Max Fisher writes:
America’s love affair with client states began not long after it and the Soviet Union — another master in the art of client-building — pressured the UK and France to leave Egypt, which they had invaded in 1956 to reclaim control of the Suez canal. European colonialism, the U.S. and USSR argued at the United Nations that year, was outdated, destabilizing, and had to end. British and French forces withdrew from Egypt, and within about a decade most of the British and French empires collapsed. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Soviet Union had begun a different great geopolitical game — the search for client states — one that Washington is still playing today.
The ’56 Suez Crisis was a final act of the imperial age and one of the first in a new era, where the major powers don’t have colonies — they have clients. American and Soviet diplomats, spies, and generals spent the next four decades racing from one capital to another, trying to buy, cajole, or enforce the allegiance of smaller nations. Often, that meant tin-pot dictators that would do the master state’s bidding, either accelerating or stopping the spread of communism, depending on who was paying better that year. Egypt was one of dozens of countries that, not long after ending its centuries under colonial rule, became an often willing pawn in the Cold War’s client game, first aligning itself with the Soviet Union and then with the U.S., which offered it lots of money and military equipment as part of the 1979 Camp David Peace accords. The U.S. found less use for client states after the Soviet Union fell, but still maintains the practice today, developing (mostly) subservient allies in hot spots across the world.
If Egypt’s 1956 liberation from colonialism helped end the colonial era, the country may now once again be signalling a change in the global system. When protesters toppled Egyptian president and reliable U.S. client Hosni Mubarak this February, they changed the terms of the U.S.-Egypt relationship. Washington can send all the money and tanks it wants — it won’t be able to dictate to a democratic Cairo any more than it can to, say, Ankara or Paris. The fall of easily controlled dictators across the region (the U.S. has already given up on its man in Yemen) comes at the same time as U.S.-allied democracies and autocracies alike seem increasingly willing to buck Washington’s wishes. Last week alone, the U.S. clashed with some of its most important client states. Maybe that’s because of America’s habit of picking the most troubled states in the most troubled regions as clients (where they’re perceived as the most needed), maybe it’s because democratic movements are pressuring client states to follow popular domestic will rather than foreign guidance, and maybe it’s because the idea of clientalism was doomed from the start. Democracy is on the march, and democratic governments make bad clients: they’re fickle; prone to change foreign policy as their domestic policy shifts; and subject to the needs, desires, and whims of their voters.