By declaring earlier this week that the United States does not consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal—and thereby recognizing some form of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territory—President Donald Trump’s administration not only undercut over 50 years of U.S. foreign policy, it also undermined the basis for the United States’ objection to Russia’s land grab in Crimea, China’s absorption of Tibet in the 1950s and current designs on the South China Sea, and any future move by either to extend their borders to places where they can assert—even a flimsy—historic or ethnic rationale.
That the entire episode contradicts the United Nations Charter, of which the United States was a co-author, is hardly surprising at this point: For Trump, the U.N. may well be merely another skyscraper in Manhattan that would look better with his name on top. To the rest of the world, however, the decision will mark the final collapse of Pax Americana, the overly simplistic but still valid idea that U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic power has helped the world avoid a third world war through a combination of deterring revanchism, selective intervention, and global economic and diplomatic institution-building.
To be sure, since the turn of the 21st century, the United States has done precious little to bolster its claim to be a stabilizing force. Its misguided war in Iraq, launched in 2003, lit a fire that continues to burn in the region. Its blind faith in global financial markets nearly sparked a worldwide depression in 2009 and can reasonably be blamed at least in part for the populist backlash that followed. A direct line from these two events can be traced to the “America first” rhetoric of Trump.
But the decision to recognize Israeli settlements in the West Bank is an important milestone in the dubious descent of what is sometimes referred to as the “world’s indispensable nation.” It shows that, given the right set of incentives—in this case, casting aside the nuanced pursuit of an equitable settlement in favor of an ally, Israel, wildly popular among Trump’s base—any post-World War II U.S. commitment, whether the defense of Western Europe, troop deployments in South Korea, or arms control agreements, can be overturned.
Like the British Empire in its final years, Trump may soon learn that walking away from a stabilizing role in complex global conflicts cedes global influence that may never come back. By seeking quick stitch-ups that allow the United States to wash its hands of these conflicts, he leaves the field open for actors with much more defined and parochial interests, such as Russia and Turkey in Syria. Certainly, there are cases when becoming involved in the first place was a mistake: Vietnam in the 1960s, Iraq in the previous decade. But history suggests that the global stability that is still vital for the U.S. economy to thrive will be threatened by such moves, as the British learned in Ireland in 1921, South Africa in 1931, the Indian subcontinent in 1947, and Palestine in 1949. Walking away from such places looks smart in the short run, but it only guaranteed that conflicts persisted for decades as the aggrieved parties sought retribution.
The saddest part of the current U.S. turn inward is that the United States remains far more powerful, in relative terms, than the British Empire that began frantically shedding its colonial possessions following World War II. Britain had just lost half a million citizens to the war, had its cities and factories bombed and targeted by ballistic missiles, and was so economically shattered that food rationing for British households persisted until the mid-1950s. Facing such conditions, precipitous moves might seem understandable.
The United States has economic problems, to be sure, but they are the problems of an advanced, rich nation; by and large they have to do with how to distribute wealth rather than how to create it. In the midst of the longest economic expansion in its modern history, with U.S. technology companies still head-and-shoulders above their global peers, the sudden urgency to decouple from the world and its complexities is an ideological panic, not a rational economic decision.
Uniquely among the nations that have risen to a predominant position in the world over the past millennium, the United States has had plenty of opportunities to manage the transition from the brief unipolar moment it enjoyed after the Soviet Union’s collapse to a more managed, mutually beneficial world where the United States would still be first among equals. Until the 2009 financial crisis, though, the country was largely in denial about the need to face up to changing world dynamics.
President Barack Obama’s administration, which entered office in the 2009 economic hurricane, tiptoed around the implications for U.S. foreign policy, prodding the French to take the lead in intervening in Libya, for instance, and the Germans in shaping a reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the larger questions were ignored, including how to impel China, India, Japan, and other nations to assume a larger share of the financial and military costs that the United States has historically borne. Reforming the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to give rising nations a larger say received lip service. But in the end, nothing much changed, and in an ominous sign of what that kind of defensiveness will bring, China created its own version of the IMF, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Since coming into office, Trump, like all other U.S. presidents since the 1940s, has demanded that NATO members, along with South Korea, Japan, and others, start pulling their weight when it comes to defense spending. But behind this pressure lurks a new determination to eventually get out of these commitments altogether, with threats to unilaterally withdraw U.S. forces from Europe, South Korea, and Japan if the president’s demands are not met. That can be a cunning negotiating tactic when buying land for a new hotel. But in world affairs, it is not.
However the current administration sees the broader U.S. role in the world, the United States has a particular obligation to be evenhanded with regard to Israel and the Palestinians. Their dispute is, of course, one of many catastrophes created by Europe in the last century, primarily by British and French imperialists in the years after World War I, and by Nazi Germany’s genocidal policies during World War II. But it was the United States (and to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union) that midwifed the new Israeli state in 1948. Britain gladly handed “the Palestine problem” to President Harry S. Truman’s administration in 1948 just as the French were to hand President Dwight D. Eisenhower its mess in Indochina a decade later. From there forward, Israeli-Palestinian tensions were an American problem.
It’s a fair assumption that every president since Truman would have gladly handed the problem back. The fact that the United States did not walk away for a half century has a lot to do with the strength of the country’s commitment to Israel, both as an emotional issue that has a lasting pull on various segments of the U.S. electorate and for the more practical value of having Israel as an ally in a tough neighborhood. But the energy devoted to negotiating a settlement with the Palestinians, who, after all, were supposed to have had a state alongside Israel in the original Truman-brokered settlement, has also demonstrated a deeper, bipartisan determination to see justice done. The Palestinians and their Arab allies were often their own worst enemies in the long-running conflict. But when that began to change in the late 1980s, the United States was right to try to mediate a truly lasting solution.
It’s worth remembering, after all, that the West Bank was governed for 19 years by Jordan before it was seized by Israel in the 1967 war. It was and remains disputed territory. Jordan relinquished its claim to the lands in 1988 not because it suddenly changed its mind but rather because President Ronald Reagan’s administration had committed the United States to acting as an honest broker in eventual talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Years of behind-the-scenes negotiations led the PLO in 1993 to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and the Oslo peace process, prodded forward by President Bill Clinton’s administration, came tantalizingly close to a negotiated solution. Israeli settlements in the West Bank—and subsequent violence by anti-peace elements, including bus bombings by Hamas, and right-wing settler violence, including the assassination of Oslo Accord witness and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin—ultimately killing the deal.
Once again, both sides deserved the blame for the ultimate failure of the Oslo process to reach a final agreement, and in the years since its collapse in 2000, U.S. Middle East diplomacy has been halfhearted at best as other regional issues took precedence. But nothing since has changed the basic question: How should the Palestinians displaced from their land in what was Palestine when the Israeli state was born be treated?
Trump’s decision should surprise no one. It is cynical, anti-establishment, painless in the short term, and probably won’t hurt his reelection chances in 2020. But it sets a terrible precedent for U.S. decisions to come, where future presidents will face a choice between staying engaged in a region or turning their back and wishing the locals luck. In such a world, nationalist aggression will be the deciding force. It was the Russian Empire, after all, that conquered Crimea during Catherine the Great’s reign. And China has a map with nine dotted lines, carefully drawn with a Sharpie, proving its claim to the entire South China Sea. Who is the United States to say otherwise?
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