Brave New World
There are still those amongst us who remember a time when the international system was multi-polar– with five or six similarly powerful states pursuing their interests, endlessly vying for power and influence. Some of these people managed to survive the most terrible war the world has ever seen, a war which was the direct result of this anarchic state. For let there be no doubt – the international system is, at its core, an anarchic system.
Out of that terrible war emerged a bi-polar system, with two superpowers balanced by arsenals consisting of thousands of nuclear warheads and mutual assured destruction (MAD). The West and liberal world was led by the U.S. which, out of selfish and ideological reasons both, helped build an international community based on certain international norms.
The break up of the U.S.S.R ushered in a new era. The “awe and might” displayed by the U.S. in operation Desert Storm, and in a series of military and humanitarian interventions since, demonstrated that the world had one superpower that was not afraid of using force to protect the international community’s “common goods”.
Today, I fear, we wake up to a new international system. In what may be his biggest political gamble yet, President Obama has officially heralded the beginning of the demise of one of the greatest superpowers the world has ever seen. Perhaps not this year, or even in the next five years, but definitely in a decade or two – the world will return to being multi-polar.
It is not so difficult to understand President Obama’s decision. Almost 80% of Americans believe that congressional approval is warranted in this case. As a result of the wars waged by the U.S. during the past decade, the battle-worn and weary Americans are asking the right questions before getting involved in another Middle East conflict. As a Senator, Obama himself repeatedly claimed that as the Commander-in-Chief, an American president can only act without congressional approval in the case of a direct and immediate threat to American interests. Syria does definitely not qualify as a threat of this kind.
Internationally, the U.S. surprisingly finds itself on its own. Obama has lost the support of traditional allies – the U.K., France and Germany, all of whom bombastically called for immediate action last week and have conveniently passed the buck to the big brother. The U.N., as usual, is paralyzed by the inherent conflicts in the Security Council between West and East. Russia (overtly) and China (covertly) are doing a fine job of contesting Obama’s Syria policy.
Entirely isolated, President Obama is pushing off his decision, hoping to shore up more support and share the responsibility for what he ultimately considers, despite all the rhetoric implying otherwise, a questionable operation.
So ultimately, from an American point of view, Obama’s decision may be considered well within the framework of logical reasoning and calculated decision-making, but what is perceived in the West as over-caution, can be interpreted as cowardness in the Middle East. What we may see as being part and parcel of the healthy and necessary democratic process of checks and balances, can be seen by others as dillydallying and indecision.
Regardless of what transpires in the next few weeks within the halls of Congress, and the final decision made by Obama, the message being sent to America’s allies and enemies alike is that America is no longer willing to play the part of the world’s policeman. Should Obama eventually give the green light to launch an attack on Assad’s regime, it will most assuredly be a much more limited-in-scope response to that initially thought by the administration and the Pentagon. The slow pace in which the decision to strike Syria is being made can only embolden those that in the past feared a swift and hard American response.
For Israel, any blow to American deterrence is a blow to our overall strategic stance in the area. We have been given a valuable opportunity to preview American behavior in times of crisis – the willingness of the American administration to take action, the political challenges this type of action entails, and the support – or lack-thereof – within the American public for such an action. Considering the challenges facing Israel in the region, we must prepare for a world without the U.S. Netanyahu’s insistence on Israel’s right to unilaterally act against Iran, should it be needed, is suddenly put into the correct perspective.
And if this is the lesson learnt by Israel, with the powerful means to protect itself from almost any threat, one can only imagine what is going through the minds of America’s less secure allies around the world facing similar threats. And so, while South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states are contemplating their new standing in the world, in Damascus, Tehran, Pyongyang, Moscow and Beijing, champagne bottles are being opened. Indeed, a brave new world.