Pundits tend to analogize international crises, comparing them sometimes using apocalyptic terms to world events that have transformed the international system. Is this another Sarajevo? Munich? Cuban Missile Crisis?
“War Shifts Global Dynamics,” proclaimed a recent front-page news report headline in The Wall Street Journal, suggesting that the war between Israel and Hamas wasn’t just risking a regional conflagration but is also affecting the global balance of power in a dramatic way, not unlike the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Ukraine War seemed to have created the outlines of the post-Cold War international system, under which a Western democratic bloc led by the United States faces a Sino-Russian axis of authoritarian states challenging the post-1945 liberal international system.
Some could argue that this “New Cold War” narrative disregards the reality in which the strategic interests of Moscow and China or even between Washington and Paris aren’t always aligned.
Hence, the Chinese didn’t vocally support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the French have distanced themselves from America’s “de-coupling” approach toward China. And the global balance of power could change once again depending on the outcome of the war in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, the Gaza War has encouraged members of Washington’s foreign policy community to try to extend the “New Cold War” narrative and integrate into it what is a national-ethnic war between Israelis and Palestinians and, in a wider context, a conflict between two regional powers, Israel and Iran and its regional proxies.
The suggestion that we are now facing a confrontation between a China-Russia-Iran-Hamas axis and a Western bloc allied with Israel does reflect a rudimentary reading of the way the Hamas attack on Israel has affected the interests of the major players.
Recall that on October 6, the conventional wisdom was that Israel and Saudi Arabia, as part of an ambitious U.S. strategy, were on their way to normalizing their relations, a process that could have led to the formation of a pro-American Arab-Israeli partnership aimed at containing Iran and its regional partners, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran.
Such an American diplomatic triumph would have been a major blow to the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially since the Saudi-Israeli rapprochement would have been accompanied by a security agreement between Washington and Riyadh and would have allowed the Saudis to set up a nuclear program.
From the perspective of Hamas, a Saudi-Israeli deal, very much like the Abraham Accords that preceded it, would have left the interests of the Palestinians on the foreign policy backburner, demonstrating that it was possible to reach Arab-Israeli peace without resolving the Palestinian issue.
In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been much talk about the American “retreat” from the Middle East that has supposedly left a strategic vacuum in the region. China’s diplomatic success in mediating a deal between the Saudis and the Iranians to end the civil war in Yemen was seen as part of an attempt by Beijing to fill the vacuum left by the U.S.
From that geostrategic perspective, an Israeli-Saudi deal advanced by Washington could have reasserted American power in the Middle East with relatively minor costs. Consequently, the United States could continue challenging Russian and Chinese influence in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, respectively.
Moreover, the accompanying Saudi-American security agreement would have allowed the Americans to press the Saudis to help manage the global energy markets and put downward pressure on oil and gas prices that have risen as a result of the Ukraine war.
It goes without saying that the successful Hamas attack against Israel has not only harmed the interests of an American partner but also delivered a massive blow to American plans to reshape the Middle East.
It’s important to consider that one of the reasons the Saudis and other Arab Gulf states warmed to the idea of establishing ties with the Jewish State was the perception that Israel was a mighty military-technological power that could counterbalance Iran. Suffering the loss of its deterrence power following the Hamas attack, that perception of Israel may have changed.
Moreover, facing the pressure from the “Arab street” over rising Palestinian civilian casualties brought about by Israel’s bombing of Gaza, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab-Sunni states may reconsider their affair with Israel and distance themselves from their American patron.
All these developments are certainly good news for the Russians and the Chinese, who benefit from American losses and hope that the war in the Middle East would force Washington to reassess its strategic ambitions across the Pacific and the Atlantic.
At the same time, Russia has been strengthening its ties with Iran, which has provided it with drones and other weapons to help it fight the war in Ukraine, while China, whose economy is dependent on Middle Eastern oil, has been strengthening its cooperation with Iran. Both have invited Iran to join the BRICS+ economic club to counter U.S. geo-economic hegemony. So they would supposedly be content to see Tehran and its partner winning the last round in the conflict with the U.S.-Israel partnership.
As part of the New Cold War, China and Russia also hope to win the hearts and minds of the nations of the so-called Global South. The Gaza War has provided them with an opportunity to do just that by supposedly exposing American “hypocrisy” by arguing that the Americans support the Israelis and the Ukrainians because they are “white” while disregarding the interests of the Palestinians, a “brown” third-world people.
Never mind the fact that more than half of Israeli Jews are of Middle Eastern extraction, and the Palestinians are classified as Caucasians. Nor is there recognition of Chinese and Russian hypocrisy: the former repressing their Muslim Uygur minority and the latter conducting a genocidal war against the Muslims in Chechnya that makes the Gaza Strip look like Santa Monica.
And in any case, the notion that the Global South is buying into Chinese and Russian marketing of the Gaza War disregards reality. India, the symbol of the Global South, is a strategic ally of the United States and a close partner of the Jewish State.
In reality, the response to the Chinese and the Russians to the Gaza War was opportunistic in nature, seeking to exploit America’s problems. That is very different than suggesting that their strategic interests are fully aligned with that of Iran or that they support Hamas.
In fact, Russia maintains close ties with Israel, home to hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants. It has allowed Israel to attack military targets in neighboring Syria, which is, for all practical purposes, a Russian protectorate. This, in part, explains why Israel has resisted American pressure to join the pro-Ukraine coalition.
Similarly, China maintains dynamic cooperation with Israel in the technological and scientific fields, and like in the case of Russia, the Israelis don’t support America’s anti-China strategy.
Also, China and Russia don’t necessarily share the same interests in the Middle East. In addition to its geographical proximity, Russia has historical ties to the region going back to the Crimean War. At the same time, China’s engagement with West Asia, based chiefly on economic interests, is much more haphazard.
In any case, there is no doubt that the Russians and the Chinese have benefited from the troubles inflicted on the Israelis and the Americans in the short run and that they will continue to exploit them as long as they can do that.
Dr. Leon Hadar is a contributing editor with The National Interest, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, and a former research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He has taught at American University in Washington, DC, and the University of Maryland, College Park. A columnist and blogger with Haaretz (Israel) and Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore, he is a former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post.