US meltdown: conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine have exposed the limits of US power. Credit: Sara Morris

America’s undoing

Triumphant at the end of the Cold War, the United States pledged to lead humanity in a new world order. Two conflicts—in Gaza and in Ukraine—have exposed that it has never been weaker
December 6, 2023

The date of 7th October 2023 will go down in history as a turning point for the global role of the United States. The country’s promise both to defend and model democracy on the world stage has taken a huge hit, from which it is doubtful that it can recover. When the Ukraine War began in 2022, and the US responded with enormous military aid, the credibility of that promise had been briefly revived after the nightmare of Donald Trump’s presidency. Now it is smashed once again, joining the rubble of Gaza’s streets.

The horrible day of hostage-taking and mass slaughter of 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, by Hamas has provoked a nasty war in Gaza, with all eyes focused on the unprecedented human costs of the violence. But the day’s biggest ramifications go beyond the pitiable fate of a small and densely populated patch of land, and its 2.2m residents. The brutal incursion quickly put an end to the nostalgic revivalism about the US’s thoroughly quixotic pursuit of democracy globally, with incalculable consequences for the coming of a new world order.

It was only a year ago that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reanimated hopes for a restoration of an American-led globe. Transatlantic politicians and publicists spoke of a standoff between “democracy” and its enemies that demanded nothing less. America’s leadership, familiar from the Cold War and after, would need to take on a new form, transcending the glaring mistakes that had made it unpopular. But Ukraine’s plight vindicated the need for this leadership and implied the possibility that America could reform. A corrected US leadership was not just desirable; it was necessary. According to liberal journalist George Packer, it was nothing short of “the last best hope”.

Last false hope is more like it. Today, it is clearer than ever that the war in Ukraine is deadlocked. Bogged down by criticisms of mainstream foreign policy and wracked by its record of military quagmires, the US is no longer credible as the lynchpin of freedom and justice worldwide. Gaza has reinforced this conclusion without the carnage-filled wait that Ukraine involved; after Hamas acted, illusory yearnings for restored credibility for US leadership were shattered within days, not months or years. And worse will be to come, if America has put its own democracy on the line even as it has invested in another endless war.

Joe Biden ascended to the US presidency promising to save democracy from internal threats. Initially, his administration signed off unconditionally on Israel’s commencement of a ground invasion even though it was predicted to be as arduous and bloody as it has in fact become. In a televised address on the evening of 20th October, he ignored the growing dissent at home and abroad over both this and the failure of his Ukraine policy and instead took the opportunity to call for American restoration rather than regression on the world stage. He invoked “our responsibilities as a great nation,” and recalled the hopeful saying of his “friend Madeleine Albright” (the country’s late secretary of state) that the US is the “indispensable nation”. Biden placed Ukraine and Gaza in the same frame and insisted they offered another occasion for US superintendence.

The US is no longer credible as the lynchpin of freedom and justice worldwide

The president’s “response to the Hamas attacks of October 7 was to fuse the wars in Israel and Ukraine into a single struggle,” wrote Fintan O’Toole in the New York Review of Books. In both, Biden asserted, evil struck first and with no provocation. In both, he said, authoritarians hoped to “completely annihilate” democracy. In both, America was, through its allies and its own action, called upon to either defend freedom or it would die. It was not the petty interests of states but the legitimate expectations of all humanity that were on the line: “There are innocent people all over the world who hope because of us,” Biden sermonised, “who believe in a better life because of us, who are desperate not to be forgotten by us, and who are waiting for us.”

Biden’s analogy—which he repeated verbatim weeks into the imbroglio—is flawed. But the truth is that, separately and together, the two crises demonstrate the limits of America’s power. Both appear to accelerate the decline of its leadership, while putting its own democracy at risk. The world is desperate, but its victims should not wait on the US, which is so burdened by its mistakes past and present that it may not succeed in saving its own democracy from them.

American foreign policy has crashed hard since 1989, when it emerged from decades of domestic strife and military violence as the Cold War’s sole victor.

Hard on the heels of its victory, President George HW Bush, a Republican, announced a “new world order” that the US would lead, and from which humanity would benefit. And Bush’s success in turning back Iraqi aggression in Kuwait in the first Gulf War set up rapturous expectations of beneficent rule by one superpower. That war, a stirring victory compared to so many disasters before (and since), quieted old ghosts of military failure from the Cold War—Vietnam especially. In part through Bush’s restraint in allowing Iraqi forces to flee back across the border, and despot Saddam Hussein to remain in power, the events implied that millennial freedom under American auspices need not involve messianism or recklessness.

Bush’s promises of a new world order were made in 1990 in the most stirring of rhetoric. “There is no substitute for American leadership,” he explained. “In the face of tyranny, let no one doubt American credibility and reliability. Let no one doubt our staying power.” The country’s unilateral might would usher in “a new era—freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, east and west, north and south, can prosper and live in harmony. A hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace, while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor.”

That pleasant illusion was wrecked by a series of harsh realities. It wasn’t just the Iraq War ordered by Bush’s son in 2003. Whether for the sake of saving civilians, as in the case of the Libyan regime change in 2011, or in the name of self-defence, as in the war on terror, now it was America’s thousand wars that raged. Only ever making the world worse off, they were eventually enough to help make Trump credible in 2016, and thus put the continuity of American democracy itself at risk. When Trump blindsided Democrats and Republican warmongers alike, who continued to preach the need for the US’s indispensable role amid the haze of one failed war after another, many could still take offence—but they were unceremoniously cast from the circle of power for four years.

Yet instead of prompting a reckoning with how endless war abroad had led to Trump’s unexpected victory, many openly treated Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 as providential. According to the New York Times, it provided the cadre of Beltway elites who were perturbed by the immediate past with “a new sense of mission”, and “re-energized Washington’s leadership role in the democratic world just months after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan ended 20 years of conflict on a dismal note.”

Clearly, Putin’s act—which appeared to seek the atavistic goal of territorial conquest, to which the US and other western powers had not stooped since before the Second World War—was so outrageous as to require a response. And Russia’s brutality in the field provided a legitimate occasion for disgust and rage.

Joseph Biden, President of the United States, speaks from a podium. In Washington on 10th October, President Biden set out America’s position: “We’re—we’re with Israel. Let’s make no mistake.” Credit: © SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

But restorationist wishes were also coming true. The sunlit uplands of a just cause afforded new scenery after a dark period. Atlanticist elites could seek to turn the page, denouncing Russian aggression while memory-holing the west’s own with palpable relief. Old playbooks were dusted off. Diplomats were back in business organising resolutions and sanctions; big cheques were written for a good friend in the concert of democracies; military hardware was dispatched for battlefield use; experts in uniform travelled to advise; intelligence networks hummed. Overnight, the war restored the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to some purpose. Indeed, despite claims that Nato expansion precipitated the conflict, it led Finland to join and Sweden is on its own path too. Internationally, familiar rhetoric about democracy and freedom was recycled. America moved backwards from the ethical complications of its war on terror to a new Cold War and a familiar moral high ground.

During the opening months of the war in Ukraine, there was a hegemonic consensus around “western unity” in the face of Russian barbarity. Besides genuine horror at the aggression and brutality of Putin’s invasion, many politicians and publicists combined gloating about a pure new cause for leadership with palpable relief about putting the Trump era, with its attacks on Nato and its spotlight on fruitless wars, behind them.

But the euphoria that Putin was pushed back so quickly, in a heroic reversal of predictions of his lightning victory, could not conceal the risk of quagmire. If Russia could not be expelled beyond Ukraine’s sovereign borders before the invasion, let alone to its original ones violated when it annexed Crimea in 2014, some deal would have to be made. A few called for peace talks from the start, but were drowned out by censorious voices insisting that democracies could not capitulate to tyrants or appease a genocidal imperialist, even if the cost in blood and treasure would be steep.

Within short order, the Ukraine War became a war of position in the east, with Russia’s biggest territorial loss in May 2022, when the Kharkiv region was recaptured. Since then, the battle lines have only shifted microscopically, even after a ballyhooed “counteroffensive”.

The US has spent almost $80bn (including almost $50bn in military aid). Europeans have pitched in enthusiastically, as Germany abandoned any remnants of its pacifist legacy and Nordic countries their historic neutralism. They can claim a defensive victory in saving Ukrainian democracy—no doubt Ukraine would not have fought Russia to a standstill without American and other help. But that was true from the earliest weeks of the war. The funds and weapons have done nothing since to eject Putin back whence he came. And while the price has been enormous for Russia, in the order of more than 100,000 casualties and extraordinary amounts of materiel, Putin was also willing to pay it. A year later, it looks like the sceptics were proved right. “The breathless hype that characterised early media coverage has curdled into doom,” observed Lily Lynch in the New Statesman recently.

The most striking thing about the parallel American response 18 months later to Hamas’s incursion across the Gaza fence is that the credibility of America’s nostrums about democracy and its defence collapsed almost from the start, and much more visibly. This time, America could not rouse the world around its beleaguered policy and rhetoric.

It was not for a lack of trying. In the first days of horrified response to Hamas’s attack, Biden resembled no one more than George W Bush in his hard-line response to terrorism. Adversaries were “pure, unadulterated evil”, and there were no political solutions other than their destruction. Comparably, Hillary Clinton—never one to learn anything from her record of failed warmongering in Iraqi and Libyan regime change—went on television to repeat the same tired tropes about the “barbarity” and “savagery” of Hamas, as if 19th-century imperialism were a viable script for 21st-century politics. The cause of the free world of democracies apparently meant issuing Israel a blank cheque.

In this Manichean atmosphere, Bush himself was recorded as agreeing with the no-holds-barred response to terrorism in Israel—but the blowback illustrated that Biden was trying on Bush’s rhetoric for size at a moment when there was far less tolerance for it. “There’s at least some awareness of the perils of an emotional response to terrorism,” Michael Schaffer, a Politico journalist, commented. “Whether or not you think this sensitivity should drive policy, it may well be Bush’s singular, and inadvertent, political legacy in Washington.” Even before Israel’s bloody ground operation in Gaza began on 27th October, the opinion of many Americans and most of the world indicated that the blank cheque that Israel had already received might need some amendments.

The clearest reason for more immediate scepticism was the fraught morality of the conflict in Israel and Palestine, which made it tough for Biden to sustain the analogy between the Palestinians and the Russians. Far from being an oasis of freedom in a desert of tyranny, Israel has been trending antidemocratic in recent decades, under the stewardship of its hard-right coalition governed by Benjamin Netanyahu. Whatever one thinks of the democratic credentials that entitle Ukraine to external help, Israel just lived through a massive protest wave inspired by fears that Netanyahu’s coalition was giving up their democratic credentials.

More importantly, the undoubted turpitude of Hamas’s acts could not negate the colonial history that produced the Gazan situation. Hamas’s similarity to Putin pales beside the similarity of the subordination of the Palestinian people to the history of Russian imperialism that Putin fancies reviving. Within days, even former president Barack Obama, as the New York Times delicately put it, was “seemingly attempting to strike a balance between the killings on both sides” of the conflict. Who wasn’t, Obama disarmingly wondered, “complicit to some degree” in cycles of violence—a far cry from the consensus after 9/11 that the powerful in the world are innocent, acts against them inexplicable, and their own violence in response irreproachable.

Xi Jinping sits at a conference table Despite Xi and Biden meeting in San Francisco, Sino-US relations remain tense Credit: © Xinhua/Shutterstock

Even so, the realisation that simply siding with Israel would not work took an agonisingly long time for Biden and his senior staff.

This conflict has made graphic just how far the default of sympathy with Israel has been reset in recent years, especially among America’s youth. Indeed, in recognition of profound shifts in the liberal and left American opinion, catching up to longstanding global support for the Palestinian national cause, Biden and his staff soon communicated to Israel that its room for manoeuvre might not last indefinitely. “Some of the president’s close advisers believe that there are only weeks, not months, until rebuffing the pressure on the US government to publicly call for a ceasefire becomes untenable,” CNN reported in early November.

Within days of 7th October, it emerged that Biden’s strategic calculus was to postpone that eventuality as long as possible by insisting that Israel adhere to humanitarian limits in its response. In line with America’s own insistence on a practically unlimited right of armed self-defence balanced by a promise of “humanity” in warfare, secretary of state Antony Blinken cautioned Israel to take care not to harm too many civilians. As Le Monde observed, the White House was “forced to move the needle” by emphasising the importance of “the laws of war”.

In the early days, such reminders were coupled with reassurances that those limits were being observed, notwithstanding the death toll—an estimated 15,000 Palestinian lives at the time of writing, including a likely 6,150 children. Americans were invited to conclude that it was morally acceptable, however tragic, for people to die collaterally (or as human shields) on one side of the fracas in numbers more than 10 times those on the other side, who died in direct terrorist attacks. Astonishingly, one US official admitted on the record that the reason for new talk about humanitarian limits in warfare was the mercenary one of managing later public relations: “If this really goes bad, we want to be able to point to our past statements.”

It went bad quickly. Blinken was forced (in part by staff revolts) to acknowledge that civilian death was disproportionate—though, so far, no US officials have publicly conditioned support for Israel on restraint, reducing their moral concerns about the death American aid and weaponry enabled to monitory worries that Israel could and apparently did simply ignore. After a four-day halt to the carnage was announced and then extended—and as hostages were exchanged—the Biden administration signalled its desire to see it extended further, without retracting its backing of Israel’s right to self-defence or questioning its objective of eradicating Hamas.

America’s lack of credibility as a global saviour of democracy, or a fair and honest broker in the longstanding strife in Israel and Palestine, dawned on the global south before others.

In spite of the overwhelming vote in the United Nations General Assembly condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine, the US could unify the north Atlantic but not the world in its depiction of a pure cause. In a brilliant and edgy speech last May, former US official Fiona Hill, famed for her defence of a hawkish Russia policy in the Trump years, offered that the global south had understandable reasons not to buy the democracy hype, and regretted that Ukraine’s defence proved hostage to US decline and its legacy of double standards. “Perceptions of American hubris and hypocrisy are widespread. Trust in the international system(s) that the US helped invent and has presided over since World War II is long gone,” she said.

Now America’s Israel policy has eroded support for Ukraine further, along with the last residues of belief in the geopolitical virtue of US leadership. Not all the reasons for the global south’s scepticism about America’s Manichean stances in eastern Europe and the Middle East are convincing, but the global south is on firm ground in treating the west’s sanctimonious talk, past and present, as so many rationales for the violence of the powerful against the weak, and a smokescreen for continuing global hierarchy. If Biden’s newly minted mantra of a “rules-based international order” means America’s Gaza policy, the global south “won’t ever listen to us again”, as one official mordantly put it.

Biden and Xi Jinping met in San Francisco a month into the new phase of struggle in Israel, but the paltry results hardly suggested that the west’s emerging Cold War against Beijing has been postponed or relaxed. Indeed, some voiced anxiety that yet another American-sponsored war—Israel on top of Ukraine—would interfere with the campaign against China that they regard as the truly existential one. America can afford to fight many wars at one time, treasury secretary Janet Yellen reassured anyone who would listen. But even if this is true, the credibility and legitimacy of America’s global enmities are not widely shared enough to be sustainable.

The global south doesn’t buy into the revivalist sloganeering of Beltway policymakers chanting about freedom. Of course, it is familiar with being bypassed and ignored. But the Gaza conflict is showing that its misgivings about American beneficence are hitting home with Americans themselves—especially the young. A shift in opinion has thrown American global leadership into doubt.

In December 2022, Packer, the liberal journalist, issued a manifesto portentously entitled “A New Theory of American Power”. Interventionism around the world before and since the Cold War’s end in 1989 now looked hard to defend, he conceded, and the Afghan withdrawal that Biden himself came into office to complete reflected that lesson. But the answer to too much intervention, Packer insisted, was hardly too much restraint.

Those “living in the safety and comfort of the West,” Packer explained, could not deny that “liberal values… depend on American support.” And after Afghanistan came Ukraine which, he asserted, saved US foreign policy liberalism from a dire period of inaction and withdrawal. In the face of those anxious that “American arms would achieve nothing” in the struggle against Russia, he proposed a corrected vision of American might: it could save democracy in Ukraine, preferring the practice of sending money and weapons rather than troops. But the lessons were generalisable. “Call it the Biden doctrine,” Packer concluded. “Limits would make a foreign policy founded on liberal values more persuasive abroad and more sustainable with the American electorate, holding off the next oscillation towards grandiosity or gloom.”

But contemporary history—as the Ukraine War continued, and more money and weapons than before flowed to the defence of Israeli democracy too—has not been kind to such a vision. The Ukraine War, Packer observed recently, is stalemated: American arms achieved nothing after all, other than holding Russia in place. Will the results differ in the Middle East when Netanyahu anticipates a “long and difficult” fight, and American officials are warned by their Israeli counterparts that current operations could last “as long as 10 years”?

The blow to any confidence that America’s foreign policy elites know what they are doing is hardly softened by a “new theory” of cautious and indirect intervention abroad, when those elites prove more adept at nurturing rather than resolving intractable conflict. Rushing to war and planning for the messy outcomes later is something America knows a lot about, given the failures not just of its direct interventions but its outrageous record of arms dealing and proxy support. The US can be embroiled in endless wars even when it does not send its own troops. Indeed, the struggle over Israel and Palestine, to which there is only a political solution, has been perpetual long since.

Then there is the matter of the US’s own faulty democracy, which was never perfect and is visibly getting worse, in part because of the dream of advancing democracy elsewhere through force of arms.

“Our ability to function effectively as a great power abroad depends on how we conduct ourselves at home,” remarked George HW Bush in proclaiming a new world order in 1990. History since not only proved his point, but also the reverse: that a series of misbegotten wars could undermine what passed for US democracy and leave it prey to a charlatan not once but twice. 

America could not rouse the world this time, around its beleaguered policy and rhetoric

For the biggest consequence of America’s wars is the self-destruction of its liberal and rules-based order domestically, such as it was. Understandably, as the carnage in the Middle East mounted, Biden’s 2024 re-election campaign staff freaked out the earliest and most visibly. One reason was moral: “The president centered his 2020 campaign on a ‘Battle for the Soul of the Nation’, but it seems as though the administration is currently in a battle for its own soul,” commented one campaign staffer about the human consequences of American-abetted war. But for those with different or no ethics, it was strategic concern about an electorally disastrous policy that came to the fore, with Trump the likely Republican presidential nominee for 2024.

The chattering classes began pondering how the hundreds of thousands of Muslim voters in the crucial swing state of Michigan—a state Biden won by fewer voters in 2020 (and that Trump won in 2016)—would react. “I will never vote Biden,” one Arab-American exclaimed. But the problem far transcends any specific community. Initial support for Israel plummeted, and over two-thirds of Americans backed a ceasefire. Though Trump was hardly a peacenik, polls showed that voters would expect his presidency, if he won in 2024, to be the less warlike option. Biden’s policies appear to be setting democracy back at home—if the US even survives a second Trump term—as a result of purporting to advance it abroad through war.

Shifts in Congress combine all the hallmarks of America’s new situation in microcosm. Alongside new critics of America’s Israel policy on the left, the body also features a new right that is sceptical about imperial overstretch. Unlike Congress’s first lopsided vote in 2022 in favour of even more Ukraine funding than Biden initially requested, the new far-right speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, dithered. “He’s by no means an isolationist,” one colleague nervously assured himself. Johnson proposed $16bn in new Israel funding—on top of the billions allotted annually, amounting to more than $120bn since the 1940s. But because Johnson mortgaged the funds to crackpot grievances against tax collection, the Senate rejected them. And so far he has rebuffed requests for more funding of Ukraine’s frozen war. 

The American dream of advancing democracy through force of arms is obsolete. It has failed abroad in practice even when morally defensible in theory, and it is not easily transposed to the messy situation in Israel and Palestine. And it is domestically unsustainable when the US’s own democracy is on the brink. Biden “has not learned from America’s mistakes, rushing headlong into the latest war,” commented Stephen Wertheim in the New York Times. After Ukraine, Gaza provides a final confirmation of a generation of failed militarism, beckoning us not to old promises of security but to the new realities of US decline amid endless war—and to the need to imagine an elusive new politics that could replace a passing world order for the better, since things can always get worse.