Niall Ferguson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author, most recently, of “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.”
One of the hardest things in both business and politics is to know your target market. It is seldom yourself, or even people a lot like you. In the US, business leaders and major donors have been reminding the presidents of elite universities of this over the past two weeks. Also oblivious to their target market are Europe’s political leaders — which is perhaps not surprising. In Brussels, as at Harvard, a secularized liberal elite presides over a vastly cumbersome European Union bureaucracy; after a while, they come to assume that they are their own target market. For who else is there, really?
So it has been since Hamas’ terrorist invasion of Israel on Oct. 7. The immediate response of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, was confused. The commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, tweeted that the commission would suspend all aid to the Palestinians. However, he quickly had to backtrack, as he had not consulted member states, nine of which officially recognize Palestine as a nation. Three others — Ireland, Luxembourg and Denmark — reportedly sought a reference to de-escalation in the EU’s official statement responding to the attacks. (“De-escalation,” like “proportionate response,” is one of those terms that translate as: “We’ll object to almost any retaliation on Israel’s part.”)
It got worse. Last weekend, the commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, caused a furor by making a hastily organized trip to Israel, where she expressed solidarity with the victims of the Hamas attacks. This elicited a public rebuke from Josep Borrell, who has the grand title of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. “The official position of the European Union with any foreign policy [issue] is being fixed … by the guidelines,” Borrell told journalists tetchily in Beijing. EU foreign policy was decided by the leaders of the 27 member states and by their foreign ministers in meetings “chaired by me.”
And what was that policy on the Middle Eastern crisis? To criticize Israel in the same breath as its attackers, of course. “Some of the actions [by Israel] — cutting water, cutting electricity, cutting food to a mass of civilian people, is against international law,” Borrell declared.
“It would be a big mistake, in this critical moment, to stop our support for the Palestinian Authority,” Borrell went on. “At this moment, the casualties in Gaza are increasing. The humanitarian situation is dire. We will have to support more, not less.” So much for Commissioner Várhelyi.
On Tuesday, EU leaders held a video conference to discuss a common position following the Hamas terror attacks. Their communiqué stated: “We strongly emphasize Israel’s right to defend itself in line with humanitarian and international law.” But then came the caveat: “It is crucial to prevent regional escalation.”
Before traveling to Israel and Egypt on Wednesday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he wanted to underline “Israel’s right to protect itself without conditions,” only to add that his “prime goal” was to “prevent a further escalation of the conflict.” Scholz called it “imperative” that “the suffering civilian population, who are being used as human shields, receives humanitarian aid. … The Palestinians are not Hamas.”
But just as Harvard’s key constituency expected stronger condemnation of Hamas than they initially heard, so too does Europe’s key constituency: voters. To be sure, there is a niche market for criticism of Israel on the political fringe. Take a careful look, for example, at the earnest Berlin intellectuals who last week took to the streets to chant “Free Palestine from German guilt.”
But a clear majority of Germans (58%) regard the Israeli military response to the Hamas attacks as appropriate, according to a Civey poll conducted last week. Only on the far left (supporters of Die Linke party) and the far right (Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD) is that a minority view. The proportion of Germans who think their country has a “special responsibility” toward Israel has in fact gone up from 33% in 2012 to 44% this year. Supporters of the Social Democrats and Greens, the two major parties in the current ruling coalition, are especially pro-Israel.
In Austria, too, just over half of those surveyed by Profil agreed with the statement that “Israel deserves our full solidarity. The attack on Israel is in no way justified.” And in Italy there has been a 14% rise in support for Israel since 2021. Although 30% of Italians feel sympathy for both Israelis and Palestinians, compared with 25% who feel sympathy only for Israelis, the proportion who feel sympathy only for Palestinians is just 10%. Even in France, where there is both substantial support for the far right and a large Muslim population, 45% of people polled blame Hamas for the current crisis; only 12% think Israel is to blame. (The remainder say they do not know.)
Why is the European elite so much at odds with voters? Part of the explanation is that the Brahmins of Brussels sincerely believe that there is a difference between the war in Ukraine — a moral struggle for democracy between the heroes of Kyiv and the monsters of Moscow — and the war in Israel, which, thanks to sustained left-wing attacks on “Zionist settler colonialism” and defenses of Islamism in the name of multiculturalism, requires maximum verbal seesawing.
But there are practical reasons for European equivocation, too. First, EU leaders fear that a regional war would lead to a new wave of refugees seeking asylum in Europe, at a time when illegal crossings are at their highest level since the 2015 Syrian exodus. Migration has reverted to being a primary concern of voters over the past year in most European countries, especially in Germany, where the anti-immigrant AfD is consistently polling above 20%.
Second, EU member states, especially countries with large Muslim populations, fear that terrorism, after a few quiet years, could now make a bloody comeback. In the northern French town of Arras last week, a 20-year-old Russian Muslim migrant stabbed a history teacher. President Emmanuel Macron, to his credit, called it “barbaric Islamic terrorism.” In Brussels on Monday evening, two Swedish soccer supporters were shot dead by a Tunisian illegal migrant. (It is suspected he targeted Swedes because of the recent public burnings of the Koran in Stockholm earlier this year.)
Third, there is the persistent problem of Europe’s reliance on imported energy. Scholz met with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, last week. Qatar is notoriously a major financial supporter of Hamas. However, Qatar has also become an important supplier of gas to Germany after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine effectively ended European imports of Russian gas. The crisis in Israel has led to the temporary suspension of flows from the Tamar gas field. The last thing European leaders need is another surge of energy prices just as inflation seemed to be abating.
Finally, EU leaders do not want the US (much less themselves) to be distracted from Ukraine’s war against Russia. They were already worried about declining American public support for aiding Ukraine, especially among Republicans, who seem intent on re-nominating the isolationist, protectionist, nativist Donald Trump. They are familiar enough with Washington’s chronic attention deficit disorder to know that a new war is bound to suck interest and therefore resources away from the old war.
Yet it will be harder than Europe’s leaders think to sell a “Ukraine First” strategy to their American counterparts. The two conflicts are already too intertwined to be considered in isolation from one other. Russia is indirectly involved in the Middle Eastern crisis through its presence in Syria, including the state-of-the-art air-defense systems it has there. Russian propaganda is already trying to sow dissent between Kyiv and Jerusalem. And there is going to be at least some competition between Ukraine and Israel for supplies of certain kinds of munitions, especially guided bombs and 155mm artillery shells. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran have been working together for months to bolster the Russian war effort against Ukraine.
Nor is that the only difficulty with High Representative Borrell’s favored foreign policy. For behind both Russia and Iran stands the mighty economic and technological superpower that is China. Somewhat pathetically, the EU wants China to take it more seriously. That was the whole point of Borrell’s being in the Far East while the Middle East was ablaze. “The war in Ukraine has converted us into a geopolitical power, not just an economic one,” Borrell told reporters in Beijing following his meeting with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi. “And we want to talk with China from this approach: Don’t look at European Union relations through the lens of relations with others” — a coy allusion to the US.
There are only two problems with this attempt to distance Europe from Washington in the hope of getting a bit more respect in Beijing. First, Europe still depends hugely on the US for its security against the threats posed by states such as Russia and Iran. Second, China is a not only a major source of economic support to both Moscow and Tehran, it is also a much larger threat to European security in its own right than Mr. Borrell appears to realize. If you doubt this, read what was said at the “Five Eyes” meeting at Stanford University on Wednesday, which for the first time brought together in public the chiefs of the internal intelligence agencies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US.
“If you’re anywhere close to the cutting edge of tech,” declared the director general of Britain’s MI5, Ken McCallum, “you might not be interested in geopolitics, but geopolitics is interested in you.” By geopolitics he meant the new cold war with China about which I have writtenmany times for Bloomberg Opinion.
In the words of FBI Director Chris Wray, “China has made economic espionage and stealing others' work and ideas a central component of its national strategy and that espionage is at the expense of innovators in all five of our countries. That threat has only gotten more dangerous and more insidious in recent years.” It was a nice coincidence that the Chinese president Xi Jinping welcomed Putin to Beijing that same day.
Unlike his European allies, President Joe Biden knows his target market. He was of course wildly reckless to fly into the Middle Eastern firestorm. Did Richard Nixon fly to the Middle East in 1973? Of course not. He waited until Henry Kissinger had shuttled his way to a viable peace between Israel and Egypt. Did Ronald Reagan go in 1983 after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the disastrous terrorist attack that killed 241 American servicemen? Hell, no. In fact, Reagan never visited the Middle East during his presidency. Not once.
And yet Biden probably did himself more political good with the speech he gave in Jerusalem on Wednesday than with anything else he has said since his election three years ago. This was in many ways his finest hour, a poignant mix of heartfelt commitment to Israel’s security and authentic empathy with the bereaved, born of personal loss. It is not to diminish the speech’s quality to add that it will have gone down very well indeed in some key swing states — notably Pennsylvania — with substantial Jewish populations. Biden struck just the right notes, days after Trump stuck his foot firmly in his own mouth, praising Hezbollah as “very smart.”
But what makes good domestic politics does not necessarily make good grand strategy. Biden thinks he’s playing chess between democracies and autocracies. Actually, this is more like wei qi — the Chinese game known in the West by its Japanese name, go — and the US and its allies are in serious danger of being outmaneuvered.
What exactly will Biden do if Iran is no more deterred from further aggression than Russia was? What will he do if China decides to exploit American distraction by blockading Taiwan and daring the US Navy to break through, at the risk of a major war? To quote Kissinger, “Where the skillful chess player aims to eliminate his opponent’s pieces in a series of head-on clashes, a talented wei qi player moves into ‘empty’ spaces on the board, gradually mitigating the strategic potential of his opponent’s pieces. Chess produces single-mindedness; wei qi generates strategic flexibility.”
Are we are hurtling toward a crisis comparable in scale with that of 50 years ago? (Or perhaps worse, because Israel seems relatively weaker today and the US seems no longer to understand deterrence.) As in October 1973, only more so, Europe’s governments are not well aligned with the US, even if their electorates are. And the economic consequences have the potential to be disruptive in ways that could yet make a mockery of Paul Krugman’s recent declaration of victory over inflation.
But that is a subject for another column — aimed precisely at my target audience.