When you are weak, you learn what people really think of you. The Jews have always known this. The British learned it in the late 20th century. The US is beginning to learn it now.
The Ukraine crisis confirms that the age of the liberal order is over. The tide of American dominance that rolled in after 1941 is receding. NATO is crumbling. The EU’s eastern borders are exposed. The US is halfway out of the Middle East, and Russia and China are using Iran as a lever to make that exit as ignominious as possible.
America remains the pre-eminent military power, though China is building up rapidly and already has a larger navy. Anyway, what use is a military that cannot win a war and which, in the case of Ukraine, cannot be used?
No administration, red or blue, would have sent troops to Ukraine. Joe Biden is falling back on what the political scientist Joseph Nye, whose ideas were modish in the optimistic Nineties, called “soft power”. But America’s diplomatic and financial leverage have also decayed.
In Washington, the pundits and the State Department will still tell you that Germany is the “leader of Europe”. It is, in a sense, but only as a drag on Europe.
Germany dominates the EU economy and currency, but its place in the Western alliance is increasingly shaky, in part because of the allure of Russian energy. (German approval has been halted for Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipe, but for how long?) And Berlin is pressing the EU to join it in a trade deal with China.
NATO is in little better shape. Remember the fuss when Donald Trump told NATO’s European members to pay their fair share? This was a long-time complaint: Barack Obama also told the “freeloaders” to do their bit. In both cases, Putin got the message.
The dollar remains the world’s reserve currency, and Americans will continue to enjoy that advantage so long as no alternative develops. But reserve holdings in dollars have declined from 84 per cent in 1975 to 59 per cent today, and the global economy has realigned eastwards. The potential of financial sanctions has declined accordingly.
With the US over-extended abroad and chronically divided at home, it faces a reckoning with revisionist powers on three fronts: Russia in Ukraine; Iran in the Vienna nuclear talks; China in the Taiwan Strait. The first two are coming to a head now. Meanwhile, with Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s airspace reaching record levels, warning lights are flashing there too.
At the Winter Olympics, Putin and Xi formalised their tag-team alliance against the West. Will the Biden administration acknowledge that these different fronts are related? Perhaps it will claim a diplomatic victory over Putin in Ukraine and claim it has stabilised the Middle East in the Vienna talks, but these will be semantic fig leaves for domestic consumption.
The alliance with Israel need not be a casualty of America’s decline. But it is already being damaged on all three of these fronts. Israel has virtually taken a position of neutrality on Ukraine — and neutrality risks accepting Putin’s aggression. Israel has declared it will go it alone against Iran if the Democrats persist in pandering to Tehran’s nuclear-tipped imperialism. And Israel is already as tied in to China’s economy as the US allows.
Imagine you are Naftali Bennett, seeking to contain Iran. Do you call Berlin or Washington — or Moscow or Beijing? The Obama administration ceded America’s Middle East position to Russia, and Russia supplied Iran’s nuclear reactors. The Biden administration pretended not to notice when China undermined the Iran sanctions by signing a massive trade deal with Tehran.
Israel is not without diplomatic leverage against Iran. But it will mean alignment with Asia’s rising illiberal powers. Some American Jews still cherish the deep bonds they believe the US and Israel share — the Bible, democracy, and so on. They should be braced for such illusions to be swept away as the limits of soft power are exposed.
Dominic Green is the editor of The Spectator’s world edition