The architects of US foreign policy – National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan (left) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the Oval Office at the White House.
Photo: Getty Images
The Middle East’s latest war will have widespread geopolitical effects, stresses Stephen M. Walt, a columnist at ‘Foreign Policy’, a Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Will the latest Gaza war have far-reaching repercussions? As a rule, I think adverse geopolitical developments are usually balanced by countervailing forces of various kinds, and events in one small part of the world tend not to have vast ripple effects elsewhere. Crises and wars do occur, but cooler heads typically prevail and limit their consequences.
But not always, and the current war in Gaza may be one of those exceptions.
Here’s what this continuing tragedy means for geopolitics and U.S. foreign policy.
For starters, the war has put a monkey wrench in the U.S.-led Saudi-Israeli normalization effort (and halting the development was almost certainly one of Hamas’s goals). It may not prevent it forever, of course, because the original incentives behind the deal will still be there when the fighting ends in Gaza.
Second, the war will interfere with U.S. efforts to spend less time and attention on the Middle East and shift more attention and effort farther east in Asia. In a now-infamous, overtaken-by-events Foreign Affairs article (published in print just before Hamas attacked), U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan claimed that the administration’s “disciplined” approach to the Middle East would “[free] up resources for other global priorities” and “[reduce] the risk of new Middle Eastern conflicts.” As the past month has shown, that’s not exactly how things turned out.
It’s a question of bandwidth: There are only 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, and President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and other top U.S. officials can’t be flying off to Israel and other Middle Eastern countries every few days and still devote adequate time and attention elsewhere. The nomination of Asia specialist Kurt Campbell as deputy secretary of state may alleviate this problem somewhat, but this latest Middle East crisis still means less diplomatic and military capacity will be available for Asia in the short to medium term. A simmering internal upheaval in the State Department—where mid-level officials are upset by the administration’s one-sided response to the conflict—won’t make this problem any easier.
In short, the latest war in the Middle East is not good news for Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, or any other country that is facing growing pressure from China.
With two aircraft carriers now deployed in the eastern Mediterranean and attention in Washington riveted there, the ability to respond effectively should matters deteriorate in Asia is inevitably impaired.
And remember, I’m assuming the war in Gaza doesn’t expand to include Lebanon or Iran, which would thrust the United States and others into a new and deadlier situation and tie up even more time, attention, and resources.
Third, the conflict in Gaza is a disaster for Ukraine. The Gaza war is dominating press coverage and making it harder to rally support for a new U.S. aid package. Republicans in the House of Representatives are already balking, and a Gallup poll conducted from Oct. 4 to Oct. 16 found that 41 percent of Americans now believe the U.S. is giving Ukraine too much support, up from only 29 percent back in June.
The problem is even bigger than that, however. The conflict in Ukraine has become a grinding war of attrition, and that means artillery is playing a central role on the battlefield. The United States and its allies have been unable to produce enough ordnance to meet Ukraine’s needs, however, which has forced Washington to raid stockpiles in South Korea and Israel to keep Kyiv in the fight. Now that Israel is at war, it is going to get some of the artillery rounds or other weaponry that would otherwise have gone to Ukraine. And what is Biden supposed to do if Ukraine starts losing more ground, or if, god forbid, its army begins to collapse? All in all, what is happening in Gaza is not good news for Kyiv.
It’s bad news for the European Union, too. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had increased European unity despite some minor frictions, and the ouster of the autocratic and disruptive Law and Justice party in the recent Polish elections was an encouraging sign as well. But the war in Gaza has rekindled European divisions, with some countries backing Israel unreservedly and others showing more sympathy for the Palestinians (though not for Hamas). A serious rift has also emerged between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, and some 800 EU staffers reportedly signed a letter criticizing von der Leyen for being too biased toward Israel. The longer the war goes on, the wider these fissures will grow. These divisions also underscore Europe’s diplomatic weakness, if not irrelevance, undermining the broader goal of uniting the world’s democracies into a powerful and effective coalition.
Bad news for the West, but this is all very good news for Russia and China. From their perspective, anything that distracts the United States from Ukraine or East Asia is desirable, especially when they can just sit on the sidelines and watch the damage pile up. As I noted in a previous column, the war also gives Moscow and Beijing another easy argument for the multipolar world order they have long championed over a U.S.-led system. All they need do is point out to others that the United States has been the primary great power managing the Middle East for the past 30 years, and the results are a disastrous war in Iraq, a latent Iranian nuclear capability, the emergence of the Islamic State, a humanitarian disaster in Yemen, anarchy in Libya, and the failure of the Oslo peace process. They might add that Hamas’s brutal attack on Oct. 7 shows that Washington can’t even protect its closest friends from terrible events.
Looking further ahead, the war and America’s response to it are going to be millstones around the necks of American diplomats for some time to come. There was already a sizable gulf between U.S. and Western views on the Ukraine crisis and the attitudes of many in the global south, where leaders did not exactly support Russia’s invasion but were angered by what they saw as double standards and selective attention on the part of Western elites. Israel’s overwhelming response to Hamas’s attacks is widening that gulf, in part because there is much more sympathy for the overall plight of the Palestinians in the rest of the world than there is in the United States or Europe.
That sympathy will only increase the longer the war goes on and the more Palestinian civilians are killed, especially when the U.S. government and some prominent European politicians are leaning so heavily to one side. As a senior G-7 diplomat told the Financial Times last month: “We have definitely lost the battle in the global south. All the work we have done with the global south [over Ukraine] has been lost. … Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again.” That view might be exaggerated, but it’s not wrong.
Finally, this unhappy episode will not burnish America’s reputation for foreign-policy competence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to protect Israel may stain his reputation forever, but the U.S. foreign-policy establishment didn’t see this bloodletting coming, either, and its response to date hasn’t helped. If this latest failure is accompanied by an unhappy outcome in Ukraine, other states will question not American credibility, but American judgment.
It’s the latter quality that matters most, for other states are more likely to heed Washington’s advice and follow its lead if they think U.S. leaders have a clear sense of what’s going on, know how to respond, and are paying at least some attention to their professed values.
If that’s not the case, why take American advice about anything? – asks Stephen M. Walt.
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