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Is this Enough of a Measure of Decline?

State of the Union: America remains preponderant, even within a potential multipolarity.

Tel,Aviv,,Israel,-,February,18,,2022,Demonstration,Against,Russian
Credit: Jose HERNANDEZ

A couple of curious news items from the last week raised some important questions about a theoretical prior. 

First, the Times of Israel reported that the Biden administration has pushed Israel to slow-roll its Gaza ground invasion. 

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“The Americans insisted and we are not in a place where we can refuse them. We rely on them for planes and military equipment. What are we supposed to do? Tell them no?” the Israeli minister of Defense was quoted as saying. Apparently, the American side is worried about hostages who would be collateral casualties, and (at least according to some sources) about Israel dragging us into a regional war. 

Second, the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said that it was the American side that scuttled any chance of a peace in Ukraine as early as March 2022. 

“The only people who could resolve the war over Ukraine are the Americans. During the peace talks in March 2022 in Istanbul with Rustem Umierov, Ukrainians did not agree to peace because they were not allowed to. They had to coordinate everything they talked about with the Americans first,” Schroeder said.

“However, nothing eventually happened. My impression is that nothing could happen because everything else was decided in Washington,” he added. “It was fatal. Because the result now is that Russia will be more closely tied to China, which the West should not want.”

A couple of caveats before anyone draws any conclusions. First, Schroeder is hardly a reliable narrator. (For what it’s worth, yours truly wrote a whole paper about the Austrian model of Neutralitätserklärung, but that baby was stillborn; Ukraine didn’t want any political neutrality prior to the war.) Second, other reports, too many to count here, repeatedly suggested that it was Ukraine that was pushing for further conflict with demands for F-16 jets and long-distance missiles, as well as strikes against Russian navy flagships. Meanwhile, the Americans have been reticent about expanding the conflict deeper into Russian territory for fear of a nuclear war (and rightly so). Ukrainian interests and American interests are different, as are Israeli and American interests. We are not them; they are not us. As sage wisdom states, “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

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Regardless, a question is important: Is the U.S. really in permanent decline if America can still decisively influence the strategic choices of clients and protectorates? 

The cause of Israel, this time at least, is perhaps the most righteous and just of the past four decades. Yet their ability to rely on American diplomacy, public opinion, and muscle, as well as their own purported technological superiority, has limits. Unless Nikki Haley is the next President, that will continue. Most Republicans, while sympathetic, are tired of war in the Middle East. Most Democrats are facing internal demographic challenges to serious support for Israel. This has been a shock for diaspora Jews, who suddenly seem to realize that, despite their overwhelming support for liberal policies in the U.S. (by some estimates, around 70 percent of American Jews vote left), the feeling from liberal political institutions isn’t mutual. (This realization might lead to some serious material and financial realignments.) 

Yet America is deciding the Israeli response and will continue to shape it, much as it did for Ukraine. 

The Ohioan Senator J.D. Vance’s influential new memo highlights three core points for Republican leadership: “Our political and military relationship with Israel is qualitatively different from our relationship with Ukraine... Israel has an achievable objective; Ukraine does not... the United States does not have a plan in Ukraine, but we do have a plan in Israel.” 

Long story short: America is following American interests, and Ukraine is now the secondary war. Israel is an ally, Ukraine isn’t; the Israeli mission is limited, Ukraine’s not; Israel is surrounded by hostile powers, whereas Ukraine by rich and favorable local powers. There is nothing that Ukraine or Europe can do about it. All the levers of ramping up and dialing down are in the hands of Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. As Kissinger once reportedly said, to be America's enemy is dangerous, but to be America's friend is fatal. 

That doesn’t make it any less stupid that we are still borrowing money to fund two different peripheral wars while we are over $30 trillion in debt and have a functionally fluid border in the south. Power doesn’t necessarily mean smart choices; in fact, overwhelming power results in dumb swarm-led decisions on autopilot without any electoral accountability, as there are no direct or immediate repercussions for stupidity. 

But, the talks of relative power decline, while true, remain wildly overrated as well. What is needed is better and urgent prioritization. But unbalanced multipolarity with one preponderant power can last a long time and has mostly been the norm. It might even push states towards greater restraint without changing the overall balance of power. But it should lay to rest the talks of a permanent irreversible decline. Yes, relative decline results from bad choices, but they are choices, which, by definition, can be reversed. It needs political will and an agent to carry through, but it is doable.