About a week or so before Hamas carried out the vicious assault on southern Israel earlier this month, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said while speaking at The Atlantic Festival that the Middle East was “quieter” at that point than it had been “in two decades.”
It turns out the October 7th attack came as a surprise not only to the Israelis – preoccupied with an uptick in violence in the West Bank, domestic strife and a religious holiday – but also to their American allies, who had convinced themselves that peace in the region was within reach as Israel and Saudi Arabia negotiated a historic diplomatic deal.
Intelligence failures aside, regional dynamics have now been completely upended, and the entire world is on the brink of a conflagration whose proportions are hard to predict or envision.
Since the crisis’ outbreak, US President Joe Biden has increasingly followed a two-pronged tactic. On one hand, he has showed steadfast diplomatic and military support for Israel. This reportedly stems both from his deeply held and long-standing beliefs on the issue, and from a desire to make it clear to Hamas as well as Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah that this is not the time to take on Israel.
On the other hand, Biden and his officials have been whispering not so quietly in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hear that a ground invasion of Gaza might be a big mistake, not unlike the sclerotic, costly and ultimately failed US response to the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001. At the time of writing, and nearly four weeks after Hamas’ infiltration and killing of more than 1400 civilians, Israel’s forces have just entered Gaza at scale, though its continued bombing campaign on the blockaded enclave has only intensified – resulting in the death of more than 9,000 Palestinians so far, according to figures from Hamas officials.
One might say that Biden’s approach has a tinge of “have your cake and eat it too,” but the bottom line is that what the US wants in the short term is to avoid an escalation of the fighting that could quickly get out of control and turn into an even deadlier regional, and perhaps even global, conflict.
But outside of putting the lid back on the boiling pot of water that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a lid unlikely to ever stay there very long given the dire situation on the ground – it is not at all clear what the US wants or can do in the long run. That is especially true as spiraling violence and rage on both sides further undermines whatever pro-peace voices might have been left. The Biden administration says it remains committed to a two-state solution, but what that would even look like becomes murkier and murkier as Israeli settlements expand in patchy fashion.
The US’s lack of foreign policy foresight is on display not only in the Middle East, but across the world. What is Washington’s end game with respect to Russia, China, Iran? All-out victory in Ukraine? It seems unlikely. Regime-change in Moscow, Beijing and Teheran? Good luck with that. Some form of peaceful coexistence and economic reengagement but on Washington’s terms, given certain, unlikely, accommodations by the other parties? That might just be wishful thinking.
The truth is America today is consumed by profound domestic woes, to which it seems unable to find a solution. Domestic fractures include the legacy of slavery and widespread racism and inequality that are still very much alive; the lack of compromise on sensitive issues like gun control and abortion; the unwillingness to establish any healthcare-for-all that would finally free Americans, insured or not, from the constant fear of medical emergencies sending them into a financial tailspin.
And it does not end there.
The US has an old and outdated electoral system that increasingly makes a mockery of what Americans still like to think of as the most extraordinary democratic experiment history has ever seen.
In parallel, the country’s ethnic, political and religious diversity has exploded over the past decade. That is long overdue and, in general, excellent news as previously disenfranchised voices have gained the power to be heard. However, at present, it makes for an extremely divided polity that ranges from messianic, gun-toting Christian conservatives to ruthlessly capitalistic global corporations, from vegan activists to transgender youth of color. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ensuing debate verges toward paralysis if not full-on mutual hatred.
For the US to work its way through these tensions, if it ever can, will take a lot of time, patience and hard work. Just telling by the dysfunctional dynamics in Congress and the tired race for the 2024 elections, with the threat of the possible re-election of ex-President Donald Trump looming large on the horizon, it certainly won’t happen overnight.
Where does that leave its foreign policy? Well, a bit marginalized, stale and primarily driven by inertia (nobody needs to worry that the Pentagon will stop getting its endless flow of funds). What America wants right now is to retain its relative, albeit declining, status as the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country –at the smallest possible human and economic cost to itself. Cue Washington’s push to thwart what seemed like China’s unstoppable rise or remotely supply Ukraine with weapons to fight Russia while, simultaneously, enlisting allies to do a good chunk of the work on both fronts.
For obvious reasons, long gone are the expensive Bush-era military adventures to democratize the world or the practical willingness to act as the world’s police. However, no truly ambitious or innovative thinking about what a new American foreign policy should look like in the long-term has since emerged to take the place of those cowboys days. What is left is basic containment with no prospects or end in sight, across a world where crises old and new are now predictably breaking out or reigniting every day. It all feels a bit like desperately plugging the holes of a sinking ship.
To end where we began: in an article published in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan specifically makes the case for a domestic-driven US foreign policy.
“This administration came to office believing that international power depends on a strong domestic economy and that the strength of the economy is measured not just by its size or efficiency but also by the degree to which it works for all Americans and is free of dangerous dependencies,” Sullivan writes.
He then goes on to list the successes of the president’s signature Bidenomics — or emphasis on revamping the national industrial base and supply chain — the administration’s ongoing efforts to remake the US military for a more competitive future, and the painstaking knitting of old and new strategic alliances from NATO to AUKUS. The ultimate goal, Sullivan states, is to isolate adversaries and deliver a better “value proposition” to the rest of the world that they could ever offer.
That might very well be what America needs right now – one could argue that it really has no other choice, particularly since any failure by this administration to improve lives in the US risks resulting in a new, destabilizing Trump presidency. Europeans – having gone, and in fact still going through the process of building the common market and the European Union from the ashes of World War II – should understand what an all-consuming heavy lifting it is to remake a continent.
But Sullivan’s value proposition can’t help but fall a bit flat, more corporate speak at earnings time than visionary statesmanship. In addition, the world has a way of intruding at the most inconvenient of times, and it is not just going to sit back while the US fixes itself.
Perhaps, this fragmented planet, disintegrating before our eyes amid its myriad intractable conflicts, will put pressure on the US to more quickly come up with creative foreign policy solutions that are more apt to a multipolar 21st Century. Let’s just hope it does not all go to hell in a handbasket in the meantime.