The coronavirus pandemic erupted in a world characterized by systemic “dis-order”: an eroding Western-liberal ethos, a rise in the relative power of autocratic China and Russia, a growing awareness of the negative consequences of globalization, a waning American inclination for world leadership, and a continuous weakening of the European Union. The lack of cooperation between the leaders of the great powers is eroding the effectiveness of international institutions. Against this background, the pandemic has evinced, since its earliest stages, an “every country for itself” posture, both in the healthcare sphere and in coping with the pandemic-driven economic crisis. At the same time, the sense that the world is on a positive trajectory – toward the reality of freedom, prosperity, social security, equal rights, and tolerance – has continued to falter.
The past decade witnessed numerous failures and disappointments: the 2008 financial crisis; growing economic inequality; the ebbing of hopes raised by the Arab Spring; terrorist attacks; migration waves; diminished governmental capacity for coping with challenges and retaining public confidence; the identity and economic crises afflicting Europe (the Brexit decision was reinforced in late 2019 by Boris Johnson’s electoral victory); US failures in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; Russian and Chinese aggression on the international stage; the problematic Iran nuclear deal and America’s withdrawal from it; the North Korean nuclear threat; international impotence in the face of the Syrian tragedy and the humanitarian disaster in Yemen; and more. According to Freedom House, 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of declining freedom worldwide.1
Based both on historical experience and on what current data suggest, a large proportion of these developments could potentially have a negative effect on attitudes toward the Jewish people, and anti-Semitism.
In keeping with his “America First” slogan, US President Donald Trump exhibits no interest in maintaining US stature as a world leader promoting democracy and human rights. He takes an unsentimental approach to the Western allies of the US, which he feels have taken advantage of American generosity, and should bear the cost of their own defense. Europe is unenthusiastic about President Trump’s conduct and is not rushing to join the American front vis-à-vis China, or to participate in sanctions against Iran.
Trump has little interest in fostering international institutions or international agreements. He abandoned the Paris Agreement on climate change (2019) and, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, announced the termination of US funding for the World Health Organization (WHO). Trump wants to reduce the American military presence beyond US borders. Accordingly, an agreement was signed with the Taliban (February 2020) aimed at withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan. Trump has also withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) originally signed with the Soviet Union in 1987. He opposes the UN-sponsored Global Compact for Migration, has cast doubt on US commitment to the NATO alliance, and has entered into a trade war with Beijing (with ups and downs: the two countries’ mutual interest in averting a crisis that would hurt both sides pushes them into interim agreements that lower the heat without solving the underlying problem of China’s behavior in the international trade arena). The pandemic has aggravated US-China conflict, with Trump claiming that China withheld critical information about COVID-19, which he calls “the Chinese virus.”
We cannot disregard the possibility of a new US administration taking office after the upcoming November elections, which would move the ideological pendulum in the opposite direction. There may be changes in both style and substance (the attitude toward international institutions and conventions, alliances such as NATO, the JCPOA, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more), but this does not necessarily signal a significant shift in US involvement in the Middle East. There is, however, relative consensus in the US with regard to China, which is seen as the fundamental threat driving US foreign policy.
Along with the Western liberal malaise, it is becoming clear that China’s growing power is the major trend of this period. China is channeling resources toward the building of a modern army; it is taking further aggressive measures to demonstrate its supremacy in the South China Sea (where five trillion dollars’ worth of merchandise is transported annually), and has not hesitated to impose its authority (belligerently) over Hong Kong, or to enter into confrontation with India. China offers an alternative political model to that of the West: rapid and steady economic development without a democratic system of government or respect for human rights, with the ruler’s legitimacy springing not from the voting booth but from his effectiveness and demonstrable achievement. As the US retreats from its commitments to the UN and other international organizations, China seems to be trying to fill the vacuum by expanding its international presence. In 2000, China contributed one percent of the UN budget, but its current share is 12 percent. This past year China surpassed the US in the number of its diplomatic missions around the world (276 to 273). China’s impressive economic growth has been proceeding apace for 40 years, and the country is working to ensure long-term markets for its products, and its ability to provide itself with energy, food, and minerals it requires. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is meant to connect it with Europe and Asia, encompassing a gigantic market of 4.4 billion people in 26 countries. The US is suspicious of the project and views it as a means of expanding China’s influence worldwide, by enlarging the circle of countries in debt to China and from which China will be able to exact future concessions.
The coronavirus pandemic and its associated economic damage could potentially throw a wrench into China’s plans. Projects meant to harness the country’s excess capacity could be delayed or even cancelled, the capital invested in them never to return. A prolonged decline in the growth rate would raise questions about the Chinese economy’s future resilience. At the same time, there has been a rise in negative sentiment toward China due to its lack of transparency on the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic within its borders. (China is attempting to compensate for this by providing medical assistance to countries hit hard by COVID-19.)
The growth of China’s middle class raises the possibility of civil-political pressures on the regime. The government may respond to domestic threats by restricting civil liberties, amplifying nationalist rhetoric, or even by deliberately intensifying confrontations in the international arena. Manifestations of the above could be seen this past year in its taking control of South China Sea outposts, the oppression of China’s Muslim minority, and the harsh response to civil unrest in Hong Kong.
Chinese interest in the Middle East has gradually been increasing. The Middle East is the source of 40 percent of China’s oil imports, and China is becoming the region’s biggest investor. China is signing trade agreements with many different countries – from Oman to Morocco; it is building ports, railroads, electrical infrastructure, roads, and more. It appears that, in the coming years, China will also be increasing its arms sales in the Middle East. Beijing and Tehran are moving ahead with a 25-year strategic economic and military cooperation agreement. Under this agreement, China will be investing 400 billion dollars in Iran and will in turn be supplied with discounted oil. This agreement (if it does materialize) may give Iran a strategic refuge from the American sanctions policy, and in so doing may significantly affect Israel’s security. China is also expressing interest in Lebanon and Syria, whose reconstruction cries out for large-scale investment. (Russia and Iran lack the necessary resources, while the West is unwilling to collaborate with Assad.)
Israel also appears on the map of China’s ambitious plans. In 2019, China was Israel’s second-largest trade partner, after the US. China is involved in major Israeli infrastructure projects: the Carmel tunnels; the Tel Aviv light rail system; the expansion and operation of Haifa Port; construction of a new port in Ashdod, and more. Washington has repeatedly warned Israel (and other countries in the region) that closer relations with China could harm Israel’s defense relationship with the US. And in fact, due to growing pressure by the Trump administration, Israel established (October 2019) a committee “to assess national security aspects of the foreign investment authorization process.” In May 2020, it was reported that the Chinese firm Hutchison had not won the tender for construction of the Soreq-2 desalination plant, slated to be the world’s largest, due to American pressure. It was likewise reported that the US had asked Israel not to purchase 5G cellular technology from China. The US has exerted similar pressure on other countries, arguing that cellular penetration allows China to conduct espionage and could even enable it to strike an economic blow in the event of a confrontation. Israel, of course, has an interest in cultivating good relations with China, but it has to navigate carefully due to the superpower rivalry, and the need to avoid damaging its strategic relationship with the US. The COVID-19 crisis could potentially increase the pressure on Israel from both Washington and Beijing, reducing its ability to maneuver. (For more on Israel and China, see JPPI reports)
Moscow is taking advantage of the current American focus on domestic issues to demonstrate its military prowess in various arenas. Claiming to have doubled its military capabilities over the past eight years, Russia has proven the seriousness of its intentions, from its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and occupation of territories in eastern Ukraine, to its military involvement in Syria and the Libyan civil war. Russia has been involved in an oil price war with Saudi Arabia and the US; it is supplying S-400 aerial defense systems to Turkey; it has reached an agreement, in principle, to sell Su-35 fighter jets to Egypt; and it is building Egypt’s first civilian nuclear reactor. Moscow is especially aggressive in the arms and energy markets and has displayed heightened activity in the Middle East as it strives to project strength vis-à-vis the US and NATO (more on this below).
Public discussion of the pandemic and its potential impact on the world order is often apocalyptic in tone, but it is necessary to exercise caution especially in relation to forecasts that are voiced unequivocally. Yet, the weighty questions raised by the crisis should not be ignored. How will the global economy be affected? Will the power balance be altered? Will there be open confrontation between the free world and its autocratic competitors? Should we expect social unrest, collapsed regimes, and a growing number of “failed states”? What will the future of globalization and migration waves be? Will we witness a rise in nationalism and a growing tendency toward closed borders and autarky? And, of course: how will the crisis affect the Middle East?
The answers to these questions have implications for the fate of Israel and the Jewish people. For example, globalization and free trade are well-suited to the comparative advantages of Israel’s export-oriented economy. A more protectionist world order could harm Israel, which currently benefits from its participation in free trade zones with the US and the European Union. Likewise, the vitality of Western Jewry owes much to the predominance of liberal-democratic values.
A society that is not committed to those values will tend to manifest more hostility and anti-Semitism, and feel less obligated to protect its Jewish minority (we are already seeing a rise in anti-Semitic incidents around the world. For more on this topic, see the JPPI’s Integrated Index, p. 81) Particularly troubling in this regard is the degree to which US international status is eroding – the US is the superpower whose friendship and aid are critical to Israel, and also home to a thriving community that amounts to half of world Jewry. This trend could lead to a gradual erosion of Israeli deterrence and the strength attributed to it.