Reminder from Gaza: Unipolar moment is over - Hindustan Times
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Reminder from Gaza: Unipolar moment is over

Oct 13, 2023 10:24 PM IST

While the US is still the preeminent global power, it will struggle to simultaneously tackle three fronts – West Asia, Ukraine and China

With West Asia up in flames, the war in Ukraine tilting in favour of Russia, and China going about its business in the Taiwan Strait/South China Sea, the strategic landscape could not possibly be more challenging for the preeminent power in the world. How the United States (US) manages this from hereon, will matter not just for the world at large but also for specific regions such as the Indo-Pacific.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu(REUTERS) PREMIUM
U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu(REUTERS)

Not only does West Asia produce more geopolitics than it can consume, but what happens there seldom stays there. West Asia is like a paranoid lover: You may love or hate him, but you ignore him only at your peril.

For the US which has been crafting an exit strategy from West Asia for some time now, the Gaza events draw it right back into the quagmire that it has sought to avoid. No American president can afford to ignore a situation that involves Israel. And when that president is standing for re-election, then the situation becomes virtually non-negotiable.

It is, therefore, clear that President Joe Biden’s “in tray” will be dominated by the West Asia dossier, whether he likes it or not. The conflict in Gaza will inevitably suck almost all the oxygen out of the White House and the Congress. The American electoral calendar will inevitably impact the diplomatic and security strategy employed by President Biden in the current West Asia imbroglio.

This cannot but affect America’s strategy vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine. Even before Gaza erupted, the American financing of the war in Ukraine was suspended because of congressional negotiations aimed at averting a shutdown of the government. If the West Asia dossier takes over mindspace in Beltway, then there will be very little room for focus on the war in Ukraine. Crudely put, Ukraine is no match for the influence that Israel enjoys in the American Congress. All this is happening at a critical time for Ukraine.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive has all but failed, even if no one in the West will acknowledge it openly. As many had predicted long ago, this is now becoming a war of attrition in which Russia’s quantum of weaponry and the sheer size of its army will come into play. It should be abundantly clear that there is no better time than now for Ukraine to cut its losses and seek a negotiated solution with Russia.

So far, the West has egged Ukraine on to fight in the hope that the latter will make significant gains. This may be about to change, mainly because of the sentiment in the US and even in Europe, where there is a fair degree of “Ukraine fatigue”. The conflict in Gaza may encourage the US to bring the conflict in Ukraine to some kind of conclusion based on diplomacy and dialogue.

The European Union (EU) cannot but see all of this with scepticism and alarm. The EU’s mantra hitherto has been to keep repeating that it will support Ukraine as long as it takes and that Ukraine must win the war against Russia at all costs enabling it to fully regain its lost territories.

The initial spunk shown by the Ukrainian armed forces combined with the ineptness shown by their Russian counterpart may have led people in the West to believe in a Ukrainian victory. This has now been thoroughly debunked. It is now clear that Russia will not lose this war and Ukraine is most unlikely to win it. With the US now forced to focus its attention on West Asia, the EU will have to take a call on whether it can now push Ukraine towards a negotiated, diplomatic solution. There may simply be no other face-saving option left.

The other region likely to be impacted by the conflict in Gaza, especially if it is a prolonged one as it threatens to be, is the Indo-Pacific. The US, in almost all its national security documents, has called China the “pacing threat”. But with Gaza in full eruption and the war in Ukraine putting transatlantic ties under strain, the US has been forced to put the China dossier at the bottom of the pile in the “in tray”.

This may also be a reason why the US appears a lot keener for a rapprochement with China than the other way around. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, is scheduled to visit Washington in what is most certainly preparatory talks for the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to California in November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and more importantly, for a bilateral meeting with President Biden. The meeting may not necessarily result in a dramatic breakthrough, but it will re-establish channels of communication and bring bilateral ties back to some kind of normalcy.

The unipolar moment is well past. While the US is still the preeminent global power, it would nevertheless find it difficult, if not impossible, to simultaneously tackle three fronts such as Gaza, Ukraine and China. Considering this is election season, the US attempt will be to provide unconditional support to Israel, persuade the EU to accept a diplomatic solution in Ukraine and stall the “pacing threat” that China poses.

The US simply does not possess the strategic bandwidth to tackle all three challenges at once. India must take careful notes so that it stands ready in the near term to confront threats at its border and in the wider neighbourhood.

Mohan Kumar is a former Indian ambassador and dean/professor at OP Jindal Global University. The views expressed are personal

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