American National Identity in the U.S.-Israel Alliance

In their highly controversial article “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” authors John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt argue that the enormous support the U.S. provides Israel each year defies explanation by any international relation theory[1]. They conclude that the driving force behind this relationship must be the Israel lobby. According to the authors, this especially powerful interest group is the primary reason the U.S. participates in policies that are not only useless but actually detrimental to American interests. 

In this paper, I briefly outline the three main schools of international thought and apply them to the subject at hand. Mearsheimer and Walt convincingly disprove the use of realist and liberal theory to explain the U.S.-Israel relationship. However, the authors fail to explore a constructivist perspective. I analyze U.S. support for Israel through constructivist lens, which introduces the possibility of other variables that play a role in the formation of this foreign policy. The relationship between the U.S. and Israel is not illogical, but rather a result of the prodigious American ego that centers our nation’s identity, and plays a large role in shaping perceptions and foreign policies. 

As Mearsheimer and Walt show in their article, realism cannot explain American support for Israel because the alliance provides no strategic advantage to the United States. Realist theory assumes that the decentralized state system causes states to constantly fear for their survival. As a result, they have no choice but to constantly assume the worst intentions of other actors, and make decisions motivated by self-interest.[2] In foreign policy analysis, a realist presumes that states only enact foreign policies if the policy somehow advances their own goals. Realism suggests that maintaining the U.S.-Israel alliance advances American interests in the Middle East, thus internationally increasing American dominance.

However, a quick analysis of the situation reveals that aiding Israel benefitted the U.S. only during the Cold War, when the U.S. attempted to increase its security by promoting democracy in the Middle East.[3] Israel could help “contain Soviet expansion in the region,” “defeat Soviet clients like Egypt and Syria,” and give the United States “useful intelligence about Soviet capability”.[4] Realism somewhat justifies initial American involvement in Israel, but it proves insufficient after the fall of the Soviet Union. Once the U.S. became the sole superpower in the world, its close relationship with Israel actually hurt its image in the Arab world, leading to hostility and even outright violence towards the United States. Support for Israel hurts rather than helps American security, so a realist explanation is clearly inapplicable. 

Similarly, liberalism’s explanations for American involvement are insufficient and factually insupportable. Liberalism’s core proposition is that as more democracies emerge in the world, states move away from anarchy and towards sustained peace.[1] A liberal analysis focuses on the political structures of a state, and assumes that if nations define the role of government similarly, they are inclined towards cooperation. Therefore, because the U.S. identifies Israel as a fellow democracy, it is more likely to interact amicably with it on foreign affairs. 

However, the liberalist argument fails in this scenario for a couple reasons. The tendency of democracies to cooperate with one another does not justify the enormous amount of aid the U.S. provides Israel. The sole fact that Israel is a democracy does not warrant the level of support the U.S. shows. At most, liberal theory suggests that democratic nations are more likely to reconcile peacefully in times of conflict—nothing implies this level of commitment and overreach.[2] Furthermore, this point is moot because Israel is a democracy in name only.[3] In their paper, Mearsheimer and Walt challenge Israeli democracy: there are many “aspects of Israeli democracy that are at odds with core American values.”[4] These features that directly contradict fundamental principles of American governance negate the liberalist argument that similar political structures conclusively explain the alliance. There must be another factor at play.

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