This week, the news has been full of reports and ruminations on visits to the United States by Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping — and rightly so, to a point. However, buried under these reports, and no less important, is the resolution of a long-standing issue that noticeably changes military capabilities in the Middle East. France has announced that it has agreed to sell two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Egypt. Paris' decision is less a result of French and Egyptian intent than a secondary effect of the United States' actions on the world stage.
Three U.S. moves pushed the Mistrals into Egyptian hands. The first is Washington's drive for influence in Eastern Europe, including many former Soviet states, made most evident in the NATO expansion that rolled as far eastward as the Baltic states. Granted, NATO is not solely a U.S. entity, but it is seen as heavily influenced by the United States; at a minimum, any NATO action is at least sanctioned by Washington. The United States' push eastward culminated in the events in Ukraine. As a direct result, the United States and Europe pressured France to deny the sale of the Mistrals to Russia, which commissioned their construction.
The second U.S. action followed the Egyptian military's reaction to the Arab Spring. Cairo's brief foray into democracy with President Mohammed Morsi's government was so potentially destabilizing that the military reasserted its power in the usual authoritarian way. The United States was forced to dole out some form of punishment even though Egypt is a longtime ally. The United States chose to cut off its military patronage to Egypt — about $1 billion annually. Though the decision was not fundamentally disruptive to Washington and Cairo's relationship, it did alter Egypt's view on relying on the United States as a sole military supplier. Since then, Cairo has sought ways to diversify its portfolio of arms suppliers.
Egypt's lack of resources has greatly hampered its diversification efforts, but the United States' third action — years in the making — locked in Cairo's course of action. The Iranian nuclear deal, once regarded as a fantasy, evolved into a possibility and then an inevitability. It has altered the balance of power in the Middle East and left Saudi Arabia questioning the fundamental security its alliance with the United States provided. As a result, Riyadh has become much more active in trying to directly counter Iranian influence in the region. A large step in this process has been the Saudis' quest to cement regional security coalitions that work toward Saudi interests — including the attempt to forge an Arab Force, in which the Gulf Cooperation Council would combine its considerable resources and specific military components into a single force with some other Arab states.
Egypt is a cornerstone of this proposed Arab Force because of its military capabilities, namely manpower. But putting together security coalitions is a long, arduous process, and all of Riyadh's attempts so far have put nothing solid in place.
The aforementioned U.S. actions have finally created a marriage of convenience. Egypt wants to buy materiel from someone other than the United States but can't afford it. Saudi Arabia wants to rebalance the Middle East with a coalition beyond the U.S. security umbrella. Two advanced warships are available from an outside party that can help tie all interests together. When these ships are delivered and eventually incorporated into the Egyptian military, Cairo's military options will increase, likely because of the Saudis' development of the Arab Force. This has implications for contentious countries in the region, such as Yemen and Libya. These implications could easily run counter to future U.S. interests. There is irony in that.
All this speaks to U.S. power in the world and the consequences thereof. Not every aspect of it is flashy and makes headlines immediately, but it is pervasive, and the repercussions can be unforeseeable and uncontrollable. Though the extent and future of U.S. power is debatable, the United States currently is the single most powerful actor, and the rest of the world is constantly maneuvering in order to deal with its shifts and the consequences that usually take years to emerge.