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As much more than just shaking up Middle East politics, Hamas’s attack on Israel — along with Russia’s war on Ukraine — is pushing the world further toward multipolarity
I traveled to Washington for the launch of the European Foreign Policy Council’s new US program and spent much of last week doing two things:
- conversations with White House, Defense and State Department officials about the state of the world
- an insight into the results of the latest global public opinion survey by the European Commission.
What struck me most is that despite America’s success in rallying allies against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s encroachment in the Indo-Pacific, US officials remain deeply uncertain about the changing international situation.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, President Joe Biden was quick to condemn it as an assault on the rules-based international order. He has made efforts to mobilize the world’s democracies against revisionist autocracies, and now his administration is rightly proud of the progress it has made toward building new ties between its Atlantic allies and those in the Indo-Pacific region.
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Japan, Australia and South Korea have contributed significantly to the Ukrainian war effort, with the latter supplying so much ammunition that White House officials have begun to speak of a “South Korean counter-offensive” in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, America’s European allies became more engaged in the Indo-Pacific and with Taiwan. The US has effectively achieved something very difficult – maintaining support for Ukraine while strengthening its alliances in Asia. The result looks a lot like Biden’s broader vision of the world. A united bloc of democracies confronts Russia and China.
But that vision is now being challenged on two fronts.
- First, Israel’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza calls into question the exceptional nature of the war in Ukraine. With many in the Global South (and West) now arguing that the war in Ukraine is just one of many conflicts around the world, US officials are alarmed by the new competition for political attention and ammunition. This concern will only grow if the conflict in the Middle East escalates or – more ominously – inspires a major domestic terrorist incident. While Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has united the West, external and internal divisions over the Israeli-Palestinian issue threaten to tear it apart.
- Second, our poll of 25,000 people in 21 countries shows that most respondents reject Biden’s basic framework, which means they should be forced to take sides in the world’s divide between democracies and autocracies. Instead, majorities in most countries believe that we live in “à la carte world”. Although many people are attracted to the democratic values of the West, they prefer to choose elements from different systems rather than fully emulating or conforming to a particular model.
The result is that people around the world admire European “soft power” and value US security guarantees, but see China as the most attractive economic partner. While most respondents would still choose the US over China (if it had to), very few believe they face such a choice.
- Thus, most admire the Western values that Ukraine is fighting for, but do not share the West’s military goals.
- Instead, they want the conflict to end as soon as possible, even if it means defeat for Ukraine.
- Perhaps even more worryingly for the Biden administration, most Europeans would prefer to remain neutral in the event of a war between the US and China over Taiwan.
Many in the West assume that countries that have benefited from the rules-based order would want to join them in defending that order. But Indonesia and South Africa, for example, see things differently. After all, many governments would welcome the breakdown of multilateral institutions in which they lack adequate representation and enjoy being courted by great powers rather than always being taken for granted.
In a world where people want choice, the biggest revisionist powers, Russia and China, don’t really have to be as attractive as the established powers to represent an alternative option.
Of course, many of the American politicians I met still question the relevance of the Global South, especially now that America has strengthened ties among advanced democracies, especially militarily. Yet it cannot be denied that many countries in the Global South are becoming increasingly important demographically, economically and militarily. If it doesn’t matter now that they don’t feel the need to choose between the US and China, that will change very soon.
While the US sees its friends and allies as marriage partners, many of these partners believe they live in a polyamorous world where one can regularly change partners depending on the particular issue (polyamory is a term describing the practice, desire, or acceptance of engaging in intimate relations simultaneously with more than one partner, and with the knowledge of the others – note ed.).
American policymakers may be used to India’s behavior, but what would they say if they were abandoned by Israel or by Saudi Arabia, which is making rapprochement gestures with China and Russia? On the crucial issue of Taiwan, even the Europeans want to keep their options open to choose and act.
The column “Analyses” presents different points of view, the opinions expressed do not necessarily coincide with the editorial position of “Dnevnik”.