The word "friend" cropped up in many of the obituaries printed in United States newspapers and magazines about the passing of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi from the world scene. Former US President Richard Nixon flew to Cairo to attend the funeral, contending that:
"If the policy of the United States is not drastically changed so that the world will know that we stand by our friends, we will lose all our friends."
The use of the word friend in this connection underlines one of the difficulties the US frequently has in its conduct of foreign policy. It tends to see relations among states in personal terms. That very tendency can get a country into a lot of trouble, precisely the kind of trouble the US is in today with the people and semi-government of Iran over the hostages.
The chronology of events in late 1979 illustrates the connection that can develop between the concept of friendship and trouble. The former Shah was flown from Mexico to New York City because his friends and supporters in the United States urged considerations of friendship upon the White House. The US Embassy in Tehran was informed and protested vigorously. The White House had to make a choice: either to heed warnings from Tehran and from the State Department; or to listen to "friends" who insisted that it would be unfriendly and, indeed, inhumane to refuse to let the Shah reenter the United States for medical treatment.
The White House gave in to the "friends" and granted permission for the temporary return for medical treatment. The former Shah arrived in New York on Oct. 22. The US Embassy in Tehran was seized 13 days later, on Nov. 4. Two days later, Nov. 6, the relatively moderate interim government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan resigned in protest against the seizure it had not been able to prevent.
When members of the former Shah's entourage were seeking a place for the medical treatment, they had sounded out other governments, including those of Great Britain and Switzerland. The answer was no.
The idea of mixing friendship and diplomacy seems natural to some American ears, but incongruous to most professional diplomats. The British Foreign Office is said to be run under the primary axiom that "Great Britain does not have friends, it has interests."
The US concern about "friends" gives the Soviet Union one of its important advantages over the United States in competition for influence around the world. The idea of friendship is totally alien to Soviet diplomacy. Many a friend of communism and of the Soviet state has been sacrificed to the interests of that state. Moscow has never hesitated when choosing between the two. Whole communist parties have been abandoned or sacrificed, when it seemed to serve Moscow's interests.
During Moscow's phase of association with Egypt, Moscow provided President Nasser with huge quantities of arms and experts to train the Egyptian armed forces in use of the arms. At the same time, Mr. Nasser was liquidating Egyptian communists -- both figurately and literally. Moscow never raised an audible protest against the disposal of pro-soviet communists by Egypt.
Moscow has other advantages over the US in playing the great game of power politics. Since it has control over all sources of news and opinion (with the exception of foreign shortwave broadcasts and occasional smuggled papers) it is free from the pressure of public opinion. There simply is no such thing as public opinion rising up against government policy and causing a change in policy.
Probably a good many Soviet citizens would object to the current military invasion of Afghanistan, if they knew what was going on and had a chance to hear critical opinions. Since they do not hear such opinions, they tend to accept the official government explanation.
Also, while the Soviet Union has ethnic minorities, they are mostly indigenous. The only minority that has dared to dissent and protest is the Jewish community, which has been in the Soviet Union for many generations. The Volga Germans have folk memories of another country of origin, but their numbers and influence are minor. There are 2.5 million Armenians in the Soviet Union with relatives in Turkish Armenia. But history gives them small reason to wish to go to Turkey.
There are plenty of minorities who might like to be out from under Soviet rule, but their homelands have been overrun by Soviet armed forces. They are in their homeland, hence they are not influenced from an outside country of origin.
In contrast, US foreign policy is constantly influenced by swings of public opinion and by ethnic minorities with outside interests and connections. This is not always harmful, but it does inject an extra element and often complication into US foreign policymaking.
An example is the Polish minority, which cares greatly about events in Poland. Its influence in official government policy explains the fact that Poland was the first communist-bloc country in Eastern Europe to be treated with consideration, the first to be granted most-favored-nation trade treatment, the first to be given some forms of economic help.
It is possible to question not only the concept of mixing friendship with foreign policy, but also the specific idea voiced this past week that the former Shah of Iran was a "friend" of the United States. He was a client of the US. HE bought heavily of US weapons. He used his connections with the US in his sometimes misguided efforts to modernize his country. But he was usually among the first and sometimes was the first of the oil-producing countries to raise the price of oil. Was his behavior based on frienship, or on what served his own interests at the time?
US interests in the Middle East are important, but never did rest on the person of the Shah. Americans were major customers for Iranian oil. He was a major customer for US weapons and technology. Was that friendship, or just mutual convenience? Had the US kept its relations with Iran on an impersonal basis, it is possible and indeed probable that mutually convenient relations could have survived the departure of the Shah from the throne of Iran.
As matters are today, there is great difficulty for both the US and Iran to find a way back to that mutually convenient relationship, which is in the actual interests of both countries. The US got itself so deeply involved in the personal fortunes of a single man that his overthrow poisoned the relations between the two countries. Friendship is risky when mixed up in foreign policy.