Nation-states are making a comeback against transnational integration.
Later this year, the Trump administration will release its oft-delayed plan for Israeli–Palestinian peace — the latest in a quarter century of American attempts to resolve one of the Middle East’s most intractable disputes.
At the heart of this effort — which has spanned five otherwise disparate post–Cold War presidencies — has been an enduring faith that American power can reshape the Levant much as it did Europe and Asia, conjuring a new, liberal, rules-based order in which former antagonists learn to live in peace, reaping the benefits of shared prosperity under a U.S. security umbrella.
Yet instead of Israel and its neighbors becoming more like the other countries in the American sphere of influence, the opposite has happened over the past 25 years: The other countries in the U.S.-led bloc are increasingly like Israel.
The notion that the liberal international order is assuming an Israeli character is, to put it mildly, counterintuitive. To its admirers and detractors alike, Israel has always been exceptional — a country whose very existence stands athwart the normal ebb and flow of history. As the only Jewish state in the world, surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors, Israel has long imagined itself as an isolated outpost whose unique circumstances make it a model for none but itself. With its founding in 1948, Israel was also a bet on the idea of the nation-state just when the Europeans, who had developed this concept three centuries earlier, began to grow ambivalent about it in favor of a new project of transnational integration.
Yet for all the distinctiveness of the Jewish state, the fact is that the strategic challenges and dilemmas that were once its special preoccupation are no longer quite so exclusive to it. On the contrary, they are much the same ones that other states in Washington’s strategic orbit find themselves grappling with. And, not coincidentally, the response that these countries have adopted in many cases resembles those pioneered by Israel.
This is manifest in several respects. First and most obvious has been the proliferation of the kind of nihilistic Islamist terrorism that has historically threatened Israel but that has now metastasized into a worldwide menace, not least in the Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East. The suicide bombings and mass-casualty terror attacks such as Israelis endured in the mid 1990s and early 2000s have now become unrelenting threats for millions of others, from Manchester to Bali. Unlike the politically motivated terrorism that afflicted Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, moreover, the attacks aren’t inspired by discrete grievances that can be addressed but by an ideology that celebrates the murder of its victims as an end unto itself.
Beyond the danger of Islamist extremism, however, Israel has long faced an even more profound geopolitical predicament, which also now confronts many more countries in the U.S. sphere — namely, how to persevere and prosper in a landscape of irresolvable rivalries.
For decades Israelis have confronted a neighborhood populated by regimes and movements that are irretrievably hostile to their existence. While the Jewish state has achieved military superiority over these other states and groups, enabling it to deter or beat back discrete acts of aggression with tactical proficiency, the strength of its armed forces is insufficient as a means of ending the underlying enmity.
Simply put, Israel can neither conquer nor coerce nor convert nor concede its way to peace with adversaries such as Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas; rather, it must simply try to stay one step ahead of them.
What’s striking is that several other major nations in the U.S. sphere of influence are coming to see their situation in the world in similar terms. For national-security thinkers in Japan or India or Vietnam, for instance, worsening tensions with Beijing in recent years aren’t attributable to a misunderstanding or a straightforward dispute over territory or resources. Rather, China’s neighbors perceive that Beijing — by dint of geography, demography, economy, and history — considers itself entitled to a kind of hegemony over them and that there’s nothing that can be done to convince the Chinese to abandon this ambition. The only option is to try to preserve a favorable balance of power and push back against the worst forms of Chinese aggression without tipping the region into a cataclysmic war.
A similar shift of mindset can be found in Europe, where the dream of partnership with Moscow that flourished in the 1990s and the 2000s — underpinned by the belief that Russia was inexorably transitioning toward Euro-Atlantic democracy — is effectively dead. With Vladimir Putin unlikely to retire in the foreseeable future and no amount of dialogue likely to alter the core elements of Moscow’s worldview, including its determination to reconstitute its historic empire, the default is a kind of strained coexistence. This also means that Europeans, like the Israelis, must live in the perpetual twilight of insecurity — with the threat of cyber attacks and hybrid warfare a permanent feature of existence.
The same goes among U.S. allies on the Arabian Peninsula, whose intensified rivalry with Iran is rooted in existential fears about a resurgent Persian empire. When Iranians look beyond their borders, officials in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh and Manama are convinced, they do not see sovereign equals but rather civilizational inferiors whom they wish to subordinate as satrapies.
Then there is the question of borders. Israel of course has never had open frontiers with its neighbors, but over the past quarter century its boundaries have become even more fortified. It began construction of a security barrier with Gaza in 1994, and later, more controversially, one with the West Bank during the Second Intifada, in the early 2000s. Then came the Arab Spring, in 2011, and additional, even more technologically sophisticated fences went up — with the Sinai Peninsula in the south, Jordan in the east, and Lebanon and Syria in the north.
Such construction has been a flashpoint of international criticism — but also, less vocally, of international emulation. Turkey recently completed the first half of its own border wall with Syria (funded in part by the EU, no less), while Bulgaria erected a fence with Turkey — marking the eastern frontier of the European Union in barbed wire. The Baltic states have been doing the same across their forested border with Russia. Ditto Saudi Arabia through the desert wastes that separate it from Yemen, India on the Line of Control with Pakistan, and Tunisia with lawless Libya. According to one estimate, approximately 70 international borders are fortified today — over four times as many as when Checkpoint Charlie came down in East Berlin.
For better or worse, Israel’s decision to start erecting barriers on its borders more than 20 years ago now looks more like a harbinger of the future than a throwback to the Cold War.
Finally, there is the Israeli attitude toward the United States. By any measure, the Jewish state enjoys an extraordinarily close, multifaceted relationship with America. U.S. leaders in Washington regularly affirm their commitment to Israel’s security and survival — the unbreakable, unshakable bond given its most tangible expression in the intensive cooperation between the countries’ defense and intelligence establishments. The U.S. supplies Israel with some of its most sophisticated weaponry, while the two economies and populations have become ever more closely intertwined in recent decades. American capital streams into Israeli start-ups, while Israeli entrepreneurs, scientists, students, and academics have become part of the tapestry of American life.
Yet even as Israel has deepened its partnership with the United States, it has doggedly worked to retain — and indeed, expand — its freedom of military and geopolitical maneuver. This has meant the intensive development of Israel’s own autonomous power-projection capabilities as well as the cultivation of close diplomatic ties with other major power centers, such as Moscow, New Delhi, and Beijing.
And here, too, the Israeli approach is now being increasingly adopted by America’s other allies and partners, including those that until recently have relied all but exclusively on Washington for protection. Whether in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, no one is looking to sever ties with the United States. On the contrary, most countries are searching for ways to strengthen relations with Washington. Yet this push for cooperation has been paired with a desire for a bit less dependence as questions have grown over the course of the past several administrations about Washington’s judgment, reliability, and competence.
Consider Japan, where the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, since coming to office in late 2012, has strengthened strategic coordination with the U.S. while at the same time ramping up defense spending, establishing new national- security institutions, and cultivating strategic pacts with like-minded Asian powers worried about China’s rise. Similarly, in the Arabian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are seeking to develop independent military capabilities and diversify diplomatic relations, including closer ties with Russia, India, and China. Even in Europe, traditional U.S. allies such as Germany speak about the need to invest more in their own defense and rely less on Americans for security. Although “strategic autonomy” from the United States remains a distant reality for the EU, there is no question that there is an impetus in this direction as never before.
That there has been a convergence in strategic outlook between Israel and other U.S. allies and partners should perhaps not come as a shock. The liberal international order that emerged in the late 1940s has sometimes been compared to a kind of garden. And today, as Robert Kagan has put it, the jungle is growing back.
For Israel, though, this is hardly a new state of affairs. The Jewish state has long viewed itself, in the words of Ehud Barak back in 2002, as “a villa in the jungle.” What’s different now is the geopolitical climate change that has swept the rest of the U.S. sphere of influence, causing unfamiliar and frighteningly exotic foliage to sprout up, kudzu-like, in previously temperate climes.
Of course, Israel did have its own brief flirtation with the end of history — the period in the early 1990s when it appeared possible that a U.S.-brokered peace with the Palestinians really was within reach. But that happy reverie did not last long for the Israelis — and out of its bloody shattering came bitter lessons. In this respect, the Israelis have simply been ahead of the curve in their disillusionment, with the rest of the American-led bloc now catching up.
For America, a more Israeli world has several implications. On one hand, it means that Washington will have a larger panoply of allies and partners that will be able to take greater ownership of their national-security choices and, indeed, at times will be adamant about doing so. For a country that has grown resentful of the burdens it has been shouldering, and is conflicted about its capacity to lead the world, this would seem to be a welcome development.
Then again, Americans should be careful what they wish for. As managers of the U.S.–Israeli relationship appreciate, the greater the ability of a foreign country to conduct its own national-security policy, the less control Washington is able to exercise over its decisions — and that means less power and influence for the United States.
That might not sound so bad, except the Israeli experience also suggests how, despite the country’s considerable capacity for independent action, Washington nonetheless often ends up — de facto if not de jure — grappling with some of the consequences of its ally’s choices.
Indeed, the U.S.–Israeli relationship disproves the notion that if only our friends and partners were to do more on their own, the U.S. would be free to do less. A more Israeli world, therefore, will not reduce or relieve the dilemmas of American leadership; it is more likely to complicate and, in a sense, sharpen them.
An illustration of this can be found in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — which had previously tended to outsource security decisions to Washington — instead seized the initiative and intervened on their own when the Iranian-backed Houthis attempted to seize control of the country four years ago. As a result, it has been Saudi and Emirati blood and treasure (and that of their proxies) that have been spent to thwart an Iranian client from consolidating a new strategic toehold — an outcome in which the U.S. also has a strong national interest.
Yet the heavy-handed and often clumsy means by which the Gulf Arab coalition has pursued this objective have provoked a firestorm of Western criticism, including, increasingly, outrage in Congress. American policymakers thus find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place: forced either to distance themselves from allies that are waging a fight that is also partly their own or to redouble support for the initiative, with all the political and reputational risk that entails. In either case, the U.S. now finds itself less able to shape the course of events while still being implicated by them.
A more Israeli world is also one that is likely to emphasize realpolitik over human rights and other values traditionally championed by the United States in its foreign policy. Despite Israel’s own raucous democracy, Jerusalem has tended to regard American advocacy of political reform among its neighbors as, at best, quixotic. Wisely or not, in a Hobbesian international landscape, Israel’s laser-like focus has been on security, order, and a narrow definition of its own self-interest — in short, “Israel first.” The idea of risking the destabilization of a friendly but despotic regime for the sake of advancing human freedom carries almost no resonance among decision-makers in Jerusalem.
Here, too, a similar dynamic appears increasingly elsewhere. In dealing with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Myanmar, for instance, Japan and India have made clear that democracy and human-rights considerations will take a back seat to balance-of-power calculations with China. Even Europe has quietly backtracked on its much-vaunted “values agenda” in recent years — whether embracing Belarus’s strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko in a bid to counterbalance Russia, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan in order to stem the tide of migrants into the EU, or Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt for the sake of regional stability. Whereas a decade ago European leaders believed they could transform their neighborhood, now — much like the Israelis — they are content to manage it.
Yet a sphere of influence that is more Israeli in character also carries reasons for hope, for it illustrates how — even as the jungle grows back — it is possible for embattled countries not only to survive but to thrive.
Despite a storm of internecine conflicts and fanatical ideologies swirling around it, Israel today does not resemble an underground bunker. On the contrary, life inside the Jewish state has arguably never felt safer, more dynamic, or, well, normal. Indeed, that is a major reason other countries are drawn to Israel’s example: It appears to be a case study in how to be successful and strong amid chaos.
Perhaps Israel’s success won’t prove sustainable — perhaps all of it will come apart at the seams, as many in the West have been prophesying for some time. But for a United States that has swung in the space of just a few years from messianic idealism about the inevitable triumph of free-market democracy to apocalyptic despair about the impending collapse of the liberal international order, the Israeli experience suggests another possibility. Ironically enough, it is in the Holy Land that the rest of the world could end up learning that there can be life after the end of history.