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2019 Annual Assessment

Developments of the past decade have raised doubts about the stability of the world order that has prevailed since the early days of Israeli statehood. The contours of this world order, which emerged after World War II, reflected the rivalry between liberal-democratic and authoritarian forces; however, the Western nations, first and foremost the United States, were able to imbue the global system and its institutions with liberal-democratic values. At the heart of the liberal-democratic ethos lies the assumption that peace and prosperity are attainable when nations embrace democracy and exalt the values of freedom and human rights.

However, the vision embodied by this world order – a vision centered around security, stability, freedom, and prosperity – was never fully realized. The past decade’s failures and disappointments are legion: the financial crisis of 2008; worsening economic inequality; the fading of the hopes awakened by the Arab Spring; terrorist attacks; mass migration; an eroding sense of personal security. For governments, these problems have manifested in: a growing inability to cope with local and global challenges (due, among other things, to a shift in power and resources from the state to multinational corporations); the identity and economic crises that have been plaguing Europe; Brexit; the failures racked up by the US in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; Iran’s subversive efforts and the problematic nuclear deal from which the US withdrew; the nuclear threat posed by North Korea; international helplessness in the face of the Syrian tragedy; and more.
These difficulties have amplified the trends that are eroding the liberal-democratic ethos: populism, nationalism, hostility toward elites (which are often identified with liberal-democratic regimes), protectionism, trade wars, political extremism, the rise of the far right, national and cultural separatism, the exclusion of minorities and foreigners, the closing of borders to immigrants, the struggle against globalization, and more. According to Freedom House, there has been a consistent global decline in political rights and civil liberties in the past 13 years.1 It is hardly surprising that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has dismissed liberalism as “obsolete.”2

As the signs of a crumbling world order proliferate, an alternative has appeared with growing appeal. China offers a different regime model to that of the West, one that secures rapid and steady economic development without democratic governance or respect for human rights, and in which the government’s legitimacy derives not from electoral approval but from functional effectiveness and visible accomplishments. China’s impressive economic growth has continued undisrupted for 40 years, and the country is working to ensure long-term markets for its goods and services, as well as securing its own energy, food, and mineral resources. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, aimed at connecting China with Europe and Asia, will encompass a gigantic market of 4.4 billion people across 26 different countries. The US is suspicious of the project, seeing it as a means of extending Chinese influence worldwide. But other countries are not impressed by the warnings emanating from Washington. In April 2019, China hosted 37 foreign leaders and 5000 participants from 150 countries and 90 international organizations at its Belt and Road Summit. Most of the attendees want to be part of the project.

Because half the oil China consumes is from the Middle East, China’s interest in the region is on the rise, along with its investments. Israel is also on China’s ambitious planning map: in 2019 China became Israel’s second-largest trading partner, after the US. China is involved in major Israeli infrastructure projects: the Carmel tunnels; the Tel Aviv light rail; the Port of Haifa expansion and its operation for a 25-year period, starting in 2021; a new port in Ashdod, and more. Israel clearly has an interest in cultivating relations with China, but it must tread carefully, given the current inter-power rivalry and the necessity of avoiding damage to its strategic relations with the US. Washington has already warned Israel that its burgeoning relationship with China could potentially damage security cooperation with the US. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has publicly cautioned Israel that intelligence sharing could be curtailed.3

The authoritarian powers in competition with US – China and Russia – see themselves in historical perspective as superpowers, and do not accept the idea of a world order dictated by the West that disregards their might. They are growing more strategically assertive, and claiming legitimacy as superpowers equal to US or Europe (which shows signs of ongoing weakness). Under President Putin, Russia, which invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula and holds portions of eastern Ukraine, has demonstrated its willingness to fire upon and seize Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait (November 25, 2018). Russia has sent bombers to Venezuela, which has tense relations with the US; it signaled its strength to the West with Vostok 2018, a large-scale military exercise with 300,000 troops, 36,000 tanks, and 1,000 aircraft; it is a major force dictating arrangements in Syria; and it competes with the US for the Middle East arms market.

China, for its part, is pumping resources into the creation of a modern military (the Chinese defense budget is the world’s second-largest, after the US), and is taking aggressive measures to assert sovereignty in the South China Sea. Early this year, President Xi Jinping instructed his armed forces to prepare for war and reiterated China’s right to use force to ensure unification with Taiwan.

One can speculate that, for the foreseeable future, the “world order” (some call it the “world disorder”) will increasingly reflect Russia’s and China’s growing power and strategic assertiveness. Declining US interest in international dominance will help this process along.

Policymakers in Israel and the Jewish world cannot change global trends, but it is nevertheless their duty to assess the potential implications of these trends for Israel and the Jewish people. A world order that attaches less importance to democracy and human rights will reduce pressure on Israel to put an end to the current situation, in which it has to use force in order to advance its interests and ensure its security, and in which it continues (in the terminology of its critics) to “control another people lacking national and political rights.” In such a world, it will also be easier for Israel to take unilateral measures in the territories. It should, however, be noted that “unsentimental” behavior in the international arena, displaying indifference to values-based discourse, could cause problems for Israel should superpower interests diverge from its own. Particularly troubling in this regard is the eroding status of the US, the superpower whose friendship has been critical for Israel, and which also houses a thriving community that constitutes half of the Jewish people. This trend could lead to a gradual erosion of Israeli deterrence and perceived strength.

Finally, the global situation described here poses a dilemma for Israel: how to interact with countries that display friendship for Israel but whose rulers deviate from democratic norms and under whose leadership anti-Semitic elements flourish.

The US: growing internal polarization

In keeping with his “America first” slogan, President Trump shows no interest in maintaining the status of the US as a world leader promoting democracy and human rights. He takes an unsentimental view of the country’s Western allies, which he feels have abused American generosity; he demands that these allies be self-reliant in terms of defense spending. Trump has little interest in cultivating international institutions or conventions. He has abandoned the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal and is withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Moscow;4 he opposes the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; and has given European leaders cause for concern about his commitment to NATO. He embraces protectionism and is engaged in a trade war with Beijing (characterized by ups and downs due to a mutual interest in avoiding a crisis that would harm both parties). He is reducing foreign aid and funding for international institutions; he bickers with traditional US allies (except, so far, for Israel), and does not hide his sympathy for dictators. Despite Trump’s desire not to waste resources in the international arena, it poses challenges for him, entailing hard decisions that are difficult to evade. His approach regarding the customary fundamentals of US foreign policy and his propensity for theatricality could lead him into unexpected policy choices.

Trump’s decisions on a few specific issues will determine the contours of the international arena over the coming year. These include the Iran crisis and how to handle it (more on this below), and how to complete the negotiation process initiated with North Korea.

The Trump presidency reflects and clarifies the ideological polarization that currently prevails in the US. We cannot discount the possibility that, after Trump leaves the White House, the ideological pendulum will swing back; but even such a reversal would not necessarily mean increased American involvement in the world, as proven during the Barak Obama administration, and as statements by 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls have indicated.

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