suez Canal, suggesting a potential diplomatic victory. This fleeting optimism was quickly dashed when the Soviet Union vetoed the implementation measures at the Security Council, effectively blocking the peace process and reaffirming the impossibility of a diplomatic resolution without the threat of force.

The collapse of diplomatic efforts led Britain and France to adopt a more direct military strategy, involving Israel in a complex plan to provoke a conflict that would justify their intervention. The strategy called for an Israeli advance towards the Suez Canal, followed by a joint Anglo-French ultimatum for withdrawal by both Israeli and Egyptian forces, foreseeing Egypt’s refusal which would then legitimize their military intervention. This plan, however, was transparent and poorly conceived, undermining the credibility of Britain and France and portraying Israel as a mere tool of colonial interests.

The execution of this plan coincided with the U.S. presidential election, adding a layer of political complexity and prompting accusations that the timing was influenced by electoral politics in the U.S. The military actions that followed were delayed and indecisive, further diminishing the stature of Britain and France and complicating their military objectives. Meanwhile, the United States, under President Eisenhower, maintained a staunch opposition to the use of force, which was articulated in a strong rebuke of the tripartite invasion. Eisenhower’s position was not only a matter of principle but also a strategic decision aimed at maintaining international order and avoiding a broader conflict.

The U.N. General Assembly quickly responded by demanding a ceasefire and discussing the deployment of a peacekeeping force, a move that facilitated an eventual British and French withdrawal but also underscored the failure of their strategy. In a striking contrast to the Western powers’ retreat, the Soviet Union demonstrated its resolve by suppressing the Hungarian uprising, highlighting the geopolitical double standards and the limitations of the UN’s influence. This juxtaposition of Western diplomatic failure and Soviet military action marked a significant shift in international dynamics, showcasing the complexities of Cold War politics and the challenges of upholding Western strategic interests against a backdrop of regional nationalism and global ideological conflict.

The intensifying rift among Western allies during the Suez Crisis provided the Soviet Union with a strategic opportunity to assert its influence in the Middle East. As tensions escalated, Moscow extended its support to Egypt, effectively replacing Western aid for the Aswan Dam and increasing its military supplies to the region. Soviet leadership, emboldened by the apparent division between the United States and its European allies, issued a series of dire communications threatening military intervention and even hinted at the use of nuclear capabilities against the West if the conflict escalated. These threats were part of a broader Soviet strategy to project power and gain leverage in the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

In response to the Soviet threats and the unfolding military actions by Britain and France, the United States, under President Eisenhower, took a firm stance against joint military operations with the USSR and any unilateral Soviet military actions in the region. This position was reinforced by a sudden financial crisis in Britain, marked by a run on the pound sterling, during which the U.S. notably withheld its usual financial support, thereby intensifying pressure on the British government. Facing mounting political and economic pressures, British Prime Minister Eden was compelled to call for a ceasefire, effectively ending the military operations after less than two days on the ground.

The diplomatic and military strategies employed by Britain and France were widely criticized for being poorly conceived and clumsily executed. The United States faced a complex dilemma: whether to support its traditional allies in their flawed military endeavor or to oppose them outright in order to uphold international legal standards and potentially realign its global strategy towards the developing world. The U.S. chose the latter, pushing for rapid UN deliberations that focused solely on the immediate issues without addressing the broader provocations that had led to the crisis. This approach not only sidelined the concerns of Britain and France but also avoided any criticism of the Soviet Union’s simultaneous crackdown in Hungary, highlighting a perceived inconsistency in America’s foreign policy priorities.

The conceptual framework guiding U.S. policy during the crisis was rooted in three principal beliefs: that American obligations to its allies were legally defined and limited; that the use of force was acceptable only in self-defense; and that the crisis presented an opportunity for the U.S. to position itself as a leader of the developing world, independent of colonial powers. This perspective influenced the United States’ actions at the United Nations and shaped its responses to both its allies and adversaries during the crisis.

Critics within the U.S., including prominent figures like George Kennan and Walter Lippmann, argued that the American response lacked the necessary understanding and compassion for its allies’ positions and could have been more supportive, even if it disagreed with their methods. They contended that America had a vested interest in the success of its allies’ actions, regardless of the initial disagreement over their decision to intervene militarily.

Ultimately, the Suez Crisis underscored the complexities of alliance politics in the Cold War era, revealing deep-seated tensions between legalistic approaches to international relations and the geopolitical realities faced by nation-states. The crisis also highlighted the challenges America faced in trying to navigate its emerging role as a global leader amid conflicting pressures from both its traditional European allies and the newly independent nations of the developing world.

Following the Suez Crisis, Egyptian President Nasser did not soften his stance towards the West or towards pro-Western Arab states. Instead, he intensified his efforts against moderate Arab governments, contributing to significant shifts in the region, such as the radicalization of Iraq and Syria. His actions culminated in military involvement in Yemen and an eventual breakdown in diplomatic relations with the United States in 1967. This escalation of hostilities redirected the brunt of Nasser’s radicalism from Britain to America, as the US took over strategic positions previously held by Great Britain in the Middle East.

The Non-aligned nations, observing the dynamics of the Suez Crisis, learned to leverage their position between the superpowers effectively. They noted that pressure on the United States often resulted in concessions, whereas the Soviet Union typically responded with counterpressure. This perception influenced the Nonaligned Movement’s interactions with global powers, leading to routine criticism of U.S. policies at their conferences, while Soviet actions were rarely condemned.

The geopolitical landscape was profoundly altered by the crisis. Anwar Sadat, then a chief propagandist in Egypt, asserted that the crisis had redefined the global hierarchy, demoting Britain and France from their great power status. This realization spurred European nations, particularly France, to pursue independent nuclear capabilities as a means of securing their sovereignty and influence, independent of American support. This sentiment was mirrored by other European leaders, like German Chancellor Adenauer, who saw the crisis as an impetus for European unity as a counterbalance to the superpower dominance of the US and USSR.

In Britain, the crisis resulted in a recalibration of its foreign policy, with a greater alignment under American influence, interpreting the “special relationship” with the US as essential for maintaining some degree of global influence. Conversely, France sought a more independent route, emphasizing the need for a European bloc capable of asserting itself on the world stage without over-reliance on American support.

The Soviet Union, seeing an opportunity, increased its influence in the Middle East and supported Nasser’s regime, which contributed to a significant shift in the balance of power in the region. Khrushchev’s aggressive foreign policy, characterized by confrontations with the West, was emboldened by perceived American weakness during the Suez Crisis, although this approach eventually led to setbacks like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For the United States, the Suez Crisis marked a turning point, heralding its emergence as a dominant global leader but also beginning its deep involvement in Middle Eastern politics. This involvement was formalized with the Eisenhower Doctrine, which committed the US to defending Middle Eastern countries against communist aggression. This commitment expanded America’s global responsibilities, setting the stage for future conflicts, including the direct military intervention in Lebanon and the complex, contentious involvement in Vietnam. This trajectory highlighted the enduring complexities of global power dynamics and the unintended consequences of geopolitical strategies initiated during the Suez Crisis.

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