Living in Interesting Times

You Will hear of wars and rumors
of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.

–Matthew 24:6

“Europe today is a powder keg,” Otto von Bismarck remarked to the Congress of Berlin in 1878, shortly before retiring from politics, “and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal. A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all.”

The Iron Chancellor’s warning is eerily applicable not just to Europe but to the whole world as it enters A.D. 2024. There are many spots where the spark may be ignited, and the leaders of our time seem as willing to take enormous risks as their predecessors were in the summer of 1914—with horrid consequences. 

Alarmingly, the public discourse on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be legitimizing the coming of World War III. The postmodern Westerner treats it as though it would not be synonymous with the end of the world, literally so. As early as April of last year a contributor to the establishmentarian journal Foreign Policy argued that the West should intervene militarily against Russia without fear of nuclear retaliation. In other words, Putin is bluffing. Equally irresponsible calls to play nuclear chicken have appeared regularly ever since, including the assertion by a renegade Russian official in The Moscow Times that the only way to stop Putin’s aggression against the remnants of Ukraine has to be an unequivocal commitment from NATO countries “to enter the war against the aggressor.”

The elite class of the “collective West” appears willing to sit back and witness its apocalyptic demise, as if the coming Götterdämmerung could be turned into a spectacle to be observed and consumed with detachment. This is madness devoid of method.

The chief culprit is the U.S. government nominally headed by Joseph Biden. Its “rules-based international order” is a cynical misnomer for Washington’s arbitrary hegemony. The concept is resolutely rejected by the misnamed Global South, which accounts for four-fifths of humanity.

Biden’s America is caught between two incompatible objectives: the need to contain China, which may turn out to be the global rival par excellence, and the irrational urge to destroy Russia—a secondary adversary if there ever was one—whatever the cost. The bizarre, self-defeating cultural and emotional Russophobia of the American “foreign policy community” has trumped rational analysis to the detriment of American interests.

It was the Middle East, however, that dominated the headlines in the final weeks of 2023. This was an unexpected development resulting from the murderous onslaught by Hamas on Oct. 7 and Israel’s inevitably violent response. Only eight days earlier, national security adviser Jake Sullivan had described the Middle East as “quieter” than it had been in two decades.

The objective of Hamas was to return the Palestinian issue to the agenda of regional and global powers. In this endeavor it was entirely successful in the short term. Having been effectively ignored for decades, that issue is now at least temporarily back in the spotlight. It is unlikely, however, that the jihadists can turn the issue of Gaza and Israel-Palestine into a major regional conflagration, let alone a conflict of global import. The simple reason is that no regional player of any consequence wants to get entangled, and every one of them is determined to stay out if the fight if it does develop.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, the most populous and most influential Arab country, remembers well that Hamas—initially a subsidiary of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—was instrumental in the resurgence of the Brotherhood after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. In the end, Sisi had to stage a military coup, just over a decade ago (and contrary to the advice of the U.S. Department of State), to prevent the Brotherhood—under Mohamed Morsi—from turning Egypt into an Islamic republic. This was the end of the Brotherhood’s inglorious one-year rule and a shattering blow to Hamas, too. In later years Egypt has accused Hamas of fostering terrorism on its territory. Sisi is loath to destabilize Egypt by accepting hundreds of thousands of angry, radicalized Gazans into his country. He is equally determined to stay out of the fray, whatever the feelings of the so-called “Arab street.”

Saudi Arabia has put its process of normalizing relations with Israel on temporary hold, but it has not cancelled it. The Saudis and their neighbors in the United Arab Emirates plan to continue their diplomatic and economic rapprochement with Israel in spite of the latter’s actions in Gaza. Both have been key players in the Abraham Accords, a diplomatic initiative launched by the Trump administration, that promoted Israel’s normalization of ties with Arab and Muslim countries. Both naturally felt obliged to pay lip service to the chorus of Arab anger at Israel’s retaliation, but neither they—nor the Jordanians, Kuwaitis, or Bahrainis for that matter—want to get involved in any tangible manner.

More importantly, Iran has not activated its protégés in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah is far more powerful as well as better armed and trained than Hamas. It has talked tough but stayed on the sidelines thus far, a few homemade rockets launched into the Galilee notwithstanding. Iran understands there are powerful bipartisan forces in Washington which would be eager to use any tangible proof of Tehran’s involvement as an excuse for a new American intervention in the Middle East. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi do not want to give them such pretext by widening the conflict. They prefer the focus to remain on Gaza.

Whatever the outcome in Gaza—a renewed Israeli occupation (temporary or open ended), or the installation of a PLO-led administration directed from Ramallah—it is unlikely the imbroglio will spread and set off Bismarck’s fatal spark.

Ukraine is a different matter. The costly fiasco of Kiev’s much-heralded counteroffensive (June-Oct. 2023) and the possibility—even likelihood—that Russia will start a major offensive of its own against an exhausted and undermanned Ukrainian army in 2024, has the potential to escalate into an apocalyptic global conflict.

It is now becoming clear that President Vladimir Putin’s strategy is to degrade the Ukrainian will and capacity to fight, and to wait for the waning of Western readiness to continue supporting the Zelensky regime regardless of cost.

This strategy seems to work rather neatly, which creates the risk that neoconservative hawks and their neoliberal twins will start demanding an outright NATO intervention to prevent Ukraine’s defeat. This is the greatest danger to world peace in 2024.

They will claim two things: that the reputation and credibility of the Western alliance is at stake, and that the enormous investment in Ukraine thus far must not be forfeited. They will claim, incongruously, that Russia is both so weak that it can be defeated in Ukraine (though only if there is sufficient Western resolve), and that Russia is so strong that if not defeated in Ukraine it will pose a mortal threat to NATO and freedom around the world. They will demand that NATO soldiers be sent to help the Ukrainian army, initially in some “non-combat” capacity—Poles, Lithuanians, and Romanians driving trucks and guarding depots—which would only be the beginning of a premeditated mission creep leading to an all-out confrontation with the Russians.

In November, Columbia University professor and world-renowned economist and author Jeffrey Sachs eloquently summed up the problem in a major article for a Greek paper, which has been studiously ignored by the major media in the United States. In “Beyond the Neocon Debacle to Peace in Ukraine,” Sachs writes that the neoconservative plan to have NATO surround Russia in the Black Sea region has failed. Ukraine has been devastated on the battlefield, Russia is winning the war of attrition, and the support in Europe for the strategy of the American neoconservatives is collapsing. The Republican Party grassroots, several GOP presidential candidates, and a growing number of Republicans in Congress oppose more spending on Ukraine. 

A massive Russian offensive is likely coming, after which Ukraine will be at risk of economic, demographic, and military collapse. To face this potential disaster, according to Sachs, Biden should inform Putin that the U.S. will end NATO enlargement eastward. This would be broadly in line with the formula suggested by Putin in December 2021, about which Biden foolishly refused to negotiate. Sachs writes:

Biden should agree that NATO will not enlarge eastward, but not reverse the past NATO enlargement.… Second, the new agreement should cover nuclear weapons.… Third, Russia and Ukraine would agree on new borders, with the overwhelmingly ethnic Russian Crimea and heavily ethnic Russian districts of eastern Ukraine remaining part of Russia. Border changes would be accompanied by security guarantees for Ukraine backed unanimously by the UN Security Council…. Fourth, the US, Russia and the EU would re-establish trade, finance, cultural and tourist relations.

This is a reasonable set of proposals by a man who has been closely involved with East European politics and economics for more than three decades. It is likely that his arguments will be ignored in Washington, however, and that the looming Ukrainian military and financial collapse in 2024 will prompt a sustained escalation campaign by the hawks. 

Rather than listen to Sachs, the hawks will agree with Jade McGlynn, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who argued in a CNN opinion piece in November that “while the war is not an existential threat to the Western security order, Ukraine losing would pose such a threat.” The logical next step from this neoconservative stance is to send American military advisors to Ukraine, as advocated by two Foreign Affairs contributors in a September column, which would be to embark on the path to an all-out war with Russia. 

This is the most plausible scenario for the emergence of a massive, potentially catastrophic crisis in 2024. There will be other flash points around the globe, but their impact will be limited. 

Europe will continue its steady decline, with Germany leading the way with its five-percent recession, deindustrialization, and continued out-of-control
immigration crisis. Europe’s leaders will not be able to free themselves from the Hegemon on the Potomac, however, and their feeble attempts—possibly by Macron or Meloni—will be nipped in the bud.

China will be careful not to escalate the Taiwan issue. Comrade Xi will have his hands full with economic and social issues, and regardless of the rhetoric he will seek to leave the problem of reunification for some more favorable moment. The Chinese will continue to be the leading global force supporting the process of dedollarization of the global economy, which is the most tangible threat to America’s global hegemony at this time.

It would be in the American interest to distance itself from the Middle East. America’s striking isolation on the issue of Gaza in the UN General Assembly is arguably irrelevant in the greater scheme of things, but it is illustrative of the wider drift. A great power measures its might by the ability to make other states act in accordance with its desires. The United States is rapidly losing the ability to do so. 

Likewise, it is in America’s interest for the U.S. government to grasp that its proxy war in Ukraine is effectively over and that its open-ended continuation carries unacceptable risks of escalation and no prospect of any significant improvement in Kiev’s strategic prospects. The stated goal of the Biden administration—the return of the Crimea, the Donbas and the land bridge connecting them to the control of the Zelensky regime—is unattainable. It is time to bring U.S. objectives into line with reality. The problem is that once the “foreign policy community” is committed to a given strategy, the establishment finds it extremely difficult to admit mistakes and change course.

We are heading to a multipolar world in which America will be but one of the powers pursuing its interests not in a “rules-based” but a “Hobbes-based” international order. Any attempt of the “foreign policy community” in Washington to deny this reality and to reassert global hegemony will end badly, both for America and for the world. ◆

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