Upheavals and changing political dynamics across the Middle East are threatening to destabilize the region. External powers, notably the United States and China, are shifting their tactics, as Washington rebalances its presence and Beijing expands its economic interests. In this episode, Paul Haenle spoke with Brett McGurk, former special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on his extensive background working in the Middle East and the implications of shifting U.S. and Chinese policy for the region.

McGurk reflected on his long career working in government during transformative periods in the Middle East, such as the Iraq War and the rise of the Islamic State. Today, there is a pervasive sense that the United States is withdrawing from the region, McGurk said, opening opportunities for strategic competitors like Russia and China. Beijing’s traditionally peripheral role in the Middle East has significantly evolved since President Xi Jinping’s visit to the region in 2016. While Beijing has successfully managed its relationships with regional rivals like Iran and Saudi Arabia, McGurk expects that balancing act to become more difficult as China’s investment and presence in the region grows. The United States, McGurk argued, will have to reevaluate its own regional strategy and better work with Beijing in order to advance shared objectives, such as reconstruction and counterterrorism.

Paul Haenle

Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.

Brett McGurk

Brett McGurk is a nonresident senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He recently served as special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at the U.S. Department of State.