Sangari guest view: To understand foreign policy, understand backyard wars

  • Sargis Sangari

    Sargis Sangari

By Sargis Sangari
Guest columnist
Posted7/5/2019 1:00 AM

In geopolitics, great powers customarily regard smaller states on their borders as being "in their back yard" and thus take a dim view of political and economic meddling by rival great powers in their backyard states.

Similarly, great powers keep a close watch on internal developments in backyard states and may attempt to influence the outcome of those developments ranging, for example, from the application of political and economic pressure, to the provision of financial aid, to outright military intervention in order to safeguard the stronger power's vital interests.


This tendency has applications in various foreign policy priorities facing the United States, from Venezuela to North Korea and elsewhere.

Throughout recorded history, instances of meddling by one high power in the back yard of another great power has triggered terrible and prolonged wars between the two. Often, and increasingly in the present era, these conflicts are fought through proxies armed and otherwise supported by rival great powers. Salient examples of such proxy wars are found in Afghanistan in the 1980s (the U.S. v. the now-defunct Soviet Union) and present-day Yemen (Saudi Arabia v. Iran).

In order to understand the origins and objectives of these backyard wars, one must first grasp the curiously dualistic nature of the backyard states in which they are usually fought. Every backyard is at once a sovereign nation in its own right but also an extension of the sovereignty of the great (or comparatively higher) power in whose back yard it is situated.

The backyard state has autonomy, but that autonomy is subject to limitations imposed on it by the dominating power or by how its people see themselves via the higher powers.

Typically, those limitations are ideologically manifested and enforced based on historical norms, which is to say, great/greater powers and their backyard states inevitably (and probably necessarily) share the same ideological worldview and mindset about the backyard state.

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But not always. The inability by policymakers to understand this is why sometimes great powers stumbled across the global stage as they try to operationalize their foreign policy within their backyard state. Example: Both South America and Central America are backyard regions to the U.S., but their governing ideologies are different from those in the U.S., given that they are, broadly speaking, socialist in their cast.

Case in point: U.S. in rushing toward regime change in Venezuela failed to consider the depth of the sociological friction point interdependency of Venezuela to Cuba, Russia, Iran, China and others.

In Asia, U.S. efforts to bring North Korea to heel came to grief on the shoals of Chinese disobedience. China viewed those efforts as meddling in their back yard and took measures to put a stop to them by bypassing sanctions as it moved nuclear technology for North Korea within selective global markets, while at the same time allowing the U.S. to take a substantial lead in normalizing western relations with North Korea.

However, in doing so, it created a set of complicated economic and political friction points for itself at its detriment. The U.S. exploited the Chinese friction points by banning Huawei and by having the POTUS step across the DMZ on June 30 at the invitation of the North Korean leader, forcing China to relent. U.S. and China never realized that it was possible that North Korea used the nuclear threat to bring China and the U.S. to the negotiation table as it played the two greater powers against each other to empower its future economic and political viability as a backyard state to both.


Russia's dealings with Iran have followed a similar trajectory of failure, primarily due to their contrasting political ideologies, and, more significantly, the cultural underpinnings of those ideologies. As Rudyard Kipling famously observed, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." This is true, and maybe especially so, even when the East (i.e., Iran) is a backyard state of the West (i.e., Russia. or the EU).

Simply put, backyard states commonly dislike being backyard states and are opposed to viewing themselves as such. Failure to consider the sociopolitical history of a state can lead to increasing tension. Identifying and exploiting backyard tensions/friction points among rival powers can be critical to a nation's survival.

Nevertheless, they must be understood if we are to develop a long-term strategic perspective to utilize our resources more effectively in these disputes, thus identifying and unraveling the friction points to achieve productive long-term results and avoid a repeat of past missteps.

LTC Sargis Sangari, of Skokie, a retired veteran of the U.S. Army Infantry and Special Operational Forces, is CEO of the Near East Center for Strategic Engagement, a policy research institution.

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