“International disorder” continues to characterize the geopolitical arena. Since the end of the Cold War and the period of American hegemony that followed (1989 – 2001), the international system has yet to coalesce into a stable and functioning order. While the U.S. remains the strongest power in the world, the “American moment,” in which the U.S. enjoyed hegemonic status in a unipolar system, has passed. Recent frictions between the United States and Russia have at times been reminiscent of the mutual hostility that defined the Cold War years. Horrific terror attacks committed by ISIS around the world add to this sense of global disorder. Some attacks have been directed and initiated by the organization’s leadership, others were inspired and encouraged by its ideology. Alongside attacks in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Lebanon, ISIS has also been able to reach France, Belgium, Turkey, Tunisia, the United States, Egypt (downing a Russian passenger plane), Indonesia, Yemen, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and Germany.
However, there have also been a number of bright spots in the international arena over the past year: the UN Climate Summit reached its first agreement (December 12, 2015), committing the countries of the world to reduce carbon emissions in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Also, the Nuclear Security Summit (April 2016) made some progress in decreasing the threat of nuclear material falling into the hands of terror groups; (Russia, which holds the largest store of nuclear material, did not participate, due to tensions with the United States.).
The assertive and dominant forces in the international order today do not seem to draw from the values of liberal democracy that guided the United States as it attempted to reshape the international order after WWII, in a way that would increase stability, encourage liberty, and facilitate free trade. The appeal of these values has weakened as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, deepening social inequality brought on by globalization, the fading of hope initially sparked by the Arab Spring, and the crisis taking place in Europe, as expressed by the Brexit vote, which determined that Great Britain will leave the European Union (June 23, 2016).
Europe is mired in disagreement as to how to handle a litany of challenges: a million migrants from the Middle East and Africa, and the possibility that many more will come; the ISIS initiated terror attacks that shake the open border concept and the personal sense of security in Europe; political radicalization on both the right and left and the growing discomfort with the traditional political system; economic crises, especially the risk that Greece will declare bankruptcy and add to the trend of exiting the European Union.
Centers of tensions around the world, including Syria, the South China Sea, and Ukraine, hold the potential for serious deterioration. In parallel to the rise of China and the geopolitical challenge Moscow continues to pose to Washington, United States’ international stature continues to erode. The superpower – home to the most prosperous Jewish community and half of the Jewish people in the world – provides friendship and assistance critical to Israel.
The weakening of America’s international standing comes with another development that significantly threatens Israel’s basic interests – the growing American reluctance to maintain a hands on global presence, especially in the Middle East. The Sunni countries are concerned that the U.S. will neglect its special relationship with them in favor of a strategic reliance on Iran. The American president’s promise to Tehran that reaching a nuclear agreement would allow Iran to be “a successful regional power”1 is cause for trepidation in Saudi Arabia and the broader Sunni camp. They fear the nuclear agreement was part of a “grand bargain” granting Iran an upgraded regional status and hastening its quest for regional hegemony. Some in Washington are convinced that, in the long run, Iran is a preferable ally to Saudi Arabia. Its population is fairly modern, interested in democracy and progress, and is, overall, less hostile to the United States. The fact that ISIS is currently a common enemy of the U.S. and Iran strengthens this position. The moderate Arab camp’s disappointment in the United States’ regional conduct was thrown into sharp relief by President Obama’s reception at the GCC summit in Riyadh (April 20, 2016). The Saudi king received the heads of state from the Gulf countries, but sent the governor of Riyadh to greet the American president. A measure of humiliation was added when local television did not go to the trouble of broadcasting the arrival of the “leader of the free world.”
Israel will be significantly affected not just by the change in the quality of the relationship with Washington, but also by the change in America’s global standing. The growing regional perception that the U.S. – Israel’s strongest ally – is abandoning the Middle East, erodes Israel’s deterrence power. Insights offered pertaining to America’s decreased interest in the Middle East have included: Washington’s peaked interest in Asia, as it frees up more resources to deal with the challenge from China; its diminished dependence on energy imports; and growing disappointment with its inability to achieve its goals through the use of military force – especially in the Middle East.
Demurring from military action in Syria, despite the crossing of the “red line” the American president himself drew (the use of chemical weapons), provided an opening for Russia to aggressively reclaim its position as a regional power broker. Accepting the deterioration of central governance in Iraq, the collapse of Libya, and limiting the fight against ISIS essentially to aerial bombing and the deployment of military advisers and trainers – are all emblematic of America’s willingness to close the current chapter of its military presence in the region. Many in the U.S. feel that this involvement, which came with a heavy cost of blood and treasure, failed to achieve significant goals. The decreased U.S. appetite for involvement in the Middle East is coming to the fore, ironically, as the region is in the midst of a storm and needs the stabilizing force of a superpower.
At the same time, many commentators reject the claims of declining U.S. power and present data that prove that it remains the leading global power: from its military and economic might through the excellence of its universities. However, it is not enough to possess impressive capabilities if the regional perception is that the U.S. does not intend to stay and use them.
In opposition to the voices in the U.S. advocating disengagement from the Middle Eastern “hornet’s nest,” there are other voices warning that if the U.S. were to disengage from the region it would undermine global security, invite strikes inside the U.S., and potentially ignite a nuclear war. They admonish that it would lead to a global economic crisis (even if the U.S. itself is not dependent on Middle Eastern oil – disruptions to the supply can harm the global economy, on which the U.S. is dependent and an integral part).
President Obama continues citing his ending America’s ground wars, which had mandated the presence of tens of thousands of American troops, as a foreign policy achievement – one of the jewels in the crown of his presidency. He is doubtful of America’s attempt to define the geopolitical reality on its own. According to him, many of the world’s problems do not have quick solutions, if any at all, and need to be solved within collective international frameworks that privilege diplomacy over the use of force. According to Obama, American interests at times require “leading from behind” and sometimes not at all.
The “Obama Doctrine,” laid out in a series of interviews the president gave to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg,2 sees America’s use of military force as a recipe that mostly leads to failure. Justified use of force, according to this approach, only pertains to direct and imminent threats to U.S. national security. This is the result of the failure of U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which left the American public war-weary and suspicious of foreign military adventures. The president’s adviser, Ben Rhodes, clarified explicitly that the president is convinced that “deepening the military involvement in the Middle East will eventually hurt the economy, and hurt America’s ability to identify new opportunities and face additional challenges, and perhaps more importantly – threaten the lives of American soldiers for reasons not directly in the interest of U.S. national security.”3 There are even those who regard Obama’s stubborn resolve to reach a nuclear deal with Iran as an important milestone in the disengagement of American commitments in the region. Obama is not impressed with Russia’s presence in the Middle East. In his view, Russia will soon find itself mired in the “regional swamp.”
Obama is also not impressed by the axiom that a power like the United States needs to maintain credibility in the international arena, and that if an American president draws a “red line” that is crossed, he must respond, no matter what. In his opinion, blindly following this principle led to the bloody entanglement in Vietnam. Obama’s America does not assist in any way in which innocents are killed, and does not need to send its troops to fight Russia over spheres of influence like Ukraine.
From President Obama’s perspective, the economic future lies in Asia along many strategic challenges. Goldberg writes that the president is prepared to open a discussion questioning whether those considered friends of the U.S. are indeed friends, and if those considered enemies are indeed so. Despite that Obama maintained Israel’s QME (Qualitative Military Edge) throughout his presidency, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that the president challenged this notion in one discussion, asking: “Why does the U.S. need to maintain Israel’s QME, which provides it with access to the most advanced U.S. arms, more than to America’s Arab allies.”4
Obama has also questioned the value of America’s relationships with Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, while in the same breath noting the potential for developing relations with Iran. The president has also expressed his discomfort with “free loaders” in the Middle East and Europe –who expect the U.S. to shed its blood and drain its budget on their behalf.
The question that remains is whether the Obama Doctrine will continue to define American foreign policy after Obama himself exits the White House. In other words, to what extent is U.S. conduct in the international arena a result of the personality and proclivities of a particular president, and to what extent does it derive from deeper demographic, ideological, and political processes.
The strategic vacuum left by the United States is not only a signal to Moscow. China is offering Middle Eastern autocrats a more palatable model for emulation: rapid and constant economic development without a democratic system of government. The Chinese president rushed to visit Iran after the nuclear agreement was signed (January 23, 2016) in order to open a “new chapter” in relations between the two countries (he also visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia). China, in 2015, became the largest oil importer in the world, most of which comes from the Middle East. China sees the region as a promising market for its goods, and includes the Middle East in the framework of its ” One Belt, One Road” initiative” intended to connect China to Europe and Asia creating a giant market comprising 4.4 billion people in 26 countries. “The Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank” (AIIB) established by China is intended to support this program and China’s involvement in the region. In parallel to this activity, China is stirring up real concern among its neighbors and is challenging international law with moves to fulfill its claims to sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea. China is constructing artificial islands in the region and positioning missiles and military forces on them. (The sea is rich in mineral and fishing resources, and provides cargo shipping lanes valued at over 5 trillion dollars a year.)
Despite fatigue and doubts about distant military involvement, it is too early to presume the direction American foreign policy will take following the elections. The history of American foreign policy is characterized by cycles of isolationism and active intervention, and some claim that the scales will tilt toward a more assertive and active foreign policy after the Obama era. Even one especially harsh terrorist attack originating from the Middle East could be enough to catapult the region back to the top of America’s foreign policy agenda. Another possibility is that Russian and Chinese challenges to U.S. leadership will elicit an American reaction.