Will the latest Gaza war have far-reaching repercussions? As a rule, I think adverse geopolitical developments are usually balanced by countervailing forces of various kinds, and events in one small part of the world tend not to have vast ripple effects elsewhere. Crises and wars do occur, but cooler heads typically prevail and limit their consequences.
But not always, and the current war in Gaza may be one of those exceptions. No, I don’t think we are on the brink of World War III; in fact, I’d be surprised if the current fighting leads to a larger regional conflict. I don’t rule this possibility out entirely, but so far none of the states or groups on the sidelines (Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, Turkey, etc.) seem eager to get directly involved, and U.S. officials are trying to keep the conflict localized as well. Because larger regional conflict would be even more costly and dangerous, we should all hope these efforts succeed. But even if the war is confined to Gaza and ends soon, it is going to have significant repercussions around the world.
To see what these broader implications may be, it is important to recall the general state of geopolitics just before Hamas launched its surprise attack on Oct. 7. (For a trenchant summary of these conditions, watch John Mearsheimer’s recent lecture here). Before Hamas attacked, the United States and its NATO allies were waging a proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. Their goal was to help Ukraine drive Russia from the territory it had seized after February 2022 and to weaken Russia to the point that it could not undertake similar actions in the future. The war was not going well, however: Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive had stalled, the balance of military power seemed to be shifting gradually toward Moscow, and hopes that Kyiv could regain its lost territory either by force of arms or through negotiations were fading.
The United States was also waging a de facto economic war against China, intended to prevent Beijing from dominating the commanding heights of semiconductor production, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and other high-tech areas. Washington saw China as its primary long-term rival (in Pentagon-speak, the “pacing threat”), and the Biden administration intended to focus more and more attention on this challenge. Administration officials described its economic restrictions as tightly focused (i.e., a “small yard and high fence”) and insisted that they were eager for other forms of cooperation with China. The small yard kept getting bigger, however, despite growing skepticism about whether the high fence would be able to prevent China from gaining ground in at least some significant areas of technology.
In the Middle East, the Biden administration was trying to pull off a complicated diplomatic bank shot: It sought to dissuade Saudi Arabia from moving closer to China by extending some sort of formal security guarantee to Riyadh and perhaps allowing it access to sensitive nuclear technology, in exchange for the Saudis normalizing relations with Israel. It was not clear whether the deal was going to come off, however, and critics had warned that ignoring the Palestinian issue and turning a blind eye to the Israeli government’s increasingly harsh actions in the Palestinian territories risked an eventual explosion.
Then came Oct. 7. More than 1,400 Israelis were brutally killed, and now more than 10,000 people in Gaza—including 4,000 children—have lost their lives to Israeli bombardment. Here’s what this continuing tragedy means for geopolitics and U.S. foreign policy.
For starters, the war has put a monkey wrench in the U.S.-led Saudi-Israeli normalization effort (and halting the development was almost certainly one of Hamas’s goals). It may not prevent it forever, of course, because the original incentives behind the deal will still be there when the fighting ends in Gaza. Even so, the obstacles to the deal have clearly increased, and they will continue to mount the higher the casualty toll runs.
Second, the war will interfere with U.S. efforts to spend less time and attention on the Middle East and shift more attention and effort farther east in Asia. In a now-infamous, overtaken-by-events Foreign Affairs article (published in print just before Hamas attacked), U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan claimed that the administration’s “disciplined” approach to the Middle East would “[free] up resources for other global priorities” and “[reduce] the risk of new Middle Eastern conflicts.” As the past month has shown, that’s not exactly how things turned out.
It’s a question of bandwidth: There are only 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, and President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and other top U.S. officials can’t be flying off to Israel and other Middle Eastern countries every few days and still devote adequate time and attention elsewhere. The nomination of Asia specialist Kurt Campbell as deputy secretary of state may alleviate this problem somewhat, but this latest Middle East crisis still means less diplomatic and military capacity will be available for Asia in the short to medium term. A simmering internal upheaval in the State Department—where mid-level officials are upset by the administration’s one-sided response to the conflict—won’t make this problem any easier.
In short, the latest war in the Middle East is not good news for Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, or any other country that is facing growing pressure from China. Beijing’s economic woes haven’t halted its assertive actions against Taiwan or in the South China Sea, including a recent incident where a Chinese interceptor reportedly flew within 10 feet of a patrolling U.S. B-52 bomber. With two aircraft carriers now deployed in the eastern Mediterranean and attention in Washington riveted there, the ability to respond effectively should matters deteriorate in Asia is inevitably impaired.
And remember, I’m assuming the war in Gaza doesn’t expand to include Lebanon or Iran, which would thrust the United States and others into a new and deadlier situation and tie up even more time, attention, and resources.
Third, the conflict in Gaza is a disaster for Ukraine. The Gaza war is dominating press coverage and making it harder to rally support for a new U.S. aid package. Republicans in the House of Representatives are already balking, and a Gallup poll conducted from Oct. 4 to Oct. 16 found that 41 percent of Americans now believe the U.S. is giving Ukraine too much support, up from only 29 percent back in June.
The problem is even bigger than that, however. The conflict in Ukraine has become a grinding war of attrition, and that means artillery is playing a central role on the battlefield. The United States and its allies have been unable to produce enough ordnance to meet Ukraine’s needs, however, which has forced Washington to raid stockpiles in South Korea and Israel to keep Kyiv in the fight. Now that Israel is at war, it is going to get some of the artillery rounds or other weaponry that would otherwise have gone to Ukraine. And what is Biden supposed to do if Ukraine starts losing more ground, or if, god forbid, its army begins to collapse? All in all, what is happening in Gaza is not good news for Kyiv.
It’s bad news for the European Union, too. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had increased European unity despite some minor frictions, and the ouster of the autocratic and disruptive Law and Justice party in the recent Polish elections was an encouraging sign as well. But the war in Gaza has rekindled European divisions, with some countries backing Israel unreservedly and others showing more sympathy for the Palestinians (though not for Hamas). A serious rift has also emerged between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, and some 800 EU staffers reportedly signed a letter criticizing von der Leyen for being too biased toward Israel. The longer the war goes on, the wider these fissures will grow. These divisions also underscore Europe’s diplomatic weakness, if not irrelevance, undermining the broader goal of uniting the world’s democracies into a powerful and effective coalition.
Needless to say, this is all very good news for Russia and China. From their perspective, anything that distracts the United States from Ukraine or East Asia is desirable, especially when they can just sit on the sidelines and watch the damage pile up. As I noted in a previous column, the war also gives Moscow and Beijing another easy argument for the multipolar world order they have long championed over a U.S.-led system. All they need do is point out to others that the United States has been the primary great power managing the Middle East for the past 30 years, and the results are a disastrous war in Iraq, a latent Iranian nuclear capability, the emergence of the Islamic State, a humanitarian disaster in Yemen, anarchy in Libya, and the failure of the Oslo peace process. From this perspective, Hamas’s brutal attack on Oct. 7 shows that Washington can’t even protect its closest friends from terrible events. One may take issue with any of these accusations, but they will find a sympathetic audience in many places. Not surprisingly, Russian and Chinese media campaigns are already using the conflict to score points against the self-described “indispensable nation.”
Looking further ahead, the war and America’s response to it are going to be millstones around the necks of American diplomats for some time to come. There was already a sizable gulf between U.S. and Western views on the Ukraine crisis and the attitudes of many in the global south, where leaders did not exactly support Russia’s invasion but were angered by what they saw as double standards and selective attention on the part of Western elites. Israel’s overwhelming response to Hamas’s attacks is widening that gulf, in part because there is much more sympathy for the overall plight of the Palestinians in the rest of the world than there is in the United States or Europe.
That sympathy will only increase the longer the war goes on and the more Palestinian civilians are killed, especially when the U.S. government and some prominent European politicians are leaning so heavily to one side. As a senior G-7 diplomat told the Financial Times last month: “We have definitely lost the battle in the global south. All the work we have done with the global south [over Ukraine] has been lost. … Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again.” That view might be exaggerated, but it’s not wrong.
Furthermore, people outside the comfortable confines of the trans-Atlantic community are troubled by what they see as selective Western attention. A new war erupts in the Middle East, and Western media is utterly consumed by it, with high-end newspapers devoting countless pages to stories and commentary and cable news channels spending hours of airtime on these events. Politicians are falling over themselves to offer their views on what should be done. But in the very same week that this latest war broke out, the United Nations reported that roughly 7 million people are currently displaced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mostly as a result of violence there. That story barely made a ripple, even though the number of human beings involved dwarfed the number of victims in Israel or Gaza.
This effect should not be overstated, either: States in the global south will still follow their own interests and will still do business with the United States and others despite their anger and irritation at Western hypocrisy. But it won’t make them any easier to deal with, and we should expect them to pay scant attention to all of our prattling about norms and rules and human rights. Don’t be surprised if more states begin to see China as a useful counterweight to Washington.
Finally, this unhappy episode will not burnish America’s reputation for foreign-policy competence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to protect Israel may stain his reputation forever, but the U.S. foreign-policy establishment didn’t see this bloodletting coming, either, and its response to date hasn’t helped. If this latest failure is accompanied by an unhappy outcome in Ukraine, other states will question not American credibility, but American judgment. It’s the latter quality that matters most, for other states are more likely to heed Washington’s advice and follow its lead if they think U.S. leaders have a clear sense of what’s going on, know how to respond, and are paying at least some attention to their professed values. If that’s not the case, why take American advice about anything?