In a multipolar world countries will have to navigate multiple relationships, some will be difficult to classify as either alliances or rivalries.
I am not entirely sure as to the origin of the term ‘frenemy’ – the wikipedia entry for the word suggests it comes from the TV show Sex and the City – but it is perfect for today’s geopolitical context. Multipolarity is defined as a global system where more than one or two states are capable of pursuing a significant, and independent foreign policy. Great (and significant) powers have multiple foreign policy goals, some regional, some global, and some calibrated for the domestic arena. Out of this necessity to pursue multiple, often competing, strategies simultaneously arises a new type of a relationship between countries, one that is best captured by the pop-culture term frenemy.
Take the following two articles from Reuters:
In the first, a senior Iranian official told the newswire agency that the U.S. had informed Tehran in advance of its intention to attack the Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria and “assured Tehran that it would not target the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” an Iranian ally. Another Iranian official, commenting on the U.S.-Iran cooperation against IS, tried their best to dance around the issue of an informal alliance, “This is an intelligence matter and I can assure you geopolitical and intelligence matters will not be shared with Americans… but military and security issues are being shared to fight against IS.” In other words, the U.S. and Iran are cooperating on geopolitical and intelligence matters!
In the second article, Reuters reported that the U.S. is looking to sell Vietnam P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft. The U.S. is upgrading its surveillance fleet with the new P-8 Poseidon aircraft and thus is looking to off-load the older, but still highly capable, P-3 to countries in East Asia that are concerned about China’s rise. To sell Vietnam the aircraft, Washington has to lift its arms embargo on Vietnam and ignore the human rights violations that it had repeatedly criticized Hanoi for in the past. But in the context of a more assertive China, which recently provoked Vietnam by floating a massive oil rig in waters that Hanoi claims as part of its exclusive economic zone, Vietnam and the U.S. are coming closer together.
Clients often ask me why American foreign policy so incoherent, particularly in the Middle East. It comes back to what Henry Kissinger said in the 1980s: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” Perhaps the phrase should instead end with, “only frenemies.”