President Trump took office in a geopolitical reality where the United States, though still the world’s strongest power, is no longer poised at the “American Moment,” a time when the U.S. enjoyed hegemony within a unipolar system, that emerged in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse 27 years ago. Today’s rising global powers do not share the liberal-democratic values that guided the U.S. in its post-World War II efforts to institute a world order fostering stability, freedom, and free trade. The attractiveness of these values has been diminished by the 2008 financial crisis, the deepening social inequality associated with globalization, the faded hopes once sparked by the “Arab Spring”, the array of crises facing Europe, and the failed U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are witnessing reactions that challenge the values of the modern Western order: a desire to reinforce the idea of the nation state as an insular entity with clearly delineated borders and a distinct identity, economic protectionism, opposition to globalization, erosion of liberal norms, populism, xenophobia, and the rise of extreme elements on both the right and the left. Consequently, 89 countries saw their scores drop in The Economist’s Democracy Index for 2017, just 29 saw them improve.2
Europe, which has embodied the values at the heart of the Western world order for seven decades, is now mired in a crisis of identity, structure, and values. The principles that inspired the founders of the European Union are being called into question. Continent-wide dissatisfaction with how the traditional political system has dealt with recent economic crises; Britain’s abandonment of the EU; waves of migration and terrorist incidents – are all undermining the open-borders orientation and sense of personal security Europeans have taken for granted, while fanning the flames of right-wing and left-wing political extremism. The political ascendancy of far-right movements poses a dilemma for Israeli foreign policy: how to handle European countries that display strong friendship for Israel but whose leaders are abandoning democratic norms and providing fertile ground for anti-Semitism to flourish. (This issue recently became a matter of public debate when the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, visited Israel in July 2018. When they met, President of Israel Reuven Rivlin saw fit to warn him that “Neo-Fascism is a threat to the entire world” and fuels nationalistic hate.)3
Signs of an identity crisis are also visible in the United States. Trump’s election victory reflected the growing influence of large sectors of the American public – people concerned that the existing political order (particularly globalization) is short-changing them and who, consequently, reject the values that underpin the current order.
As president, Trump has added yet another dimension to the global “dis-order.” Unlike his predecessor, he exhibits no sense of commitment to world leadership, to the consolidation of a stable, functioning global order, or to the long-standing alliances with Europe and NATO. This situation has repercussions for Israel, whose strategic resilience is significantly affected not only by the quality of its relations with Washington but also by the global status of the U.S., by the role it chooses to play in the international arena, and by the ambitions and the might wielded by competing powers. Should the status of the United States erode – the power whose friendship for, and assistance to, Israel are so critical, and which is home to a thriving community amounting to half of world Jewry – Israeli deterrence and the power ascribed to it might erode as well. A perception that American strength vis-à-vis competing powers is on the wane, and that the U.S. is abandoning the Middle East, is deepening the region’s strategic vacuum, attracting forces to the area that are problematic for Israel, and could worsen instabilities in a volatile region that has depended on the U.S. as a stabilizing force.
Israel has good reason for concern, given Trump’s statement that “no amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East.”4 Trump is leaving the region’s nations to cope with Iranian subversion on their own; he is not committed to ousting Assad (despite the repeated use of chemical weapons), is making only a limited effort to fight ISIS, is reconciled to Russian domination of Syria, and is leaving Netanyahu no option but to meet with Russian leaders again and again in order to defend Israel’s red lines.
President Trump’s actions and statements indicate that, as far as he is concerned, the decisive criterion is “America first.” He feels no obligation to the idea of the U.S. as a world leader promoting democratic values and human rights; “soft power” is clearly not a major asset in his eyes. Trump lacks regard for America’s Western allies, which he sees as having exploited American generosity; he wants them to shoulder their own defense costs. Trump has little interest in alliances or in nurturing international institutions. He withdrew from the Paris climate agreement (June 1, 2017), has left European leaders with major concerns about his commitment to NATO, has embraced a protectionist economic approach, and disfavors the multilateral free trade agreements that coalesced under President Obama. He is abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (January 23, 2017), and imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from the main U.S. trade partners – Canada, Mexico, and Europe (May 31, 2018). He bickered with U.S. allies at the annual G7 summit (June 8, 2018), refused to sign the group’s official communiqué, and advocated reinstating Russia as a member-state (four years after its suspension, as a result of its invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula). He sparked a trade war with Beijing when he decided to impose a 25 percent tariff on Chinese imports.5
Despite Trump’s desire to pull back from “wasting” resources on the international arena, he faces persistent, unavoidable international challenges that require difficult decisions. Two of these challenges have highlighted Trump’s proclivity for dramatic actions: his withdrawal from the JCPOA (May 8, 2018) and his meeting with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un (June 12, 2018). These two issues (which have reciprocal repercussions) have remained open: how to manage the crisis with Iran so as to prevent its acquisition of nuclear arms and hamper its regional subversion; and how to manage the process undertaken with North Korea to ensure the dismantlement of its nuclear arsenal. (Since the historic meeting both sides have accused one another of not complying with the understandings reached during the summit).
Trump’s unsentimental approach to creating bargaining positions, maneuvering and negotiations could result in surprising developments. Trump has lavished praise on Kim Jong-un just after referring to him as “Rocket Man” and threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea. Trump’s actions to date make it impossible to confidently predict how he will manage the Iran and North Korea crises in the future, both of which are critical to world peace.
The vacuum left by Trump in the international sphere is drawing Russia and China into it in a number of ways. China and Russia, which from a historical perspective, view themselves as superpowers, are unimpressed by any world order that fails to take them into account. Their behavior is becoming more aggressive, revealing their vision of a multipolar world founded on inter-power rivalry, in which their status and interests are no less legitimate than those of the United States and Europe. While China wields economic might, Russia compensates for its weaknesses through aggressive displays of military power, cyber warfare, and espionage. Russia is taking advantage of Trump’s disinclination for international involvement and Europe’s weakness and difficulty in formulating a unified and binding policy. Since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 Moscow has invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, held portions of eastern Ukraine, deployed forces in Syria, kept the Assad regime from falling, been a major determining force behind future arrangements in Syria, and competed with the U.S. for the Mideast arms market. Moscow is exerting its influence, intervening in the political affairs of neighboring countries, and brazenly threatening to cut off Europe’s gas supply.
The strategic vacuum left by the U.S. has also conveyed signals to China, which believes itself to be in a “period of strategic opportunity” thanks to rapid economic growth and the West’s relative stagnation. China represents an alternative to the regime paradigm offered by the West: rapid, consistent economic development without democratic constraints – the ruler’s legitimacy based on efficacy and concrete results rather than the ballot. Thus, buoyed by his country’s economic and international achievements, Xi Jinping had no compunctions about advancing his personal status by abolishing the two-term presidency limit (March 11, 2018). China is focused on strengthening its army and exhibits innovation in the security development sphere. It employs a strategy of expanding its international influence, bolstering external legitimacy for its autocratic regime, and blocking criticism of it.
China has exhibited impressive economic growth over the past 40 years. The Chinese economy is now the world’s second-largest; the country has remarkable achievements to its credit. Beijing is determined to secure a presence on the forefront of technological innovation, in areas such as artificial intelligence. The One Belt, One Road Initiative is meant to connect China with Europe and the rest of Asia to comprise a huge market numbering 4.4 billion people in 26 different countries. The plan entails investments and credit amounting to more than 10 times that granted via the Marshall Plan which established U.S. centrality in Europe in the post-World War II period. Israel also appears on the OBOR map as an object of growing Chinese interest, in terms of both acquiring Israeli companies and technologies, and executing Israeli infrastructure projects.
China’s appetite for turning economic power into strategic gains is currently manifesting in its immediate geographic region, through efforts to realize its claims on disputed islands in the South China Sea – efforts that are of serious concern to its neighbors. Because the Middle East is one of its primary oil sources, it is natural that China’s interest in the region would increase. China also views the Mideast as a promising market for its goods, and its desire for greater involvement in the region has, accordingly, become gradually evident in the diplomatic arena.
Israel, of course, has an interest in cultivating relations with both China and Russia, but it has to navigate carefully due to current inter big-power rivalries and the overriding interest of not harming its strategic relations with the United States.