The conflict in Gaza has become the latest theatre of nightmares in an increasingly fragmented and chaotic world. The sheer horror of Hamas’ terrorist assault on southern Israel, and the mounting number of Palestinian civilian casualties arising from the Israeli response, have stunned television audiences around the globe and left policymakers flatfooted.
The violence has not only thrown the Middle East into further turmoil, but raises serious questions about American power and the future of the international system. Following on from the carnage caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the conflict has become a microcosm of global disorder and anarchy. It has highlighted the breakdown of international norms, the diminished authority of the United States, and the growing divide between the West and the Global South.
Hamas’ incursion has exposed the bankruptcy of American policy towards the Middle East. Under Donald Trump and then Joe Biden, Washington had attempted to neutralise the Palestinian issue by, de facto, abandoning the prospect of a two-state solution. The hope, as embodied in the Abraham Accords of September 2020, was that Israel and “moderate” Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations would agree a modus vivendi that would establish functional stability in the Middle East. Regionally, this would help contain Iranian ambitions; farther afield, it would enable Washington to focus on its primary strategic preoccupation: the rise of China. The Middle East would be relegated to a second-order priority.
That policy is now in ruins. Whatever the outcome of the current conflict, it has become evident that the Palestinian issue cannot be ignored. Hamas’ brutal actions have revealed the limits of American authority, in the Middle East and beyond. The United States remains by far the strongest power in the world, but its relative influence is much diminished. The consistent failure (or unwillingness) to curb Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s excesses – worsening discrimination against Palestinians, toleration of settler violence, and “reform” of Israel’s Supreme Court – testifies not to Washington’s restraint, but to its weakness.
The reaction in Beijing and especially Moscow has been one of ill-disguised schadenfreude. They view recent events through the prism of zero-sum competition with Washington and a visceral anti-Americanism. They also identify practical benefits from the misfortunes of others. Beijing believes that the Biden administration will inevitably be distracted from its policy of strategic containment of China. The Kremlin is betting that the already palpable erosion of US and Western support for Ukraine will gather speed, materially increasing the chances of a settlement on Russian terms.
More broadly, the liberal vision of a US-led “rules-based international order” has suffered another devastating setback. Outside Washington’s allies, few believe this order possesses either moral legitimacy or political credibility. Its “rules” are seen as self-serving – a code of the West, by the West, for the West. Rarely has the United States, and the West in general, seemed more out of sync with the rest of the world.
Yet the current conflict is a defeat not just for US policymaking and a liberal vision of global governance. It also points to a larger crisis of international order. Notwithstanding the obvious limitations of the post-Cold War liberal order, there is no replacement on the horizon. The “multipolar order” dreamt up by Russian and, to a lesser extent, Chinese policymakers is an illusion, with little to offer but vacuous homilies about the “democratisation” of international relations. There can and will be no return to a great power-centred system, above all because the authority and capacity of the supposed great powers are weaker than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
There are no winners from the appalling tragedy unfolding before us. That said, the conflict has reinforced the growing importance and influence of the Global South. Although Western commentators question the validity of the concept, the Global South has emerged as a powerful political constituency. It is not only shaping views about the current conflict, it is also consolidating a vision of international order unlike anything we have seen. Instead of the United States and its allies asserting “rules” that have little legitimacy beyond the West, or “concert”-style arrangements that would enshrine great power prerogatives, most Global South countries aspire to an order that is more diverse and representative, and less prescriptive.
It is uncertain how the situation over Gaza and the future of Palestine will develop. What is clear, though, is that the events of the past month have shown that the usual recipes for international problem-solving are no longer fit for purpose. Looking ahead, the choice is stark. Leaders can cling on to anachronistic tropes – the “rules-based order”, the illusion of “universal” values, the myth of great power (“multipolar”) governance, and an obsessive preoccupation with geopolitical competition. Or they can get real and accept that today’s threats and challenges – from conflict in the Middle East to anthropogenic climate change – require fundamentally different, more inclusive and cooperative approaches. Make the wrong choice and we will discover that the current conflict, far from being an aberration, is the harbinger of an increasingly confrontational and anarchic world.