For most of the post-WW2 period, Washington’s strength rested on its ability to convince other nations that it was in their vital interests to see the United States prevail in its role as the global leader.
Dr Scott Burchill is Honorary Fellow in International Relations at Deakin University
Cross-posted from Pearls and Irritations
Sometimes this was self-sabotaged by outbreaks of strident unilateralism, such as George W. Bush’s attack on Iraq in 2003. On other occasions Washington simply refused to acknowledge the limits of its power (Afghanistan) or did not understand that military power rarely translates into geo-political influence (Vietnam; Latin America). Endogenous revolutionary upheavals and anti-colonial struggles in the developing world, almost always nationalist-based, also proved impossible to either prevent or contain (Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Angola, Nicaragua).
Happenstance, too many unknown variables and unexpected contingencies conspire against those who seek to control others using naked power. The world, whether it be the politics of other states or the global economy, is simply too complex for rational management by a single actor.
Great Powers which seek to determine the destiny of humanity are therefore in for surprises and disappointment. All vainglorious and limitless ambitions to rule the world are doomed to failure. Washington’s cynical and promiscuous interventions around the world have produced adverse, unexpected consequences and insoluble problems, leaving scores of countries devastated and unstable in their wake: terrorism, insurgency and resistance are often the result.
Today, Washington’s leadership is under challenge on a number of fronts while it is simultaneously losing much of its remaining persuasive power in the world.
Israel’s genocidal attacks on the civilian population of Gaza, diplomatically and militarily supported by the United States with unbridled enthusiasm, has done immeasurable damage to the reputations of both countries.
The barbarity of the slaughter, the scale of the massacres, property destruction, and the depraved moral justifications coming from their respective leaders, ministers and spokespeople, are as difficult to stomach as they are impossible to overstate. Comparisons with the bombing of Germany and Japan during World War 2 are not unwarranted.
Outside Israel, the yawning gap between Western political leaders supporting the civilian slaughter of Palestinians and the growing opposition of their populations is widening, especially around the issue of a ceasefire. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom have belatedly joined the rest of the world, effectively reversing their earlier opposition in the hope of bridging the gap. Only the United States remains an outlier, at significant cost to the popularity of the President and the reputation of the country.
Because of the identity of perpetrators, the victims are unlikely to receive any legal justice for the war crimes committed against them. However, the consequences for those who have committed and enabled crimes against humanity in Gaza will be felt well beyond the benighted region called “the Middle East”.
This is especially true for the United States nominally led by a man who seems cognitively impaired and is facing re-election in less than 12 months. Joe Biden’s problems, including America’s relative decline in influence, extends across the world.
Like its erstwhile ally which occupies much of Palestine in defiance of international law and global public opinion, the influence of the United States in the Middle East – even in Arab states normally obsequious in the face of Washington’s demands – has diminished.
Gulf state elites such as those in Saudi Arabia have little regard for the Palestinians but they have put normalisation with Israel on hold despite Washington’s wishes: the so-called Abraham Accords are all but dead. Riyadh’s enemies in Yemen, who have been conspicuously supportive of the Palestinians, are disrupting maritime traffic on the southern Red Sea and in the Gulf of Aden but not a single country on the waterway has agreed to join Biden’s coalition to address “security challenges”: only one Arab state, Bahrain, has expressed any support.
In Cairo, even the dictator El Sisi declined to be bribed with debt forgiveness into accepting Palestinians from Gaza into the Sinai. In fear of his own restive population, which is much more supportive of Palestine and hostile to Israel than the ruling military elite, the Egyptian leader put his political survival ahead of his country’s desperate economic needs. His concern is reflected across North Africa and in much of the Arab world including Amman, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, which is astonished by the level of Israeli-US violence meted out to a defenceless civilian population.
Even in authoritarian states and dictatorships in the Middle East, elites are feeling the domestic costs of consorting with the Americans. This only intensifies when US and Israeli state terrorism destabilises the region.
One clear lesson has already emerged from this nightmare. In the future it will not be so easy for Washington to strike deals with local satraps in the region over the heads of their angry populations who are now much less fearful of US-Israeli military power. It is not only democracies which live in fear of their populations.
The aura of invincibility surrounding Israeli and US intelligence was destroyed by Hamas on 7 October. This has been noticed in Damascus and Sana’a, but especially by Tehran and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. There is no doubt that Israel’s destruction of Gaza is, in part, an attempt to restore deterrence in the Arab world after the siege was embarrassingly broken by men without tanks, aircraft, foreign intelligence, satellite imagery or high tech weaponry. As Robert Pape reminds us, the bombing of Gaza and the collective punishment of Palestinians is likely to deliver Hamas a remarkable victory. The Israel-US credibility mask has slipped.
Allies in the EU, especially Ireland, Spain and Belgium are breaking ranks with ultra-Zionist European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, as are 800 EU staffers appalled by her pro-Israel bias. France’s Macron is wavering and Turkey’s Erdogan is openly hostile to the US and Israel. Meanwhile, as America tarnishes its reputation with support for genocide in Gaza, attitudes towards China and Russia in the region have commensurately warmed.
The global south is more likely than ever to see China, and to a lesser extent Russia, as a future economic partner instead of North America. This accords with the ambitions of both countries for a more multipolar world.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin can hardly believe his luck. There is only one issue which obsesses the US Congress more than trying to destroy the Russian military or sabotaging China’s technological and military development, and that is fealty to Israel. As the war grinds to an unwinnable quagmire for Kyiv, Ukraine lobbyists are increasingly unable to secure meetings with key backers as they once could, let alone receive pledges of ongoing financial and military support.
An increasingly dictatorial Zelenskyy, long feted by governments and a Russophobic Western media, realises that Ukraine is now a second order issue in Washington: there will be no more photoshoots for Vogue and barely a font page reference in the New York Times or Washington Post.
Even his generals appear to be bypassing him. Things are only likely to get worse as the US election season ensues. There are very few votes in an expensive war which has bipartisan elite support but is increasingly unpopular with voters who see it as a lost cause because the US and its NATO partners are unwilling to make a decisive difference: Washington’s proxy war with Moscow is all but over. Unsurprisingly, hardheads inside the Beltway are now reluctant to throw good money after bad. And their attention has shifted back to the Middle East.
Washington’s economic cold war with Beijing is also faltering. Concerned by China’s advances in high technology sectors such as AI, quantum computing and semiconductors, the US has been unable to achieve a balance between selective containment, successful competition and the use of China’s eastern seaboard as a cost effective manufacturing centre for American transnational corporations.
Its China policy is a contradictory mess. On the one hand it wants to hype the “China threat” to justify expenditure on futuristic weapons, many of which do not work, in the mistaken belief that there are technological solutions to Washington’s economic, social and political challenges: a form of technological fetishism. The “China threat” is also needed as a pretext for its preponderant maritime presence in East Asia, the number of military bases encircling China, and new strategic coalitions such as AUKUS.
On the other hand, trade, finance and investment between the US and China will only become more important, as will the need to co-operate on vital global issues such as climate change and nuclear proliferation. Allies and friends such as Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines are left to shake their heads at the incoherence of Washington’s schizophrenic policies, as well as its fixation with the Middle East. Only Australia seems to be uncritical and enthusiastic, regardless of whether the ALP or the LNP is in power, at significant cost to its own vital trade relationship with the Middle Kingdom.
Any residual reputation the United States had as a defender of international law is in tatters. It is increasingly isolated at the United Nations, both in the General Assembly and the Security Council. Together with Israel it is becoming an international pariah, while domestically public divisions over policy towards Israel are starkly at odds with uniform support amongst the policy elite. Even the country’s most reflexive international supporters are dismayed by the likely choice of Biden or Trump in November 2024.
Washington had enormous trouble convincing the global south to back its proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. And its uncritical support for Israel’s cruelty in Gaza has understandably generated accusations of double standards and hypocrisy, leaving the US and a few dependent atolls in the Pacific isolated on many key UN votes. The so-called “rules-based world order”, which was Washington’s alternative to international law, now looks like a sick joke that we are unlikely to hear much about without guffaws of laughter echoing around the corridors of world diplomacy.
Australia remains unaffected by the eclipse of America’s reputation and its complicity in genocide. Canberra seeks the closest possible alignment with Washington, just as the rest of the world is rethinking the wisdom of maintaining a close relationship with such a reckless and violent superpower. AUKUS submarine procurements, the nuclearisation of Australian ports, growing US troop deployments and intelligence co-operation ensure that Australia is not just uninterested in projecting an independent foreign and defence policy. It also means the country is now inextricably tied to the fortunes of a dangerous, internally divided rogue state in the twilight of its imperial age.
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