The erosion of the world order, established after World War II under the leadership of the United States and guided by liberal-democratic principles, intensified in the four years of the Trump presidency. The failures ascribed to these principles, beginning with the 2008 financial crisis, have fueled populist trends that reject globalization and espouse isolationism. Will Trump’s defeat push the pendulum in the opposite direction?
Donald Trump showed no interest in preserving the status of the United States as the leader of the free world and champion of the values of democracy and human rights. He abandoned the Paris climate agreement, withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, announced his intention to end support for the World Health Organization. Trump, who did not conceal his sympathy for tyrants, expressed aversion to the “ideology of globalism,” preferring instead “the doctrine of patriotism.” He also made it clear that he would not interfere in the internal affairs of countries that violate human rights.
President Joe Biden, in his speech at the State Department on February 4, presented a foreign policy vision in stark contrast to Trump’s. Biden is committed to restoring US engagement and leadership in the international arena. His intention is to return American diplomacy to the core values of liberty and human rights. He pledged to reinvigorate alliances with the world’s democracies and presented the clash with China and Russia through an ideological prism: democracy versus authoritarianism.
In this spirit, he promises a tough response to Moscow for violating the fundamental rights of its citizens. Biden regards alliances as a source of strength and promises that the US will restore its leading role in international organizations (hence the rapid re-engagement with the climate agreement, the renewal of support for the World Health Organization, and a return to the UN Human Rights Council).
In his efforts to change the course of American diplomacy, Biden will not be able to ignore the rising authoritarian powers, Russia and China. He will have to navigate between sometimes conflicting aspirations. The more the US takes tough measures against Chinese and Russian violations of liberal-democratic norms, the less willing they will be to cooperate in tackling pressing global challenges: the Covid-19 pandemic, nuclear proliferation, global warming, etc. Biden is well aware that the solutions he wants to advance in the face of these challenges will require the cooperation of the world’s great powers, and the coming months will reveal how he balances the contradictory goals he has laid out.
An American effort to push the world order pendulum back in the liberal-democratic direction could have ramifications for Israel, the Jewish people, and the resilience of the Jerusalem-Washington-American Jewry strategic triangle. These implications are crucial because the US, home to a thriving community of about half of the Jewish people, is the only superpower on which Israel can rely.
The illiberal characteristics of the world order, which intensified during the Trump era, provided a regional and international environment that allowed the Israeli government more leeway to conduct itself at will. In a global setting where the currency of realpolitik increased and the discourse of democratic values and human rights diminished, Israel encountered fewer restrictions when deploying military force in various arenas, less criticism of its settlement activity, less pressure from the International Court of Justice, less effectiveness of abusive decisions by the UN and its agencies, and fewer assaults on controversial internal moves (such as the 2018 Nation-State Law).
ON THE other hand, in a world order where the liberal-democratic ethos is regnant once again, the Israeli government may find itself faced with increasing difficulties on a whole range of issues:
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict – Although the issue is not among Biden’s top priorities, his approach to settlement activity, and certainly any Israeli intention to annex territory, will not be as permissive as Trump’s. The more the human rights discourse resonates in the international arena, the more the Palestinian issue will return to the diplomatic agenda. The legitimacy of Israel’s current reality, in the language of its critics, to “rule over a foreign nation without national and political rights,” will dissipate. To Israel’s consternation, Biden’s interest in renewing the transatlantic alliance is expected to give greater voice to Europe’s positions on the Palestinian issue, which are often at odds with the Israeli government.
Regional normalization – The escalating erosion of the centrality of liberal values in the global order during the Trump era helped push the Palestinian issue off the international and regional agenda, thus easing the process of normalization between Israel and some Arab states. The resurrection of the Palestinian issue in the eyes of the world will reduce the flexibility of Arab rulers in their relations with Israel, and may harden their conditioning normalization moves on progress in resolving the Palestinian issue.
The security complex – The US president’s intention to return to the nuclear deal with Iran (JCPOA) is part of his broad approach to operate in multinational frameworks and in close cooperation with traditional allies. This issue is already emerging as a significant bone of contention between Washington and Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi have made it unequivocally clear that Israel opposes the US return to the JCPOA. In this context, the Biden administration’s preference for utilizing international diplomacy tools could lead to a narrowing of Israel’s military freedom of action in the face of the threat posed by Iran and its allies.
Israel’s relations with the authoritarian world – The more integral the ideological dimension is to the clash between Washington and the authoritarian regimes in Beijing and Moscow, the greater the pressure will be on Israel to side with the United States in ways that may complicate its relations with these powers. The same is true of Israel’s relations with countries that show great friendship toward it, but whose rulers have drifted from democratic norms.
International institutions – Trump’s antipathy for international institutions coupled with his strong support for Israel provided Jerusalem with extra protection from these institutions (most of which comprise countries that are far from being paragons of the liberal-democratic ethos and have repeatedly attempted to undermine Israel’s legitimacy). The more Biden seeks to reaffirm the status of international institutions and refrains from unconditional support for Israel (including the automatic exercise of US veto power in the UN Security Council), the more Israel may be exposed to resolutions that go against its interests.
Israel-Diaspora relations – Biden’s striving to strengthen the liberal dimension of the world order may reveal an inherent tension within the Jewish world: The prosperity of Diaspora Jewry rests upon the values that underpin the liberal-democratic system. A society that is not committed to these values may be inclined to hostility toward its Jewish minority and feel less obligated to come to its defense. On the other hand, many Israeli Jews, as the majority in their country, tend to emphasize the rights of the majority at the expense of minorities. Israeli insistence on continuing to cultivate its relations with the authoritarian world will likely generate tensions with the US and may deepen the reservations of Diaspora Jews regarding Israeli policy, which could damage the resilience of the critical strategic triangular relationship: Jerusalem-Washington-American Jewry. The US administration’s stated ambition to restore the liberal-democratic character of the world order could create significant points of disagreement with Israel. The severity of this dynamic depends on the intensity of Biden’s resolve in adhering to his goals, but also on the configuration and positions of the next Israeli government and its willingness to risk a confrontation with the American president.
The writer, a former director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI). His book, Shimon Peres: An Insider’s Account of the Man and the Struggle for a New Middle East, was recently published by I.B. Tauris.