America’s uneasy path back to its place in the world
A decade ago, despite the failed gamble that was the War on Terror and nearly two decades of ineffectual wars, incoherent policies, ill-conceived interventions or even a global financial crisis, few in the Arab world would have doubted US primacy in the Middle East.
But four years of America First and foreign policy tone-deafness have shaken any remaining faith in that enduring primacy. Any expectations of a return to American hegemony, as envisioned by President Biden in his “back at the head of the table” remarks, are prey to new realities, particularly in the Middle East.
It is not just Washington’s flirtation with foreign policy based on populist nationalism that has unraveled old perceptions. America began its pivot toward a reduced footprint abroad in order to shore up domestic priorities long before 9/11, pre-dating bungled overseas engagements by George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The only difference was the speed and extent to which the US committed to that retreat.
President Biden, however, faces the undeniable reality that the era of superpowers or global hegemons is over because no country can deliver decisive fiats in conflicts or crises around the world. While America still has the economic and military heft to safeguard its interests, it is no longer capable of unilaterally exerting influence abroad and projecting sufficient power to change outcomes. The US has spent two decades and over $2 trillion confronting that inevitability. This also created power vacuums across the region, sparking a mad scramble to fill them.
This new landscape has mostly eroded any prospect of a return to American primacy, or even to Cold War-era bipolarity, despite heightened US-Russia tensions and growing competition between the US and China. Russia simply lacks the capacity or motivation to dominate the region. China’s engagement with the region favors trade and stronger economic ties over military and security links. Europe is largely uninterested in expanding its engagements beyond resolving crises that constitute threats to the bloc's security and energy interests. Meanwhile, the White House has signaled it seeks a reconfiguration of US foreign policy, and by extension the frayed multilateral global order, toward more predictable, consistent, deliberative, collaborative and consensual diplomacy. Gone are the days when military intervention or long-term deployment of “advisers” were the default tools to manipulate outcomes overseas or buy time for diplomacy.
Unfortunately, while fewer boots on the ground are a welcome development, the ensuing regional entanglements have unleashed new frictions and exacerbated old ones. Worse, if the natural progression of the Biden foreign policy is toward multilateralism based on regional alliances around shared interests, tensions in the Middle East will only complicate the White House’s objectives.
Another tightrope Washington must walk involves what will be the primary focus in its Middle East policy — Iran.
The US will not want to risk progress on normalization, which has achieved an elusive long-term goal of US Middle East policy — Israel and parts of the Arab world acting together as a bulwark against a shared adversary, Iran. However, the rest of the Arab world is not as convinced, since its cooperation with Israel still hinges on the fate of the Palestinians.
Another tightrope Washington must walk involves what will be the primary focus in its Middle East policy — Iran. Tehran is open to a return to the narrow focus of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to curb its nuclear ambitions despite having processed and stored far more fissile material than is needed for commercial applications and power generation. However, the Gulf states will want an expansion of the nuclear agreement to include a freeze on Iran’s long-range missile development and their deployment to regional proxies in Yemen and Syria.
Additionally, a new JCPOA that fails to address Iran’s regional destabilization activities will be unpalatable to the Gulf. If the White House rejects these provisions, not only will it jeopardize normalization and weaken US influence in the region, it will also make open conflict between the Gulf states and Iran far more likely.
Determinations on Iran will have to wait at least until after the elections there that will determine what Iranians envision for themselves, the region and any future relations with the US. It is a welcome reprieve because the ghosts of 2011 still loom over the region. A positive response from the international community to Biden’s planned global democracy summit could embolden local political opposition groups and desperate youth to re-mobilize for a second “Arab Spring.” That would leave the White House trapped between its commitments to restore democracy around the world and to center human rights in its foreign policy. The fence-sitting of a decade ago would be unconscionable, and do more harm to America’s already tattered global standing.
If Washington truly wants to avoid nearly two decades of disastrous policymaking in the region by listening to experts, as already signaled by the White House, policymakers must never lose sight of these undercurrents and realities. It is not all bad news, however, since most governments have responded positively to America's re-engagement and are positioning themselves to make the most of the return to multilateralism.
The brief lull affords time to lay the groundwork for positive engagements, but the Biden administration must avoid looking too much to the past. Pragmatism will be the key and so far, most of the world agrees, the future of international relations will be based on regional clusters coalesced around convergent interests. They are far better positioned to promote regional stability and have a meaningful impact on global crises such as climate change or future pandemics.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advance International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell