THE MIDDLE EASTERN FIASCO AND THE IMPERATIVE OF NEW WORLD ORDER
Gennady Shkliarevsky, Professor Emeritus, History
The latest eruption of deadly violence in the Middle East has shaken the world and divided it into two opposing camps: those that support Israel and those that support Palestinians. From the day of the outbreak of hostilities both sides have been engaged in vitriolic exchanges with much finger pointing and mutual accusations and recriminations. Protests and demonstrations, often accompanied by violence, occur these days in major cities around the globe. Supporters of Israel blame Hamas for starting this cycle of violence by launching an attack against Israel and for torturing, and killing hostages captured during the assault. In their view, the atrocities committed by Hamas totally justify Israel’s subsequent response: bombardments, the blockade, and the current ground IDF operations in the city.
The other camp puts the blame on Israel for its policies that for over forty years have been denying Palestinians the right of self-determination, depriving them of their land and homes, and by systematically oppressing and persecuting them. They also criticize Israel’s response in the current crisis; they claim that the punishment of innocent civilians whose lives have become living hell is completely disproportionate to the cruelties Hamas’ assault.
This division has affected even international organizations that are supposed to remain neutral and promote peace. Instead, these organizations have become embroiled in controversies. In his speech to the Security Council the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres criticized IDF for using what the Secretary considered excessive force against civilians. He also emphasized the importance of recognizing that the attack against Israel did not happen in a vacuum. “The Palestinian people,” Guterres said, “have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.”
In a rebuttal to Guterres’ speech, the foreign minister of Israel published a list of children killed by Hamas. He also criticized the Secretary directly by saying that “there is no room for a balanced approach” when children were targeted victims of terrorists. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s representative to the UN, called for Guterres’ resignation and pledged to wear a yellow start until he apologizes for his words.
Although the two positions on the war in the Middle East cannot be any more different, they do share some commonalities. Both sides focus primarily on Israel and Hamas. Although they do mention other players, both regional (Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq), as well as non-regional (China, Russia), they seek solutions at the local level. Critics of Israel demand that hostilities should be stopped immediately and negotiations should start as soon as possible. They also believe that the only lasting solution to this situation would be to grant full statehood to Palestinians—the so-called two-state solution. Supporters of Israel see a complete destruction of Hamas and returning to a status-quo ante bellum as the only route to be pursued. Both solutions bear unmistakable signs of partisan bias. For this reason, the solution proposed by one side is totally unacceptable to the other. Finally, both camps see the United States as part of the solution, not part of the problem.
For decades the US government has been and remains the most important outside player in the Middle Eastern power game. The role of a mediator—a kind of honest broker—in the conflict between Israel and Palestinians has been and remains central in the America’s Middle Eastern policies. Over the years the U.S. has provided generous assistance to both sides in an effort to cajole them—one could say to buy them—to follow policies made in Washington as the only path to peace in the Middle East.
After the outbreak of the current war, the U.S. has offered generous assistance to boost the Israeli military capabilities. It has also dispatched two aircraft carrier groups to the eastern Mediterranean and even deployed 900 American soldiers to the area; the prospects of additional deployments remain very strong. Israel has also been a beneficiary of the consistent American political, military, and humanitarian support. At the same time, the U.S. government has pressured and continues to pressure Israel to delay or pause its ground operations in Gaza and to provide humanitarian corridors for evacuating the wounded and civilians. The Biden government has also pledged $100 million in humanitarian aid for Palestinians.
By all indications the U.S is trying to reconcile the two sides and, as an immediate goal, to bring them to the negotiations table. The Biden government has recently tried to convince Israel to make a pause in its ground operations in Gaza. Israel has rejected this proposal in no uncertain terms by calling a pause “not negotiable.”
A long-term solution still remains unclear but a status quo ante bellum is definitely a desirable goal. Although Biden has openly endorsed a two-state solution, he has offered no road map on how to achieve this goal. Biden’s endorsement has drawn very strong criticisms both in Israel and in the United States.
Despite enormous political and material capital that the United States has committed to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, prospects for a solution appear to be dim. Yet finding a solution is enormously important for the United States, as it will certainly strengthen America’s dominant position in the world. Much of American international reputation now depends on the resolution of the conflict between Israel and Palestinians.
The Palestinian problem has been simmering for a very long time. It emerged shortly after the creation of the state of Israel and persists to this day without any signs of abatement. Why despite decades of promises, commitments, and proposals, the conflict persists? What is the source of its resilience?
Most analysts and policy makers focus on Israel and Palestinians as the two principal actors in this conflict. Although many contributors are aware of the broader context of the Middle Eastern situation, in their view, this context plays a subsidiary, rather than central role. The general assumption is that the source of the conflict is local—the relations between Israel and Palestinians. The assumption is the heart of practically all approaches toward solving the Middle Eastern problem. However, none of tried approaches has produced any significant result. Today, the situation in the Middle East is no better than it was in the past, and the war is a convincing proof of this point.
Failures to solve the problem on the local level suggest that the source of this conflict is not where most observers assume it is. In other words, the source is not local and, consequently, is outside the frame of vision use by most analysts. If a problem does not originate on the local level, an approach that assumes a local origin of the problem cannot succeed in finding a solution.
It is worth recalling that two major developments preceded the emergence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One was definitely local: the creation of the state of Israel. The other development was global: the beginning of the Cold War that followed shortly after the end of WWII. Following the defeat of Germany and the collapse of world empires, the two major powers that inherited the chaotic and conflict-ridden world—the United States and the Soviet Union—faced a formidable task of creating a new world order. The two countries were in competition with each other. This competition played a critical role in shaping the subsequent course of world events.
After the initial skirmishes that took place shortly after the end of the war, the two sides settled into an uneasy state of equilibrium. The rivals—the West and the Soviet Union—divided the world into two parts. The United States was the principal force in the bloc that united Western capitalist countries. It became known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO for short. The Soviet Union was the dominant power in the bloc of Eastern Central European countries that emulated the Soviet socialist model. This bloc became known as the Warsaw Treaty Organization, or the Warsaw Pact for short.
Thus, the world settled into the state of fragile balance that characterized the Cold War.
The Cold War rivalry lasted for more than five decades. It ended only with the demise of communism, collapse of the communist bloc, and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. The Cold War gave the world a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity that was occasionally disrupted by conflicts between the two superpowers. This rivalry affected many countries; many local conflicts reflected this competition since both superpowers used local proxies to settle their differences. This rivalry also shaped developments in the Middle East. Early in the confrontation between Israel and Palestinian Arabs the United States took the side of Israel and helped to turn it into a formidable military force and economic power in the region. The Soviet Union backed the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO, that represented the interests of the Palestinian people.
The PLO became an important client of the Soviet Union that served its interests. Thus the global rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States interfered and shaped the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Thus two global superpowers contributed to the rise of the conflict by instigating their respective clients to pursue policies that represented their patrons’ interests. This brief overview shows that global relations between the two superpowers were the principal source of the origin and persistence of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. If the source of thee conflict is global, we would be well advised to look for a solution on the global, not local level.
The collapse of communism and the dismantling of the Soviet Union dramatically transformed the international situation. As a result of these changes, the United States emerged as the sole superpower—the heir to the divided world. It was now a U.S. responsibility to bring this world together.
The situation that emerged at the end of the Cold War represented one of those opportune moments that history rarely offers. The world was in flux, which presented a real opportunity to create a new world order that would bring peace, security, and justice to all nations in equal measure, rather than to recreate a version of the old order based in exclusion and inequality. The United States could lead the world in pursuit of the dream that the millennia of human history had failed to achieve. Such new order could bring peace and justice to all nations.
Unfortunately, the United States did not rise to the occasion. It lacked the creative drive and intellectual resources to accomplish this task. Rather than create a world order that would eliminate inequality and domination, the United States attempted to create an order that was in an important way similar to those in the past. Just like in the past, the foundation of the order created by the United States was one based on exclusion, inequality, and domination—the domination by the United States of America.
Just like its predecessors who had claimed exclusive global power and domination, the United States has created the world order that was also based on inequality; this order was inherently undemocratic. The intention of American policy makers was a world system in which the U.S. would dominate and rule the world as the sole arbiter. With this in mind, American political elites proceeded to expand American influence by using all available means at their disposal: political, economic, military, and cultural. The United States insisted in particular on expanding NATO into East Central Europe and even beyond.
It sought to curb Russia’s power by fragmenting the Russian state into its constituent parts. It also made attempts to gain control of the countries states had previously been part of the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizia, Armenia, Moldova, and others. If succeeded, the United States would surround Russia. By denying a security zone to Russia, the U. S. would effectively turn Russia into a subservient state that would have no choice but the follow the master’s decisions. Russia then would be well on its way to becoming a U.S. client with little, if any, sovereignty.
A world order based on the domination by one country or a group of countries is inherently unstable. By denying equality to other countries, the hegemonic power inevitably becomes a target for those that are excluded and disempowered. For them, it would be a matter of survival, national honor, and dignity to subvert and even destroy such system of unequal relations.
That was to be the fate of the Pax Americana that has witnessed the rise of China that has become a powerhouse of the world economy. Its economic strength has enhanced China’s military capabilities and political capital. China is now determined to use its enhanced position in the world to support its political claims and ambitions in the Far East and other parts of the globe.
During the same period, the world has witnessed a dramatic recovery of Russia after almost two decades of decline and malaise. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced an almost total collapse of its economy, the weakening of its formerly formidable military might, and the demise of its political influence.
Yet despite bad prognoses, Russia has been able to recover and turn into a major regional power that has a modern and well-trained army that at least some consider today to be the best in the world. Russia’s resurgent assertiveness has become a serious obstacle to American plans for expanding NATO deep into what Russia sees as its legitimate security zone. This renewed rivalry between the United States and Russia is one important reason that contributed to the war in Ukraine.
The search for domination has brought the United States to the current situation where it witnesses multiple challenges that are extremely difficult or even impossible to surmount. In one of his public comments on the two wars in which the U.S. is involved—the war in Ukraine and the war in the Middle East—Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, one of the hawks in Congress, offered this somber reflection: “In many ways the world is more endangered today than it has been in my lifetime.”
The United States, McConnell continued, faces a “big power competition” along with terrorist threats around the world. “You have to respond to conditions that actually exist,” McConnell said, “that are a threat to the United States. The Iranians are a threat to us as well. And so, this is an emergency. It’s an emergency that we step up and deal with this axis of evil–China, Russia, Iran–because it’s an immediate threat to the United States.” Senator Lindsay Graham has echoed the same concern during his visit to Israel. A similar warning has also come from many media sources.
American global ambitions have contributed to the outbreak of the war between Israel and Hamas. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for control of the region. This competition ended with the fall of communism and the Soviet departure from the Middle East. The United States has emerged as the sole arbiter in the region. This new role required the capacity to balance and manipulate multiple regional rivalries in order to maintain stability and, thus, bolster America’s reputation as the global arbiter.
Historically, Israel was not the only client of the United States in the Middle East. After the end of WWII the most important American ally in the region was Iran. The ties with the United States turned Iran into one of the most successful economies in the Islamic world. The U.S. also helped to modernize the Iranian army that became a major military force in the region.
Yet all this success came to the end in 1979 when the Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran and sent him into exile. From an enforcer of American policies in the Middle East, Iran has become the fiercest opponent of America. All American efforts to neutralize Iran have failed. Neither political nor military pressure, not even decades of severe economic sanctions have been able to force Iran into submission. Today Iran stands against the “Great Satan,” as Iranian leaders now call the U.S.
When Iran has embarked on an anti-American crusade, Israel has become perhaps the only reliable proxy American policies and the key country for maintaining the U.S. dominance in the region. The generous American support has turned Israel and its military into a formidable force that has been for a long time perhaps the most effective military in the Middle East. However, the price that Israel has had to pay for this support is heavy. Israel has become increasingly dependent on the United States and its global policies that transcend the region since America is a global power. Thus, the conflict between Israel and Palestinians has acquired global significance and is now attracting non-regional powers that try to curb American global ambitions. The resolution of this conflict has become a problem that cannot be solved on the local level.
As Isaac Herzog, President of Israel, has pointed out in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, the war in the Middle East is not only between Israel and Hamas but has a much wider global scope. The resolution of the conflict between Israel and Palestinians now requires a global negotiated settlement that would involve the United States and its global rivals, most importantly China and Russia, that now are also entangled in the conflict. In the worldwide war of words China and Russia are already backing Hamas. During the recent meeting of the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Bishkek, Kirgizia, Chinese Premier Li Qiang has pledged support for safeguarding Iran’s national sovereignty, territorial integrity and national dignity. China, the premier has stressed, will oppose any external forces interfering in Iran’s internal affairs.
For decades the U.S. has tried to play the role of an honest broker—a mediator that can maintain balance and stability in the Middle East, and particularly the balance in the relations between Israel and Palestinians. It has been offering generous economic assistance and political support to both sides in hope that this two-pronged policy would buy it their loyalty and that they would follow policies formulated in Washington. Thomas Friedman, who often articulates the position of Biden and the Democratic establishment, has recently made a strong argument to this effect in his op-ed contribution to The New York Times.
Hamas’ attack on October 7 has showed the futility of these expectations. Hamas has called American bluff. The U.S. policies that are essentially designed to freeze the conflict and maintain the status quo have exploded right in the face of Washington policy makers. A possibility of status quo has disappeared as if it has never existed. The return to status quo is all but impossible. The Middle Eastern policies of the United States are not the only casualty of the current hostilities. With a real possibility of the expansion of the war, the global policies of the United States are now also in question. The assessment of the situation that has developed around the Middle Eastern conflict leads to one conclusion: American policies in the region are a total fiasco with very serious global implications.
A brief recapitulation of the main points that have been made so far may be in order:
- Although the current war between Israel and Hamas is a regional development, the cause of this war is not regional; it is global. Its roots are in America’s global policies and, first and foremost, in its pursuit of global domination—the Pax Americana that has been and still is the main goal of the U.S. foreign policy. The fact that this war has now a strong potential to grow into a worldwide conflict—a Third World War—is a convincing proof that supports this argument. In this sense, the war in the Middle East is similar to the war in Ukraine that also originates in the ambitions of the United States to establish its global domination. It is no surprise that American policy makers, including Biden, connect these two wars.
- Domination can never be a foundation of a stable world order. A country or a group of countries that claims its exclusive role and denies equality to other nations will inevitably become the target for the excluded. America and its Pax Americana face today multiple opponents both in and beyond the Middle East. Today the United States faces a powerful coalition that includes China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea
- The imperatives of domination have created a contradictory situation. The United States has tried (and to a certain degree succeeded in) playing the role of an honest broker in the relations between Israel and Palestinians. However, while seeking to ease the conflict between the two, the United States has ironically become dependent on the continued existence of this conflict. The conflict has made American mediation essential. Conversely, American involvement in this conflict plays an essential role in maintaining America’s dominant role in the region. It also bolsters American reputation as the exclusive global power. Thus, the United States needs this conflict just as much as this conflict needs American presence.
This argument offers a different perspective on the U.S. priorities in the region. In an ironic way, the need to maintain the dominant role takes precedence, for the United States, over the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even at this time when hostilities in between Israelis and Palestinians have reached their peak level, the policy of the U.S. government is to contain, rather than resolve the conflict. That has been the expressed position advocated by Secretary of State Blinken during his most recent visit to the Middle East and Israel.
As it is, the United States has become part of the problem, rather than part of its solution. Its true priorities are not to resolve this conflict—the U.S. does not know how to achieve this resolution any way—but to sustain it, thus ensuring the role of the United States as the sole arbiter in Middle Eastern affairs and bolstering its claims to world leadership. Only by sustaining continued tensions between Israel and Palestinian Arabs the United States will be able to preserve its dominant role in the increasingly volatile region and the world.
The knot that has been tied around the war between Israel and Hamas is not one that can be easily untangled. Moreover, there is a genuine possibility that the knot may become even more tight as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may grow into a wider regional war that would involve other countries (Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq to name just a few) or even into a much wider conflict that would involve other major global powers.
If the war between Israel and Hamas does not originate at the local level, but rather at the level of global politics, the solution must also be sought at the global level. As has been explained, a world order based on the domination by one country or even a group of countries, an order that excludes other nations, will be inherently fragile and unstable. Only a world system of governance that includes and empowers all nations can serve as the foundation of a lasting world peace and security for all. Therefore, the resolution of the current conflict in the Middle East must involve a reshaping of the world order. In order to be a real and lasting solution, the new world order must offer universal inclusion and equality to all nations. It should be truly democratic since true democracy is only possible on the basis of universal inclusion and empowerment. Only a truly democratic world order that will recognize all nations as equal partners can be such solution. The new world order will not be about the preservation of a status quo. Its main goal should be the continued evolution of our civilization as the main condition for its survival.
Sustaining our civilization requires resources, both material and intellectual. The only way to gain access to new resources is by creating new and increasingly more powerful levels of organization of our collective mind. Such new levels of organization will give rise to new ideas, approaches, and solutions. The process of creating such new levels of organization involves universal inclusion of all differences. Selective inclusion is a form of exclusion and thus cannot create new levels of organization that offer access to new resources.
The new world order must be foster creative efforts. Therefore, the new world order can only work on inclusion, not exclusion and suppression, of differences. Differences, not similarities or commonalities, are the source of innovation; they are the source of the evolution that makes our civilization increasingly more powerful and capable of survival.
The most important first step toward the establishment of a stable world order and enduring peace requires a constructive engagement of all major global players that would treat each other as equal partners. They should recognize their differences. Rather than try to eliminate them, they should conserve them by creating a new comprehensive whole that is powerful enough to include all these differences as its particular cases—i.e., cases that are true under specific conditions or assumptions. True partnership is incompatible with attempts to gain advantage at the expense of others.
Pursuit of advantages ruined a possibility of establishing a truly democratic world order after WWII. The United Nations is not and has never been designed to be an assembly of equals. This organization is the creation of those who were victors in that war. Back in 11945 these were the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. They dictated the conditions of peace. They sought to ensure their domination in the post-war world. Domination was the main reason for the establishment of the Security Council. The permanent members of the Council constitute an exclusive club.
Exclusion and inequality embodied in the structure of the United Nations and its institutions has doomed this organization from the moment of its creation to impotence and corruption. The order that was created back in 1945 has survived for over five decades. Indeed, it has given the world a long period of peace and unprecedented prosperity. Yet, it is still doomed to extinction. We witness today its unraveling.
Our civilization is now facing a very difficult and very important task of creating a new world order. A truly democratic and stable world order requires that we must regard all nations as equal partners in a common enterprise. We must recognize and embrace their differences; we must view these differences as a source of innovation and evolution, not as a threat. We can only make this new order possible by talking to each other and negotiating.
We often hear arguments these days that we must not negotiate with countries designated as evil, such as, for example, Russia, China, Iran, or North Korea. The Zelensky government in Ukraine has been particularly keen on demonizing Russia. There are many hawks in America who also support this approach that is based on demonization.
The logic of such demonization is profoundly flawed. There is also plenty of empirical evidence that disproves this view. Rejecting negotiations leaves only one possible option: fighting to the end and destroy the opponent. Trying to destroy the opponent does not solve the problem. The remedy turns to be much worse than the disease it seeks to cure. The destruction of the opponent is a sure path toward destroying the world.
There is also an abundance of historical evidence showing that negotiations and agreements between countries regarded as democratic and countries designated as authoritarian or totalitarian have been quite common. The United States—a country that boasts of its democratic traditions—has, for example, on many occasions partnered with countries deemed to be authoritarian or totalitarian. The U.S. supported General Augusto Pinochet who was a military dictator of Chile. It also had friendly relations with Spain under General Franco. For much of the post-WWII period the United States maintained productive and mutually beneficial relations with the Soviet Union. Their cooperation gave the world over five decades of peace and prosperity.
The argument that an authoritarian country such as Russia will never stop expanding until in conquers all of Western Europe is simply wrong. It is a self-serving fabrication of Zelensky’s political propaganda machine. In 1945 the Soviet Union had a powerful army of almost nine million people and an economy that may not have been able to ensure a high standard of living to its citizens, but was surely capable of producing thousands of tanks and other military hardware. Yet the Soviet Union did not attempt to conquer Western Europe all the way to the Atlantic coast.
Stalin once made a very telling remark. He said: “We know how much we can chew.” Soviet control of East Central European countries was not a result of Soviet aggression. It was a result of the agreement between Stalin and Western allies on the division of Europe. The Soviet Union complied with this agreement. It consolidated its security zone and made no attempt to violate the provisions to which it agreed.
As the old adage goes, the time of crisis may also be the time of great opportunities.
The crisis the world faces today offers many opportunities, not just one choice of continuing war and destruction. Today, the growing number of world leaders, public figures, policy makers, and theorists raise the issue of reforming the United Nations in accordance with the principles of equality and justice. Indeed, our world today faces a grave danger. Many point to this danger to argue for a new world order. Threats and dangers are not the only, and certainly not the best possible motivation for innovation. Fears generate anxiety; and anxiety is not the best companion for rational decisions and sober long-term solutions. There is a far more important and positive motivation for us to innovate. We have to recognize and understand our enormous capacity to create; and we must use this capacity to ensure the continued survival and progress of our civilization.
Gennady Shkliarevsky is a Professor Emeritus of History at Bard College.
All columnists express the opinions of the author