Israel’s Strategic Dilemma

Last week the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, was in Washington and declared that we are now living in a G-zero world. Only a day later, Ehud Barak, former Israeli PM and Minister of Defense, spoke of a second Cold War in Europe over the expansion of NATO. He, too, was speaking to an American audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Today the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, visits China in order to sign a major energy deal worth somewhere in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars. Only a number of weeks ago, Israel technically abstained on a key UN vote that was intended to condemn Russia for its annexation of the Crimea. This action infuriated the White House. Meanwhile, however, many of the NATO’s own European members refused to back the strong sanctions against Russia recommended by the American president. But, as if nothing had changed, on his recent trip to Asia (excluding China) US President, Barack Obama reemphasized his country’s strategic commitment to the region and specifically to its numerous allies. These countries all share one common fear—the expansion of Chinese military power.
Unquestionably, the world is now in geopolitical flux. The unipolar, G-1 “American era”, so dominant in the aftermath of the old Cold War, has eroded. Its replacement has yet to be decided. But whichever direction world politics takes (peace or anarchy), the consequences for the earth’s people could be either very positive or horribly devastating. The decisions made in the next few months by world leaders will be crucial.
I agree with Ehud Barak. The expansion of NATO eastward toward the borders of Russia has divided a continent. But I’ll take it a step further. In conjunction with a continued US containment policy of China in East Asia, the NATO drive into Eastern Europe has worked to divide the entire Euro-Asian land mass. Unlike the French Foreign Minister, who perceives the world to be without its American policeman, I believe that the foreign policy of the Obama administration has proven itself as weak because the policy itself is inept. Yes, the US is still strong but without the cooperation of other powers, specifically China and Russia, the world risks, once again, splitting into two camps. Obama can’t be both the peace president and the world’s sole superpower, at the same time. In this scenario, the world heads toward bipolarity and it is unclear which side would emerge as victorious (if any).
We now appear headed back to the geopolitical world of 1949. However, this time around it won’t be a communist-capitalist standoff. Russia has become an energy juggernaut, while China is about to surpass the US in terms of its economic heft. A bi-polar world, given the level of debt and deindustrialization in the US, does not necessarily bode well for Washington or its allies. In Europe, a strategic economic relationship has developed between Russia and Germany. The last thing the Germans would want is a new global “cold war”. The German Left shares power in Berlin and while it is not necessarily anti-NATO, it yearns for a policy of European peace. Political conflict with Russia (or worse) is perceived on the German Left as an atavistic neo-con US reaction to the misguided expansion of NATO. For the Obama administration to be labeled as neo-con must not only seem strange but it also a clear sign of its general lack of a truly peaceful direction.
In the Middle East, a bi-polar world can only lead to disaster. Even with the Russian oil deal, China (as well as many others) rely heavily on energy from the Persian Gulf. For the foreseeable future, events in the region could have a dire effect on global energy prices. The Middle East is already in a state of expanding war. Without cooperation between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council many of the region’s key issues– like nuclear proliferation, balance of power, national instability, sectarian divide, minority rights, ecology, economy, and water–will most likely worsen. If the global geopolitical climate deteriorates, the current regional chaos can lead to major-power misunderstandings and further division or worse, escalation.
The US has been and continues to be Israel’s strategic partner. But as the world’s geopolitics shifts, Israel faces a dilemma. Iran’s hegemonic design and its nuclear rapprochement with the US has altered the potential nature of the alliance structure in the Middle East. Obama must decide on how much he desires to continue with his Iranian opening. Certainly, in a bi-polar world, Iran becomes a strategic plum for whichever side holds her close. This fact is not lost on either the Russians or the Chinese. But Israel and its technological prowess is somewhat of a little gem itself. Its political and economic relations with Asia have increased dramatically over recent years. But next to the energy potential of Iran, Israel pales. While a complete shift in the strategic relationship with the US appears remote, American acquiescence toward Iranian hegemony must have both Israel and its Arab neighbors more than just a little uneasy.
On the global scene Israel has few cards to play. If Obama desires a nuclear deal with Iran that Israel perceives as weak, it could always use military power. But given the new bi-polar climate and a world economy in deflation (extraordinary with the amount of central-bank monetary stimulus), to attack Iran in the face of a US nuclear deal would mean an unprecedented deterioration in relations. Also, it is certainly not clear who (if anyone) would come to Israel’s diplomatic defense. The most likely outcome to a US decision to accept a bad Iranian nuclear deal would be the immediate proliferation of regional nuclear weapons, another terrible outcome. Obama must decide. But, of course, in a divided G-2 world, an Iran-Russia-China axis would not be a legacy that the American president would like to leave behind.
This puts Israel and the Sunni Arab states in a difficult situation. With a second bi-polar world (the Cold War was the first) everyone appears to be in a difficult situation. And that is precisely why I call Obama’s foreign policy inept. By driving Russia and China into each other’s embrace, is a kind of reverse to the policy pursued by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. But worse, the policy makes little sense when the current administration seems so reluctant to engage with its military strength anywhere in the world. This, in all likelihood, is due to the fragile nature of the US economy and the economic dissatisfaction of the American people. So what’s the point of a bi-polar policy when the other side appears to hold the perceived economic advantage? Perhaps, this was the subtle point made by the French foreign minister. However if the US does hold a losing hand visa-vie a China-Russia-Iran axis, that doesn’t necessarily lead to a G-1, China dominated, geopolitical environment. In fact, given the economic conditions of the world today (China’s debt problem is enormous), a G-1 world would appear to be impossible. But to step backwards, toward a G-2 Cold War world is certainly not the answer.
Israel’s strategic dilemma is that the US can only perceive a world where it is the sole superpower. However, those days seemingly appear to be over. A China-Russia-Iran axis can balance the US. But Iran is the weak link in the China-Russia system. And that’s precisely where Israel’s dilemma lies–with a budding US-Iran rapprochement leading toward a complete US pivot to East Asia. Only with Iran as regional hegemonic power and tacitly in the Western camp, can the US hope to regain its position as a “near-sole superpower”. It is now up to Israel and its potential Arab Sunni allies to craft a diplomatic initiative for the Middle East which prevents this from happening. A zero hegemony Middle East (a Zone of Peace) with a nuclear-weapons-free zone and the diplomatic backing of Russia and China might work to alter the prospect of this dangerous US-Iran rapprochement. It would be a stunning initiative and could finally breath some life into the moribund UN Security Council.
On the other hand, a bad Iranian nuclear deal would be a terrible situation. But Obama could attempt to hail it as a triumph. Already the US liberal think tank intelligentsia have begun to spin the prospect (yes we can). Meanwhile Iranian and Qatari gas could begin to flow toward Europe as the US military pivots to East Asia. This would place both Russia and China on the defensive. Could Israel and the Sunni Arabs become the sacrificial lambs in this global and Middle East geopolitical scenario? Without a far-reaching diplomatic initiative of their own, the answer is an unfortunate– yes.
What the world needs is much greater nation-to-nation cooperation. It could start from the ground up, or be led by the great powers (or both). The decision is ours and it will need to be taken soon. The important thing is a global system of non-hegemony, whereby Europe, Asia and the Middle East lead the way toward an era of peace. For without peace, the serious problems facing humanity will not and cannot be solved. Let’s call this peaceful regime the G-3 world—Europe (inclusive of Russia), China (with its East Asian partners) and the US—all living in a harmonious balance and dedicated to a peaceful and healthy planet. With the Middle East leading the way, a nuclear-weapons-free world could become the legacy of the next half century.
And finally, what’s the good of an Israeli nuclear weapons program in a region on the brink of nuclear proliferation? Isn’t this also an aspect of Israel’s strategic dilemma? Bottom line– do we really have a choice?

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).