On September 16, in advance of Israel’s elections, the Washington Post published a long and vitriolic attack by Robert Kagan, a respected writer, on Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu. The gravamen of the accusation is that Israel and its leadership have abandoned its principles. Kagan argues that by “embracing” such caudillos as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and Vladimir Putin, Israel is helping to destroy the liberal international order.
This is like blaming Octavius for the Roman republic’s demise — a baseless charge, since civil conflict and competing strongmen had ended the Republic years earlier. While the U.S. remains strong enough — if its citizens possess the will — to salvage what is left of the international order, Israel has no such option. It is a regional power that has existed for 70 years in a very dangerous neighborhood. If it cannot survive, it cannot sustain its founding principles, including democracy, toleration, and respect for minority rights. Israel’s future as well as that of other states demands looking at the world clearly.
The greatest danger a nation can face is political delusion on the part of its elites. An unwillingness to face geopolitical realities jeopardizes a nation’s interest and survival.
The most pernicious form of delusion occurs when the political class cannot rid itself of paradigms stemming from heretofore extant distributions of power. Rather than recognizing a systemic change, it clings to an obsolete understanding of the balance of power. Throughout the 1920s, Britain’s policymakers were convinced that France, rather than Germany, posed a threat to European peace. Even before appeasement, they tacitly encouraged the growth of German power, while restraining Britain’s closest Great War ally.
One must look to the small to detect geopolitical change. Great powers like America can cling to old paradigms, relying on their latent strength to mitigate misperception’s consequences. For small states, however, politics is existential — political death is a persistent possibility. Small states survive by anticipating, rather than reacting to, international events.
The most significant geopolitical change of the early 21st century has been the crumbling liberal international order. At first glance, of course, the order seems very much alive. Its institutional structure — the World Bank, WTO, IMF, NATO, the EU, and the U.N. — performs vital global economic, political, and military functions. However, the connective tissue that bound these institutions together, and transformed overlapping political arrangements into a cohesive whole, was American military power. Persistent conflict, economic stagnation, budgetary instability, and general political apathy have sapped American military capabilities and political will.
Great powers use force to defend secondary political interests. Apart from its Middle Eastern adventures in the early 2000s, America has refused to use force in this manner since the Cold War ended. It was silent when Russia annexed Crimea and dismembered Eastern Ukraine. True, Bashar al-Assad’s most creative murder techniques piqued U.S. interest, but that was short-lived. The United States opposed neither Iranian nor Russian intervention in Syria and showed little interest in Iraq’s ultimate fate. The so-called Iran nuclear deal was simply an excuse to withdraw from the Middle East, while permanent American naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean has shrunk to a handful of destroyers.
While the the skeleton of the liberal international order remains, its muscle and tissue are in the process of liquefication.
Small powers such as Israel illustrate the liberal international order’s pathology. The Jewish State in particular feels the existential edge of political competition, having faced annihilation from its inception. Today, Iran is Israel’s greatest adversary. A unique blend of Shia supremacism and Persian imperial revanchism drives Iran’s leaders to recover Sassanid and Safavid lost glory.
Iran has built a highway to the Eastern Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and has outflanked Israel and Saudi Arabia to the south in Yemen. It recently reaped the rewards of a long-term intelligence operation, crippling Saudi oil production. Ultimately, it hopes to recover Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem for the Faithful, using nuclear weapons to coerce or annihilate its enemies.
Rather than striking Iran directly, Israel has opted to attack its network of proxies that stretch from the Tigris to the Levantine basin. However, the United States no longer dominates the region’s airspace. Any Israeli action against Iran requires Russian assent as a simple geographic fact. This situation will persist indefinitely, as America shows no desire to challenge Russian presence in Syria. So Israel must work with Russia if it hopes to combat Iranian expansion — as a matter of course, small powers must search for other options during periods of strategic turmoil, whatever their ideological preferences may be.
The irony is that Israel’s cognizance of Russian interests actually furthers American security goals. Iran poses a threat to the United States irrespective of its alliance with Israel. If a hostile power were to control the Middle East, it could sever the U.S.’s sea lines of communication and supply, preventing effective coordination between American forces and allies in Europe and Asia. Moreover, it could use its oil exports to threaten the reliance of U.S. partners on oil imports, such as Japan.
It is therefore no surprise that the U.S.’s interest in a stable Middle Eastern balance of power has persisted since the 1940s. But the age of imperial dominion has passed. America cannot govern as Britain and France once did. It must work with and through local actors. Critically, every attempt that the U.S., or any Western power, has made to court the “Arab street” has failed irrespective of support for Israel.
Britain curried favor by supporting anti-Ottoman movements but achieved its longer-term strategic goals in the Middle East only through de facto imperialism. British officers fought for Arab armies against Israel, Britain nearly declared war on Israel in 1949, and Britain supported Iraqi annexation of Syria in 1949. America went so far as to oppose its two closest Second World War allies in 1956, publicly humiliating Britain and France for their attack on Egypt in concert with Israel. To no avail — the Arab world turned to the Soviet Union en masse.
As Nixon and Kissinger grasped, by 1973 Israel was America’s only viable Middle Eastern ally and the key to a thaw with Egypt and Jordan. The U.S.’s strategic partnership with Israel cracked the Soviet stranglehold on post-imperial Arab regimes. So, after 25 years and two wars, Egypt and Jordan moved solidly into the Western camp. Moreover, Israel was instrumental in preventing Lebanon from falling into Soviet hands, and it embarrassed Soviet forces in skirmishes throughout the 1960s.
Not only has America’s partnership with Israel given the U.S. strategic benefits — it has also improved U.S. defense technology and generated invaluable intelligence. American military assistance to Israel has given the U.S. exclusive access to Israeli military technology. American manufacturers are so involved in producing the Iron Dome missile-defense system that co-production may be possible. Israel is a test-bed for frontline American military technology and tactics, particularly given fleet similarities between the U.S. and Israeli air forces.
Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency, has worked with the CIA since the early Cold War. Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe provided the CIA with otherwise inaccessible information on day-to-day Soviet living conditions. Israel engineered American access to captured Soviet fighter aircraft. Most impressively, the Mossad probably played an important role in obtaining a copy of Premier Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” in which he denounced Stalin, and that the CIA handed over to the New York Times. Israeli intelligence is as valuable today as during the Cold War — indeed, Israel has been instrumental in slowing Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel provides greater capabilities than any other Middle Eastern strategic partner. It arguably plays a greater role in U.S. security than any European nation. Out of NATO’s Western European core, only the United Kingdom fought alongside America in Iraq, deploying 46,000 troops. In Afghanistan, France deployed 4,000 soldiers at peak strength. Even after downsizing its commitment in 2013, Britain fielded over 5,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. Ironically, Germany’s commitment exceeded France’s by 1,000.
This is not to devalue the benefits America derives from its European alliances. NATO is an invaluable aspect of the U.S.’s security architecture. Even without major allied military capabilities, the U.S. receives greater access to Eurasia than any insular power in history. Nevertheless, one must note the outsized role that Israel plays in American security compared with Europe’s erstwhile great powers.
NATO, moreover, is not the European Union. Israel has found allies in Eastern Europe precisely among the nations that vocally supported the U.S. in the early 2000s — and that are now fiercely Eurosceptic. The EU, particularly its stalwart Franco-German core, seems to find Israeli and American assertiveness equally distasteful. It is no wonder that Israel finds it difficult to take the EU’s and the U.N.’s admonishments seriously, when both willfully ignore the barbarism of Israel’s enemies.
Oddly enough, the liberal international order has singled out for attack a member, Israel, under existential threat from those who would see the Holocaust reenacted. It is remarkable that, despite being surrounded by hostile powers, Israel has managed to preserve the rights of all its citizens, Jew or Arab. Second World War America could not do the same.
If international relations can be understood as an extended meditation on the philosophy of history, then Thucydides is its first philosopher. He writes of Plataea and Melos, two small polities caught in the maelstrom of great-power conflict between Athens and Sparta. Plataea, abandoned by its Athenian benefactor, was devoured by Sparta and razed by Thebes. Melos clung to jus gentium and was similarly annihilated.
Neither Athens nor Sparta apologized for their alliances. Their leaders grasped the underlying realities of their political situation and accepted the price that power demands. As great-power competition resumes, the United States must face a new set of geopolitical facts. Contrary to what Robert Kagan implies, America cannot sacrifice a critical strategic alliance on the altar of ideological purity. Liberal niceties will not preserve American power. Auctoritas, non veritas, facit legem.
Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and the director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as a deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. Harry Halem is a research assistant at Hudson Institute and a student at the University of St. Andrews.