The choice that Washington will face is between continuing to strive for dominance or working together with other powers—NATO in Europe, the Israeli-Arab partnership in the Middle East, and the Quad in Asia—to contain threats to the international system.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greatest superpower of all? That is the question being asked once again by foreign policy pundits in Washington, as elsewhere—bearing in mind, as America and the world enter into 2024, that changes in the global balance of power do not develop linearly and tend to run contrary to earlier predictions. The new year found the United States engaged diplomatically and militarily on three global fronts: responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine by strengthening the Western alliance; containing the Chinese geo-strategic and geo-economic surge and, in particular, its threat to Taiwan’s independence; dealing with the threat posed by Iran—and its regional proxies—to America’s allies in the Middle East, amid the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas War.
One way of assessing the American responses to these challenges is to see them as part of an effort by an embattled global hegemon to maintain the international order it had established, together with its allies, in the aftermath of World War II. It was within this order that America gained a dominant position in the “unipolar moment” following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the ushering in of the era of globalization.
This international order seems, so far, to have withstood the test of strategic and diplomatic challenges that ensued following the costly U.S. military fiascos in the Greater Middle East. True, the Americans failed to remake the Middle East through regime changes and nation-building. This, in turn, led to the humiliating withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, which raised doubts about the ability of the U.S. to maintain its global leadership position. And yet other aspects of recent events proved that America can still shape the global agenda.
Thus, while the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing fears of the return of the Great Recession did seem to pose a threat to U.S. global economic supremacy when China was pumping its economic muscles, it actually served as a stress test for the ongoing U.S.-led economic globalization and trade liberalization.
However, it had taken time for Americans and Western Europeans to recognize the economic and military costs resulting from American military interventions in the Middle East as well as from trade liberalization policies in the form of rising financial budget deficits and socio-economic dislocations. These effects helped produce the political backlash that brought about the rise of populism, leading eventually to Brexit and later to the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and the rise of critics of globalization elsewhere.
Political changes that reflected growing isolationist and protectionist public sentiments, therefore, constrained American politicians from pursuing grandiose strategic designs or even limited military interventions abroad. They also made it more difficult to promote globalization as a central form of geo-economic policymaking. This explains American reluctance to react more assertively in response to the Russian attack on Georgia in 2008 and its invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the effort on the part of Washington to avoid a military conflict with Iran through the signing of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran.
At the same time, the rising geo-economic status of China has ignited bipartisan anti-China attitudes in Washington, increasingly constraining U.S. engagement with China and replacing the reigning free trade agenda with a more-or-less economic nationalist paradigm. The latter became even more dominant during the coronavirus pandemic and following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Indeed, Putin’s aggression—coupled with the continuing global rise of China—helped convince Western elites that economic interdependence in itself doesn’t necessarily help resolve national conflicts; if anything, it tends to aggravate them. Hence, the pursuit of national interest should be central to U.S. foreign policy. Washington faced the acute re-emergence of great power competition, being forced to revitalize the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and establish a meshing network of similar military partnerships across the Pacific. At the same time, America used its military production base as well as economic power to punish Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and limited China’s access to new technologies that could be applied for military purposes.
The new balance of power that reflects this continuing great power competition and seems increasingly driven by nationalist and protectionist pressures will dominate the geo-strategic and geo-economic map of 2024.
At its center will remain the United States and its Western allies—still powerful, even as they face an evolving axis of authoritarian regimes led by Russia and China, including North Korea as well as Iran and its proxies—whose aim is to weaken America’s global position and the international order it has been trying to defend.
As 2023 ended, the United States was challenged to maintain its global position as its partners—Ukraine in Europe and Israel in the Middle East—were under pressure from anti-Western powers that were aggressively seeking to overthrow the status quo. In Europe, after the failure of Ukraine’s counter-offensive, Russia is now in a better position to preserve its hold over those parts of Ukraine, and in particular Crimea, that are presently under its control. Growing resistance among isolationist Republicans to increasing U.S. military and economic aid to Ukraine plays directly into the hands of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who may well hope to see Donald Trump again in the White House in 2024.
If that happens—and with America’s European allies unable or unwilling to replace Washington as Ukraine’s supporter of last resort—there will be growing pressure on Kyiv to agree to a ceasefire and eventually make a diplomatic deal with Moscow. While it’s possible that Ukraine would be invited to join the European Union (EU) and perhaps even NATO at some point in the future, any agreement between Russia and Ukraine would leave Putin in a stronger position, especially if a second-term President Trump, as many expect, would take steps to weaken American commitment to NATO.
Under these circumstances, standing up to Iran’s challenge in the Middle East assumes global as well as regional importance. Much would depend on President Joe Biden’s evolving response to the currently successful effort by Iran and its regional allies and proxies, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and the rebel Houthi regime in Yemen, to challenge the American position in the Middle East. Indeed, Hamas’ attack on Israel succeeded in sabotaging an American strategy of normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and creating an Arab-Israeli partnership aimed at containing Iran and its camp.
Hamas’ assault, coupled with Hezbollah’s strikes against northern Israel, has shattered the latter’s deterrence and, by extension, America’s effort to shift the balance of power in the region in its favor. Hoping to repair it, the Americans have deployed two aircraft carrier strike forces, air assets, and a marines’ contingent to the Middle East as a warning to Iran to refrain from turning the Gaza war into a regional conflagration. But when it comes to dealing directly with Iran, the Biden administration has refrained, until recently, from responding to strikes by its proxies against American forces in Syria and Iraq—or, for that matter, to the Houthis’ threat to international shipping—through direct military attacks on Iranian targets.
The Iranians may be translating this American caution as weakness and assuming that notwithstanding Biden’s rhetoric and the deployment of the U.S. aircraft carriers, the American president is worried about the potential fallout from direct U.S. military intervention. That could lead to war with Iran at a time when the United States is confronting Russia in Ukraine and is worried about the threat of a Chinese attack against Taiwan. The Iranians reckon that the Americans don’t have the military resources to fight on three fronts and that the American people don’t want to be drawn into a new quagmire in the Middle East. They wonder, therefore: When push comes to shove, would Biden be ready to pull the trigger?
At one point, President Biden may have no choice but to demonstrate to the Iranians that they are wrong—if he, indeed, wants to reassert the balance of power that collapsed on October 7. If not, Iran and its proxies could succeed in establishing a new balance of power in the Middle East in which Israel is damaged, Hamas isn’t destroyed, and the normalization of relations between the Israelis and the Saudis is stalled.
While all this would not amount to Iranian “victory,” it would provide Tehran with more power and encourage the Gulf Arab states to appease it, as well as strengthen the position of Russia and China. Iran has been expanding its ties with Russia and providing it with drones and other weaponry, while China has been trying to increase its influence in the Middle East and even succeeded in mediating a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran aimed (among other purposes) to end the civil war in Yemen.
Both Russia and China are trying to build up their geo-economic stature by increasing diplomatic and economic ties with oil-producing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The perception that America is in decline in the Middle East would encourage them to make deals with Moscow and Beijing, in addition to Tehran. Given this perspective, if Biden refrains from pulling the trigger in the emerging duel with Iran, he will increase the chances that the Islamic Republic will be able to attain a dominant role in the Persian Gulf and the Levant and thus would be in a stronger position to achieve its long-term goal of evicting the United States from the Middle east altogether—and in the process, eliminating what it views as America’s proxy, Israel. Before this comes to pass, the perception of American weakness would debilitate Washington’s leverage over the Arab oil states and allow Beijing and Moscow a wider strategic opening in the region.