Tensions over a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine are honing a fundamental question facing Israeli decision-makers: How does the undermining of the liberal world order impact Israel and how should it prepare?
The order consolidated after World War II included aspects of power: The economic, technological, and military dominance of the United States and its democratic allies since 1945, and even more so, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. As well, the liberal order included a foundation of democratic values as guidelines for the conduct of international relations, including the protection of human rights, although the US did not always live up the standards it set.
China’s rise and the relative decline of US power are undermining the validity of this order. Furthermore, China is offering the world a successful state model, economically and in confronting the global health crisis, although it is not liberal, nor open like the western states, and its market economy is under government control.
Significant cracks have emerged at the core of the liberal world. The cradle of liberalism, Britain, has cut itself off from the European Union, the most ambitious liberal project of recent decades. Citizens of the US, the leader of this camp, democratically elected president Trump who expressed outspoken reservations about the domestic and international liberal projects, thus exposing the limits of American leadership of the liberal camp.
More deeply, some of the public in the West is expressing doubt about the ability of liberal democracies to deal with key global challenges, such as migration, economic disparities and health crises. Overall, the West failed to act against significant human rights crises, such as the civil war in Syria. Some of the most prominent democratic projects of the 1990s, such as the dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa, have lost their moral conviction and shine, swept away in a tide of corruption and dysfunctional governance.
Some of the most ardent activists championing the liberal order in European and American civil society started devoting increasing time and resources to activity considered secondary in importance, not to mention esoteric, such as signage on bathrooms for various gender identifications and politically correct discourse to the point that many lost touch with the substantive global issues facing the international order. William Butler Yeats’ immortal lines are apt in this case: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The Ukraine crisis challenges the liberal order in at least two aspects. First, Russian moves, especially as they near a real invasion, are opposed to international norms that ban the declaration of war and the threat of force other than for self-defense, and territorial expansion through the use of force. Second, the very threat of war has bolstered Russia’s standing, for now.
World leaders are imploring Moscow to avoid war and are probably considering various concessions. The British defense secretary rightly commented that there was “a whiff of Munich in the air,” a weakness of democracies in the face of undemocratic belligerence.
And where do we come in?
Israel has had ambivalent relations with the liberal world order. On the one hand, its international legitimization by a resolution of the UN, a key institution underpinning this order. What is more, the alliance with democratic states, first France and then the US and Germany, served as the cornerstone of Israel’s national security policy. A substantive component of this alliance, especially vis-à-vis Washington, was Israel’s democratic foundation. Israelis also identified as members of the Western democratic camp.
However, tensions between Israel and the standard-bearers of western liberalism have been heightened in recent decades over its continued control of disenfranchised residents of the territories and its military pressure on Gaza. The latest Amnesty International report highlights the doubts by some human rights organizations, an important bastion of the global liberal camp, over the moral validity of Israel’s political model.
In Israel’s eyes, the UN has been a hostile arena since the 1970s. For most Israelis, it has lost its moral image and is perceived as a space dominated by an unjustified anti-Israel majority. As well, some Israeli actions, such as assassinations of state and non-state actors involved in anti-Israel hostilities, run counter to the world of liberal values, although many governments have expressed, in effect, understanding of them.
THE UNDERMINING of the prevalent liberal order presents Israel with four issues.
First, how to preserve the alliance with the US, leader of the liberal world, and at the same time conduct correct relations with the states challenging this order, especially Russia and China? The importance of this balance is heightened given the Russian military presence in Syria and the limitations it imposes on the freedom of action, which Israel reserves for itself in the skies over its north-eastern neighbor.
Additionally, this balance is required given the pressures Washington is exerting on Israel to decrease China’s economic footprint in Israel. The issue becomes even more complex since most Jews live outside Israel, especially in the US. Therefore, maneuvering among all these considerations will require advanced acrobatic skills, diplomatic juggling, and precise and sensitive navigation. This is a significant challenge that requires a strong cadre of experienced diplomats.
Second, Israel might enjoy the relaxation of pressure in the short run regarding its control of a disenfranchised population in the West Bank, but to the extent that this will be the outcome of the West’s decline, Israel could face long-term risks. The weakening of the US could weaken Israel, as well. A sizeable part of Israel’s material and symbolic power stems from its closeness to Washington. A US decline would project onto us, as well. It is hard to see Israel forging a close alliance with Beijing to replace the one with the US.
Third, a world with two competing focal power centers, Beijing and Washington, will be more closed. Israel has benefited from US-led globalization, an overarching process that enabled the flourishing of Israeli high-teach. A divided world will result in shrinking markets and offer fewer global opportunities for Israeli entrepreneurs. What is more, Chinese technological leadership, certainly a reasonable scenario, could challenge the access of Israeli technology experts and entrepreneurs who enjoy easy access to the US market.
Finally, global disagreements also resonate in Israel’s domestic arena. Contrary to the pervasive myth, Israel cannot dwell alone. Global divisions assume domestic dimensions, as well, and Israel’s divergent camps will find inspiration in such international developments. The weakening of liberal forces already echoes the weakness of the Israeli Left and the rise of nationalist right-wing parties in Europe is reminiscent of similar trends here.
A more nationalistic world will inevitably bolster national trends here because Zionism includes a dimension of domestic national Jewish response to external nationalist threats. After all, Polish antisemitism in the 1920s prompted the fourth wave of immigration to Israel and Nazi nationalism generated the fifth wave a decade later. A world in which everyone barricades themselves behind nationalist walls will presumably lead us to do the same.
In the final analysis, the tensions over Ukraine are the tip of a giant iceberg that will affect the most significant aspects of our lives here. It is important to follow developments closely. They are highly troubling and could constitute an initial indication of the type of challenges facing the international order and Israel in the years to come.
The writer is a board member of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a senior lecturer of international relations at Haifa University.