PRESIDENT Biden enters 2022 facing the threat of wars in the Middle East, eastern Europe and Asia, any one of which would challenge his will to project and protect America’s weakened superpower status.
Two of these are imminent – Israel pre-emptively attacking Iran’s nuclear sites and a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The third, a move by China against Taiwan, may be longer-term but is a paradigm of international instability and could become real at any time Beijing chooses.
All three result from failures of US diplomacy or, in China’s case, the inability to stem the rise of an aggressive rival for world leadership. The United States, under a feeble president who has been written off by a majority of his own people, no longer possesses the persuasive force to impose itself as it had under past presidents until Barack Obama. The geopolitical legacy of Biden’s catastrophic overnight abandonment of Afghanistan last year weighs heavily on his administration.
The great danger is that conflict in one zone of confrontation could become the catalyst for war in the other two to take advantage of the United States’ inability to be everywhere at once. Of equal importance to the West as a whole might be a decision by over-stretched Washington to let events take their course locally and fall back on managing the consequences.
Naturally, these would be unpredictable, leaving the West rudderless when it has never in modern times been so divided against itself politically and morally and so exposed to the vulnerability of soft power to hard steel.
Nothing coming out of Washington reassures its allies who (with the exception of France and Britain) progressively disarmed themselves even before the end of the Cold War. Nato has 30 members but it is essentially the US: no American forces and leadership, no Nato.
Having ruled out military intervention in Ukraine and apparently lost control of Israel, Biden has closed off proactive pressure apart from sanctions, which never work efficiently. They would divide Americans and Europeans if he tried to prevent Russian natural gas reaching Germany and other EU countries that depend on it.
In Israel, the post-Netanyahu coalition government is signalling its loss of confidence in Biden’s promise to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Indeed, it suspects that efforts to revive President Obama’s failed nuclear deal with Iran are taking place secretly between Washington and Tehran, and that the outcome can only be to Israel’s disadvantage. Iranian intransigence scuttled open talks between the two in Vienna last year.
Israeli officials now say they might ignore Biden and strike alone at Iran’s scattered nuclear installations, some safely buried deep underground. Defence minister Benny Ganz told the US he had ordered his military to prepare to attack. New air force chief General Tomer Bar warned: ‘We are ready to attack tomorrow if necessary.’
Iran’s mullahs responded through an article in the English-language Tehran Times headed ‘Just One Wrong Move!’. lt published a map showing dozens of targets in Israel for Iranian retaliation with precision guided missiles capable of evading Israel’s missile defence system.
Bluff or no? However effective its military, Israel’s survival depends on the support of the United States and there are doubts that its air strikes alone could do more than set back the Iranians’ nuclear effort. The talk of a war which it could lose may be aimed primarily at alerting US public opinion to the danger of Biden making concessions to Iran that would leave Israel exposed. It’s a daring gamble.
If Israel is relatively weak, nuclear Russia is relatively strong, certainly in comparison with Ukraine which feels threatened by Vladimir Putin’s hostility towards its ambitions to westernise, and his massing of troops near their joint border. Post-Soviet Russia has never been reconciled to the loss of Ukraine as a historic security buffer between itself and the West.
Biden finds himself in a worse position than President Obama in 2014 when Russia seized Crimea and provided arms to ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. The danger that US military intervention could escalate out of hand deterred Obama from a confrontation with Russia, and Putin has since raised the stakes.
The US and Russia will talk formally about the situation in Geneva on January 10. Their meeting will be followed by others involving Nato and the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OCSE) in an effort to reach an overall settlement about who can do what in central and eastern Europe. If Putin does not get what he wants, he still keeps the option of invading Ukraine and daring the US to do something substantive about a fait accompli, as in Crimea.
He has set a high bar for negotiations with an opening offer the US can only refuse. The Russian leader is demanding guarantees that neither Ukraine nor Georgia be allowed to join Nato and that the West will not deploy missiles in the Ukraine. He also wants a ban on the deployment of Nato forward forces in the former Soviet satellites – including Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary and the Baltic states – which have joined the alliance since regaining their freedom. This would be tantamount to killing off any reason for Nato’s continued existence based on mutual defence commitments.
On these three tests depends the future of US authority thoughout the world. This in turn depends on the ability of a semi-senile old man in the White House to negotiate his way through them decisively. This is somewhere we have not been since the muddled run-up to each of the 20th century’s great wars.