| Washington Wrap |

As America Fades, Can the West Stay On Top?  

The question is whether the world needs the US leadership. And how will things look if America keeps reducing its global involvement?

Photo: AP Images


he Negev Summit at Sde Boker was a historic event, dealing with a historic dilemma. It isn’t every day that the foreign ministers of four Arab nations, along with the US secretary of state, arrive in Israel to discuss the formation of a united front against regional threats.

But while all the participating countries (Israel, the US, Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt and Morocco) share warm and close relations, something in the dynamic was different this time.

With the US an inch away from signing a nuclear deal with Iran, and dramatically scaling down its presence in the Middle East, many Arab countries suddenly find themselves on the same side as Israel. This is nothing less than a groundbreaking development, unimaginable mere decades ago, when Israel and the US walked hand-in-hand — often in opposition to a united Arab world.

But now the Biden administration has made clear that the Middle East is not very high on its list of priorities, having been overtaken by China, Russia, the coronavirus, and climate change.

And there’s another aspect at play. The United States has tired of playing the role of global policeman, taken on largely after 9/11, with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. But Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are both long gone, and the generation of American service members who saw them out — many of them now serving in Congress — takes a different view of US intervention in overseas conflicts. In the eyes of many, interventionism has cost America trillions of dollars and a high death toll, while any benefits are hard to measure objectively.

The question is whether the world needs the US leadership. And how will things look if America keeps reducing its global involvement?

“American foreign policy elites continue to view the US — as they have since World War II — as the world’s leader, a promoter of peace, stability, and economic prosperity on a global scale,” says Professor Ido Oren of the University of Florida, an expert in American political science and international affairs. “For a brief period after the end of the Cold War, the US enjoyed a ‘unipolar moment’ in which no foreign power was capable of seriously challenging its hegemony and leadership. Russia was down, and China wasn’t strong enough yet to mount a challenge.”

The Afghanistan and Iraq quagmires exposed American hubris and the limits of US power, says Professor Oren. “In the past ten to twenty years, a resurgent Russia and a fast-growing China have increasingly challenged US global hegemony, offering an alternative vision of a multipolar world in which the US is no longer the world’s sole superpower. The Russian invasion of Ukraine allowed the US to reassert its hegemony and leadership in Europe. It also exposed Russia’s weakness.”

But China continues to challenge US global hegemony, he notes. “Its economic and military power continue to grow, and it continues to expand its influence in far-flung regions from Africa to Latin America. In the past decade, the US has made a strategic ‘pivot to Asia’ and the rivalry with China has become the top concern of Washington’s foreign policy elites.”

In short, says Professor Oren, Israel and the Arab Gulf states should not expect a return to the US foreign policy limelight anytime soon.

“If I were to risk a prediction, I’d expect US attention and energy — which has shifted to Europe since the Russian invasion — to return to Asia sooner or later,” he says. “Where’s the Middle East in all this? Not high on America’s priority list. Asia first, Europe second, the Middle East maybe third or fourth.”

But is this a good thing? How will the more stable and economically prosperous nations in the region fare with Washington backing away?

“The world needs US leadership,” cautions MIT international affairs professor Stephen Van Evera. “The common global interest in peace, order, and basic human rights can only be protected if a strong power — a hegemon — provides leadership to protect these values. Without leadership by a wise and forceful hegemon, peace will be shattered and human rights abuses by bad actors.”

Not that the US foreign policy record has been perfect, Professor Van Evera emphasizes.

“The US is an uncertain, inconsistent, and often-maladroit protector of peace, order, and human rights,” he says. “Sometimes the US performs well (defeating Hitler and Tojo, the Marshall plan) but sometimes not (the Vietnam War, the 1954 Guatemala coup, or refusing to admit Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled Europe in 1938–43). The US has the required power, but sometimes lacks the wisdom required for the task, and also sometimes lacks the ethics required.”

But how realistic is it to expect the US to continue to be the global policeman?

“I think ‘world’s policeman’ is a bit hyperbolic,” says Michigan State University international affairs professor Matthew Zierler. “But US involvement and leadership in the world is key. The US has capability in foreign affairs (diplomacy, foreign aid, military affairs) that few other countries have. And involvement by the United States also is an important signal to other countries (our allies and others) that this is a cause that they should also get involved in.”

In other words, the US should expect its allies to help shoulder the load.

“Burden sharing is an important principle in US foreign policy, although that balance has not always been realized,” says Zierler. “That said, the US cannot be involved in the same way everywhere at all times. The US, like all countries, needs to prioritize, as it is has limited resources, and not all involvement by the US will be effective.”

And Professor Zierler says that even if US foreign policy is focused on other regions, that does not mean the Middle East is any less important strategically in the long term.

“I am not taking a position on which issues should be prioritized, but any government needs to make those calculations,” he says. “I would not necessarily say that the US interest in the Middle East has waned. It has been and continues to be a critical national security interest.”

But the fact that the Biden administration (like the Trump and Obama administrations before it) doesn’t aim to be the world’s policeman has repercussion for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well. When Biden was elected, some prophesied that he would try to force the sides to resume talks and strong-arm Israel into making concessions. Over a year after assuming office, Biden has barely mentioned the conflict, and has at no point made any allusion to a peace initiative.

Even during Blinken’s visit to Israel last week, the Palestinian issue took second stage to the talks about widening the circle of normalization. Hence, at the same time as Israel is worried about the Biden administration’s lack of commitment on Iran, Jerusalem can breath a sigh of relief at the Biden administration’s reluctance to take up the Palestinian issue, as the Bennett-Lapid government has opted to shelve the peace process in order to survive.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 906)

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