Is the US Still the ‘Essential Nation’?

On Nov. 18, US President Joe Biden put his name to an opinion piece published by the Washington Post. The title of the article, and its primary theme, was that the “US won’t back down from the challenge” of Hamas and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Declaring that the US was the “essential nation,” Biden sought to link his administration’s posture in opposing Russia in Ukraine and Hamas in Gaza as a singular objective that personifies the struggle between the forces of democracy and autocracy that has served as the foundation of his national security strategy in office. The article, like the policy it enshrines, is unconvincing, raising the question as to whether the US is, in fact, the “essential nation” in the world today.

In the weeks leading up to the publication of the Biden op-ed, the US State Department had been undergoing a tumultuous period defined by extensive internal dissent regarding US policy toward Israel. Using a long-established internal dissent channel, State Department foreign policy specialists stationed abroad or in headquarters authored a series of memorandums warning that, in their opinion, the US risks becoming increasingly isolated from an international community that’s vociferously opposed to the conduct of Israel’s war in Gaza. While declaring that Israel has a right to respond to the Hamas attack of Oct. 7 that precipitated the current fighting, the dissent said that the tactics used by Israel, including indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets resulting in thousands of Palestinian civilian casualties, are indefensible.

The disconnect between the messaging contained in the State Department dissent submissions and Biden’s op-ed is clear for all to see. According to the authors of at least one of the dissent memorandums, continued US public tolerance of Israeli excesses in Gaza “engenders doubt in the rules-based international order that we have long championed.” Indeed, the Biden administration has made defense of this order the foundational component of its national security and foreign policy strategies.

The proof of the success of any policy, however, lies not in its articulation, but rather in the execution. When it comes to Gaza, the Biden administration has been forceful in its public embrace of Israeli actions and objectives when confronting Hamas. Hard-line stances premised on absolutes may play well to partisan audiences, but fall flat when faced with reality. The Biden administration’s support for Israel’s earlier refusal to consider a ceasefire, or for an exchange of prisoners, is backed by the notion that the standard of victory is the eradication of Hamas as a military and political entity. This may look like a posture predicated on strength at the time it is pronounced, but comes off as anything but when ceasefires and prisoner exchanges are subsequently negotiated.

The Russian Connection

The US failure in Israel is bad enough when viewed in isolation. When artificially paired with another ongoing foreign policy failure in Ukraine, the impact is increased by an order of magnitude. In his op-ed, Biden not only defined the Israel-Hamas and Russia-Ukraine conflicts as two issues that, when combined, constitute an inflection point in world history, but also as events that “will determine the direction of our future for decades to come.” By turning two disparate events — one a war in Europe, the other a conflict in the Middle East — into a policy singularity, Biden links US prestige and security to their collective outcomes. The US and its allies are given a stark choice — to “relentlessly pursue our positive vision for the future,” or allow Russia and Hamas to “drag the world to a more dangerous and divided place.”

The failure of the Biden administration to realize its policy ambitions regarding Israel and Hamas is, in its own right, a setback for the “essential nation.” So, too, is the disparity between the public pronouncements, made by Biden as recently as September 2023, to protect Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity” and the ongoing political paralysis in the US regarding the continued funding of Ukraine’s civil and military needs. This funding shortfall contrasts with the massive infusion of emergency military assistance to Israel that the US has been engaged in since the Oct. 7 attack, highlighting the reality that, when it comes to the allocation of finite US resources, Israel and Ukraine are not equal in the eyes of their US benefactor.

As is the case with Israel — where a growing gap has emerged between public opinion and the media narrative, on the one hand, and the articulated policy objectives, on the other — the Biden administration is being compelled to confront growing skepticism among both the US public and mainstream media about the ability of Ukraine and its Western allies to hold Russia to account for its invasion of Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal, no bastion of pro-Russian sympathies, has recently opined that it is time for the US to end “magical thinking” about Ukraine’s ability to defeat Russia. Many other former hardline advocates of Ukrainian victory are now openly declaring their support for a negotiated settlement, where Ukraine accepts the status quo, including the loss of territories annexed by Russia, in exchange for peace.

By linking US prestige to the crises in Gaza and Ukraine, the Biden administration has set itself up for policy failure that, independently and together, diminishes US stature in a global community that increasingly favors a more multipolar world, where nations other than the US determine global outcomes.

Essential No Longer?

One of the most telling indicators of declining US influence was the fact that a joint delegation of foreign ministers from the Arab League and Organization of Islamic States bypassed the US in favor of China and Russia when looking for mediators between Hamas and Israel. China’s stature as a source for conflict resolution in the Middle East has been enhanced by its role in securing the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran in April. While China has dipped its toes in the troubled waters that constitute the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has been seen as lacking the regional experience necessary to secure a lasting peace between these two nations. Despite this shortcoming, China was deemed to be a far more credible arbiter than the US, which has tarnished itself as a biased advocate for the Israeli cause.

Likewise, as the gap widens between US objectives in Ukraine and the reality on the ground, the US’ reputation as a nation that stands with its allies come hell or high water has diminished. Far from serving as the world’s “essential nation,” the US has emerged as more of an optional entity, its credibility undermined as public pronouncements of policy fail to translate into realized goals and objectives.


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