Ukraine and Palestine: A double threat to US hegemony

MK Bhadrakumar, The Cradle, January 2, 2024 —

The outcome of US-led conflicts in Ukraine and West Asia will have a profound impact on the developing world order. Washington has already lost the former, and its major adversaries are vested in making sure it loses the latter too.

Geopolitical analysts broadly agree that the war in Ukraine and the West Asian crisis will dictate the trajectory of world politics in 2024. But a reductionist thesis appears alongside that views the Israel-Palestine conflict narrowly in terms of what it entails for the resilience of the US proxy war in Ukraine – the assumption being that the locus of world politics lies in Eurasia.

The reality is more complex. Each of these two conflicts has a raison d’être and dynamics of its own, while at the same time also being intertwined.

Washington’s neck-deep involvement in the current phase of the West Asian crisis can turn into a quagmire, since it is also tangled up with domestic politics in a way that the Ukraine war never has been. But then, the outcome of the Ukraine war is already a foregone conclusion, and the US and its allies have realized that Russia cannot be defeated militarily; the endgame narrows down to an agreement to end the conflict on Russia’s terms.

To be sure, the outcome of the Ukraine war and the denouement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which is at the root of the West Asian crisis, will have a profound impact on the new world order, and the two processes reinforce each other.

Russia realizes this fully. President Vladimir Putin’s stunning ‘year-enders’ in the run-up to the New Year speak for themselves: daylong visits to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh (watched by a shell-shocked US President Joe Biden), followed by talks with Iran’s president and rounded off with a telephone conversation with the Egyptian president.

In the space of 48 hours or so, Putin touched base with his Emirati, Saudi, Iranian, and Egyptian colleagues who officially entered the portals of the BRICS on 1 January.

The evolving US intervention in the West Asian crisis can be understood from a geopolitical perspective only by factoring in Biden’s visceral hostility toward Russia. BRICS is in Washington’s crosshairs. The US understands perfectly well that the extra large presence of West Asian and Arab nations in BRICS — four out of ten member states — is central to Putin’s grand project to re-structure the world order and bury US exceptionalism and hegemony.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran are major oil producing countries. Russia has been rather explicit that during its 2024 chairmanship of BRICS, it will push for the creation of a currency to challenge the petrodollar. Without doubt, the BRICS currency will be at the center stage of the grouping’s summit due to be hosted by Putin in Kazan, Russia in October.

In a special address on 1 January, marking the start of Russia’s BRICS Chairmanship, Putin stated his commitment to “enhancing the role of BRICS in the international monetary system, expanding both interbank cooperation and the use of national currencies in mutual trade.”

If a BRICS currency is used instead of the dollar, there could be significant impact on several financial sectors of the US economy, such as energy and commodity markets, international trade and investment, capital markets, technology and fintech, consumer goods and retail, travel and tourism, and so on.

The banking sector could take the first hit that might eventually spill over to the markets. And if Washington fails to fund its mammoth deficit, prices of all commodities could skyrocket or even reach hyperinflation triggering a crash of the US economy.

Meanwhile, the eruption of the Israel-Palestine conflict has given the US an alibi — ‘Israel’s self-defense’ — to claw its way back on the greasy pole of West Asian politics. Washington has multiple concerns, but at its core are the twin objectives of resuscitating the Abraham Accords (anchored on Saudi-Israeli proximity) and the concurrent sabotage of the Beijing-mediated Saudi-Iranian rapprochement.

The Biden administration was counting on the fact that an Israeli-Saudi deal would provide legitimacy to Tel Aviv and proclaim to the Islamic world that there was no religious justification for hostility towards Israel. But Washington senses that post-7 October it would not be able to secure a Saudi-Israel deal during this Biden term, and all that could be coaxed out of Riyadh is a door left ajar for future discussion on the topic. No doubt, it is a major blow to the US strategy to liquidate the Palestinian question.

In a medium term perspective, if the Russian-Saudi mechanism known as OPEC+ liberates the world oil market from US control, BRICS drives a dagger into the heart of US hegemony which is anchored on the dollar being the ‘world currency.’

Saudi Arabia recently signed a currency swap deal worth $7 billion with China in an attempt to shift more of their trade away from the dollar. The People’s Bank of China said in a statement that the swap arrangement will “help strengthen financial cooperation” and “facilitate more convenient trade and investment” between the countries.

Going forward, sensitive Saudi-Chinese transactions in strategic areas such as defense, nuclear technology, among others, will henceforth take place below the US radar. From a Chinese perspective, if its strategic trade is sufficiently insulated from any US-led program of anti-China sanctions, Beijing can position itself confidently to confront US power in the Indo-Pacific. This is a telling example of how the US strategy for the Indo-Pacific will lose traction as a result of its waning influence in West Asia.

The conventional wisdom is that preoccupation in volatile West Asia distracts Washington from paying attention to the Indo-Pacific and China. In reality, though, the waning influence in West Asia is complicating the capacity of the US to counter China both in the region as well as in the Indo-Pacific. The developments are moving in a direction where the credentials of the US as a great power are at an inflection point in West Asia – and that realization has leaked into other geographic regions around the world.

Way back in 2007, the distinguished political scientists John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, wrote with great prescience in their famous 34,000-word essay entitled The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy that Israel has become a ‘strategic liability’ for the United States, but retains its strong support because of a wealthy, well-organized, and bewitching lobby that has a ‘stranglehold’ on Congress and US elites.

The authors warned that Israel and its lobby bear outsized their responsibility for persuading the Bush Administration to invade Iraq and, perhaps one day soon, to attack the nuclear facilities of Iran.

Interestingly, on New Year’s Eve, in a special report based on extensive briefing by top US officials, the New York Times highlighted that “No other episode [as the war in Gaza] in the past half-century has tested the ties between the United States and Israel in such an intense and consequential way.”

Clearly, even as Israel’s barbaric actions in Gaza and its colonial project in the occupied West Bank are exposed and laid bare, and the Israeli state’s campaign to force Palestinian population migration are in full view, two of the US strategic objectives in the region are unravelling: first, the restoration of Israel’s military superiority in the balance of forces regionally and vis-a-vis the Axis of Resistance, in particular; and second, the resuscitation of the Abraham Accords where the crown jewels would have been a Saudi-Israeli treaty.

Viewed from another angle, the directions in which West Asia’s crisis unfolds are being keenly watched by the world community, especially those in the Asia-Pacific region. Most notable here is that Russia and China have given the US a free hand to navigate its military moves – unchallenged, so far, in the Red Sea. This means that any conflagration in the region will be synonymous with a catastrophic breakdown of US strategy.

Soon after the US defeat in Afghanistan in Central Asia, and coinciding with an ignominious ending of the US-led proxy war by NATO against Russia in Eurasia, a violent, grotesque setback in West Asia will send a resounding message across all of Asia that the US-led bandwagon has run out of steam. Among the end users of this startling message, the countries of ASEAN stand at the forefront. The bottom line is that the overlapping tumultuous events in Eurasia and West Asia are poised to coalesce into a climactic moment for world politics.

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