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2017 Annual Assessment

Israel’s strategic might is significantly influenced not just by its relationship with Washington but also by the global standing of the United States, including the role it chooses to play in the international arena, the strength and influence of rival powers, and the characteristics of the emerging world order.

An erosion of U.S. standing internationally – the superpower whose friendship and assistance to Israel is critical and which is also home to a prosperous Jewish community that constitutes almost half the Jewish people – could lead to an erosion in the deterrence power and strength attributed to Israel itself. If the perception that the U.S. is in a process of decline and is abandoning the Middle East takes hold, it could deepen the strategic vacuum in the region (which demands U.S. involvement as a stabilizing power). This would attract additional forces that are problematic from Israel’s perspective and may exacerbate the existing instability.

President Trump and the role of the U.S. in international affairs – The election of Donald Trump as president adds formidable uncertainty to the position of the United States in the international arena. Trump inherited a geopolitical reality in which the U.S. remains the strongest world power even though the “American moment” created after the breakup of the Soviet Union, when the U.S. enjoyed hegemonic status in a unipolar system, has passed.

The lack of a stable, functioning world order leads to weakened international institutions, diminishes the ability to navigate global challenges, and contributes to destabilizing the central authority in different countries (which terror and criminal organizations exploit). This further increases the risk of escalation in simmering conflicts in the various flashpoints around the world (Syria, North Korea, South China Sea, Ukraine, Balkans, India-China border, and more).

Ahead of Trump’s inauguration, there were growing fears that the U.S. intended to withdraw from global affairs and focus on domestic matters, act according to a narrowed definition of interests, rely on expected U.S. energy independence, and be reluctant to exhibit a commitment to global leadership and to shaping a functioning global order. Trump’s actions and rhetoric thus far have communicated contradictory messages making it difficult to discern a coherent guiding doctrine for U.S. role in international affairs. It is not yet clear the extent to which the defining campaign slogan, “America First,” will shape U.S. foreign policy. Will the Trump administration neglect American leadership and focus on domestic affairs? Will the business world’s principles of profit and loss, which are devoid of ideological considerations, guide U.S. actions?

Trump’s meetings with European leaders evoked acute concern as to his commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance. German Chancellor Merkel proclaimed that once again, “Europe cannot fully depend on anyone else” (May 25, 2017). Despite the haze, it seems that – at least on a rhetorical level – a Trump Doctrine is taking shape, one markedly different from the Obama Doctrine. Compared to President Obama’s “Cairo Speech” (June 4, 2009) in which he stressed the importance of democratic values and human rights and proposed turning a new page in U.S. relations with Iran, Trump’s “Riyadh speech” outlining his worldview before the leaders and representatives of 50 Muslim nations, differed significantly.1

Trump mollified his audience and stated in no uncertain terms that he sees Iran behind the instability and terror in the region: “It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room.” Trump vowed to support U.S. allies and stipulated that this support would not be conditioned upon meeting standards of human rights, democratization, etc. “We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes – not inflexible ideology… And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms – not sudden intervention.”2

These words reflect a significant shift – at least on the rhetorical level – from President Obama’s position, which saw the potential of developing relations with Tehran,3 and urged Saudi Arabia to find an “effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace”4 with Iran. This had further fostered Sunni concern that the U.S. was planning a grand bargain that would grant Iran significant regional status and allow it to deepen its subversive activities and achieve regional hegemony.

Trump’s inner circle, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council (NEC) Director Gary Cohn, articulated the president’s foreign policy principles in a jointly written article asserting that the president’s May 2017 trip to the Middle East and Europe signified a “strategic shift.”5

McMaster and Cohn promised that the United States would no longer “lead from behind” (as attributed to President Obama) and that the slogan “America First” does not mean “America alone.” Rather, in their view, “’America First’ signals the restoration of American leadership and our government’s traditional role overseas—to use the diplomatic, economic and military resources of the U.S. to enhance American security, promote American prosperity, and extend American influence around the world.”6 The pair explain President Trump’s remarks as the ideological base of his foreign policy: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”7

Although these articulations shed greater light on a real-politick worldview devoid of illusions, it is not enough to definitively assess how it will translate into actual policy when the rubber hits the road. The first months of the Trump presidency provide conflicting indications as to how the U.S. intends to interact in world affairs.

Thus, for example, as opposed to President Obama who avoided a military response even after the Syrian regime crossed his “red line” by using chemical weapons, Trump responded to a similar incident by launching 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in eastern Syria (April 7, 2017). Trump did not flinch from the expected Russian criticism during the attack (Russia condemned the attack and cautioned that it might harm the relations between the countries). This response pattern was reiterated when Trump did not hesitate to drop, the “Mother of All Bombs” for the first time – on an ISIS target in Afghanistan (April 13, 2017). Ostensibly, these steps should clear the fog as to whether President Trump views the U.S. as a proactive leader in the international arena.

However, in other instances, the message has been markedly different. Thus, for example, Trump’s decision (June 1, 2017) to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord to fight global warming, which 195 countries signed, noting: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Similarly, there were hard feelings among the G-20 summit participants in Hamburg (July 7-8, 2017) when Trump announced that he was not thrilled to shoulder the burden of international commitments, and that he had few warm sentiments for the alliance with Europe. (It was difficult to extract a willingness from Trump to mention Article 5 of the NATO charter, which requires member countries to come to the defense of any attacked member state).

The international arena presents President Trump with challenges that require tough decisions. The manner in which he decides these will be formative milestones that further influence administration policy on other foreign policy issues. Chief among these are the future of the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran (discussed later), and the North Korea crisis. The latter is conducting provocative tests that bring it closer to possessing a ballistic missile fitted with a nuclear warhead capable of targeting the U.S. (On July 28, 2017, North Korea launched an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), apparently capable of hitting the West Coast of the U.S., and on September 3, 2017 it conducted an underground test of what it claimed to be a hydrogen bomb.) Based on warnings from American intelligence experts that North Korea is expected to gain the capacity to fit nuclear warheads on these ICBM’s within a year8, President Trump’s commitment to preventing this emerging threat is expected to be tested.

In light of Kim Jong Un’s threats, Trump promised to respond with “fire and the fury like the world has never seen” (August 8, 2017)9. War with North Korea would affect the interests of other powers (China and Russia) and could lead to hundreds of thousands of casualties. Pyongyang has a massive military (the fourth largest in the world), nuclear capability, thousands of tons of chemical weapons, and over 20,000 artillery pieces, many of which are pointed at Seoul, the South Korean capital, and could cause mass devastation. (North Korea missiles could easily hit Tokyo, not to mention U.S. naval base in Guam). Trump’s handling of the situation so far does not allow us to assess with great confidence how the U.S. will respond to Iran or how it will deal with the North Korean threat. The decisions made regarding these two situations could have great impact on the character of the emerging world order.

Undermining the values at the base of the Western world order – The geopolitical question marks are not confined to the structures of the prevailing world order, but also to the values ​​at its foundation. Certain forces asserting themselves on the global stage today do not draw their values from the liberal-democratic legacy that guided American actions after WWII in shaping the world order in a way that increases stability, encourages freedom and allows free trade. The appeal of these values weakened as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, the deepening socio-economic inequality brought on by globalization, the dashing of hope that had been sparked by the Arab Spring, the crisis washing over Europe, all of which found expression in the Brexit referendum results in the UK (June 23, 2016). We are now witnessing the rise of reactionary forces at odds with the humanistic values of the modern Western order: isolationism and national seclusion, bolstering borders, economic protectionism, anti-globalization, an erosion of liberal norms, populism, xenophobia, and the rise of the radical right.

Europe, which largely embodied the liberal values at the base of the Western world order in its actions and experiences, is undergoing a simultaneous crisis of identity, structure, and values.

The continent’s discomfort with the inability of traditional politics to deal with various challenges – including economic crises, migration waves (affecting other continents as well), and terrorist attacks – undercut the concept of open borders, the cosmopolitan sensibility, and sense of personal security, fomenting political radicalization on both the right and the left.

The countries of Europe are finding it difficult to agree on a plan for absorbing a million migrants from the Middle East and the possibility that many more will arrive. The momentum of the right in Europe and its push to dissolve the European Union weakened following Emanuel Macron’s defeat of Marine La Pen in the French presidential elections (May 7, 2017). Right-wing populists were also defeated in Holland and Austria. However, doubts surrounding the liberal and humanistic values that stood at the base of the EU founders’ vision remain.

This phenomenon has not skipped over the United States. Many commentators see Trump’s election as an expression of the empowerment of considerable groups in the U.S. who feel that the existing political structure and world order (with a focus on globalization), harms and deprives them. Therefore, these groups are devoid of any commitment to those liberal values at the foundation of the existing order.

Russia and China’s strategic assertiveness – Russia and China do not accept the logic of a world order that does not reflect and respect their power and capabilities. They are acting with growing assertiveness on the global stage and expressing their aim to bring a new multi-polar order based on inter-power competition, in which the legitimacy of their status and interests are not subordinate to those of the United States.

While China leans on its economic power, Russia compensates for its weaknesses with aggression and by projecting its military power and sophisticated cyber-warfare capabilities. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s calls to bring an end to the Western-led world order, which took shape after the Cold War, and bring about a new world order that is not West-centric.10 Russia is taking advantage of U.S. reticence and Europe’s weakness and the challenges it faces in defining a unified and committed policy. Russia is increasing its involvement in Syria, completing its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and continuing its destabilization efforts in eastern Ukraine. With this behavior, Moscow is proving that a nominal summation of military capabilities is not enough in measuring actual power. A critical variable is how willing one is to actually use force.11

The strategic vacuum created by the U.S. during President Obama’s tenure, who preferred to “lead from behind,” sent a clear signal not just to Moscow. China is offering autocratic leaders around the world an alternative guiding model to follow: rapid and consistent economic development without the need for democracy. In 2015, China became the largest oil importer in the world, most of which comes from the Middle East. China is set to establish its first foreign naval base at the end of 2017, in Djibouti, which will allow it to secure maritime routes around the entrance to the Red Sea and Suez Canal, an area critical to Chinese trade. China is Africa’s largest trade partner and sees the Middle East as a promising market for its goods (in the decade between 2004 and 2014, China’s trade with the Middle East grew six-fold). It is not for naught that China includes the region in the framework of its “One Belt One Road” initiative intended to connect China with Europe and Asia encompassing a giant marketplace of 4.4 billion people in 26 nations. The Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was established by China to facilitate this regional integration program.

At the same time, China is raising serious concerns among its neighbors as it challenges international law through vigorous efforts to assert sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea. China is building artificial islands in the area and positioning missile batteries and military forces there (the South China Sea is rich in minerals and fishing resources, and hosts an important maritime route for trade amounting to $5 trillion annually). Although, in 1992, Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping clarified that his country needed “to maintain a low profile and never lead”; today’s Chinese leader, Xi Jing Ping, does not shy away from the challenge of leading the global economy and declared (January 17, 2017) that China should be the one to “guide economic globalization.” Israel has an interest in developing its relations with China and Russia, but in both cases, it must navigate these relationships cautiously given the inter-power rivalry and the preeminent interest of not harming its strategic relationship with the United States.

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