Events in the Middle East, Europe and Asia pose a series of formidable, inter-connected challenges to the United States – and by extension to Australia, writes John McCarthy.
When asked about the greatest challenge for a statesman, the late British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan allegedly replied: “Events, dear boy, events.”
As the Israel-Palestine tragedy unfolds, President Biden and other leaders will have had cause to reflect on how the world looks different.
Since Hamas went into Israel, the global focus has been on the atrocities it perpetrated, the hostages, the disproportionate Israeli response, and the plight of civilians in Gaza.
A secondary, but vital, issue is the possible widening of the war with the major involvement of Hezbollah Shiite militias supported by Iran and conceivably with the involvement of Iran itself.
But the Hamas attack was also one of those events that shake the kaleidoscope. They do not just affect one part of a perspective. They shift the whole picture.
Here are several of the things we and our partners must now ponder.
The first is whether the Americans have the capacity simultaneously to manage three critical sets of global issues: Israel-Palestine, Russia-Ukraine and competition with China.
The Gaza issue alone is problematic enough. There is no apparent Israeli plan for Gaza other than to eradicate Hamas. What happens to a razed Gaza? Where do the people go? If as Biden and others believe, the only answer for the Palestinians remains a two-state solution, how can a traumatised Israel be made to accept what they have rebuffed in better times?
The Ukraine war drags on. But the political will both in the United States and Europe to support Ukraine financially is diminishing.
And American tensions with China are self-evident.
Second, the dynamics of the three theatres are not only complex but interrelated.
The Chinese have in the main sided with Russia on Ukraine, although their opposition to Russian recourse to tactical nuclear weapons has been clear.
China will no doubt see benefit in the Americans being distracted with Gaza.
However, Chinese economic interests are not served by a turbulent Middle East. It brokered an improvement in Saudi-Iran ties and there have been reports that the United States will look to it for help on aspects of the Gaza issue. It might therefore make sense for the United States to seek to lower the temperature with China further.
The attitudes amongst America’s close allies to all three issues vary. But opinions in most of Europe – and not just amongst Muslims – run very strong on Palestinian issues. Differences in Europe on Ukraine are emerging more clearly.
And most of the countries of the so-called Global South already believe that their wider interests have been subordinated to NATO concerns in Ukraine. This thinking has intensified in the wake of Gaza.
The greater the disillusion of the Global South on Ukraine and now Israel-Palestine, the less attractive are western arguments about China, which – for all its mistakes – appears in the Global South to be less hypocritical than the West.
Third, in the context of the arguments about possible American overstretch, recent history suggests that the Middle East – or issues deriving therefrom – have detracted from American energy and effectiveness in other areas, particularly in the Asia Pacific.
The American response to 9/11 was the War on Terror and protracted interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some at least argue that in the first decade of the century, the Americans were so diverted that they paid insufficient attention to Putin’s Russia and the rise of China – the latter a trend that America’s most important single ally, Japan, was acutely conscious even in the early 90s.
In 2011, President Obama launched the “Pivot to Asia.” The concept was intended as an Asia-Pacific strategy better to balance an emerging China. It was designed to go beyond the United States’ already close relations with Japan and Korea to engage Southeast Asia more fully. Obama also hoped that the Pivot would help justify his efforts to diminish the extent of United States’ entanglement in the Middle East.
However, the Middle East had other ideas. The rise of new terrorist groups such as ISIS and civil war in Syria kept America there. The pivot faltered with little achieved other than a heightened consciousness in China that the United States was determined to thwart its rise.
Until a month ago the Biden Administration portrayed its exit from Afghanistan and a new diplomatic edifice – of which Israeli-Saudi rapprochement was the centrepiece – as evidence of a new, more peaceful era in the Middle East. This supposedly would help the United States to focus on the plethora of other challenges it faced, including competition with China. But what now?
Finally, think about American domestic politics. The former speaker Tip O’Neill famously said: “All politics is local.” In the days of sane American politics this was not necessarily a bad thing. These days the propensity for American political turmoil to stall or distort its international policy is alarming. There is also the hovering spectre of Trump Redux.
American economic and military capacity remains formidable. The strength of the United States’ diplomatic apparatus permits it to walk and chew gum at the same time. America should not be underestimated. But neither should the scope of its current challenges and, by extension, our own.
John McCarthy AO is a Senior Adviser to Asialink and Vice-Chancellor's fellow at Melbourne University. He is former ambassador to the US and several other countries.