Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 19 October 2023


A World Without American Deterrence

Oct. 19, 2023 12:33 pm ET

President Biden pauses during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the war with Hamas in Israel, Oct. 18. Photo: Miriam Alster/Associated Press

‘How did you go bankrupt?” Bill Gorton asks Mike Campbell in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”

“Two ways,” Mike replies. “Gradually and then suddenly.”



Suddenly, the Biden administration faces a massive and complicated crisis in the Middle East. Missiles and warplanes streak across the skies above Gaza. Saudi Arabia bitterly criticizes Israel’s response to the Hamas atrocities, and much of the Arab and Islamic world has exploded in rage against the Jewish state. Mobs rampage through the streets, and American diplomats take shelter amid protests outside U.S. embassies from Baghdad to Beirut. Iran threatens Israel with more attacks, and Hezbollah is keeping pressure on Israel’s northern border.

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President Biden’s decision to fly to Israel showed energy and courage. But more is needed. As I wrote in my last column, Mr. Biden has yet to grapple with the painful truth that America’s core problem in the Middle East is the march of an unappeasable Iran toward regional power regardless of moral or human cost.

That is not the only thing Mr. Biden and his team don’t seem to have grasped. The Middle East firestorm is merely one hot spot in a world spinning out of control. The success of Hamas sent waves of excitement through jihadist groups and terror cells in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and beyond. Riots in France, a shooting in Belgium, anti-Semitic marches in Berlin and other uprisings across Europe point to a resurgence of radicalism. Africa, where feeble governments have lost the ability to control jihadist groups across swaths of territory, and where Russia’s Wagner Group supports many corrupt and violent military regimes, is bracing for more terror in more parts of the continent. The war on terror is plotting its comeback even as the Cold War between the U.S. and the revisionist powers heats up.

As Hamas put a torch to the Middle East, Russia’s Legislature revoked its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and ended limits on missile technology sales to Iran. Mysterious disruptions to a gas pipeline and telecommunications cables in the Baltic Sea continue.

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Flying to Beijing, President Vladimir Putin toasted the growing friendship between Russia and China and celebrated a historic high in their bilateral trade. Trade between the two countries has roughly doubled since Mr. Putin’s original 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

Trade between Russia and North Korea also has flourished. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said last week that North Korea has delivered more than 1,000 containers of military supplies and weapons to Russia. What does Pyongyang want in return? “Fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles, ballistic-missile production equipment, or other materials and other advanced technologies,” Mr. Kirby said. With Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov currently visiting North Korea, he and his hosts will have plenty to talk about.

China is also getting frisky. In the past two years, there have been more than 180 documented cases of People’s Liberation Army planes harassing American aircraft, the Pentagon said this week. That exceeds the number of such incidents in the entire preceding decade. More ominously, China’s pressure on Taiwan continues to grow. The number of Chinese military aircraft flying sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone rose from 380 in 2020 to more than 1,700 in 2022. China has also increased the number of fighter jets and bombers (including bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons) venturing close to the island. On one day last month, more than 100 Chinese military aircraft flew missions near Taiwan, with 40 entering the air defense identification zone.

Why are so many actors challenging American power in so many parts of the world? Because the U.S. is losing its power to deter. Like Mike Campbell’s bankruptcy, the erosion of deterrence usually begins gradually and ends suddenly. Emboldened by American failures to respond effectively (as when Mr. Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, when President Obama failed to enforce his “red line” in Syria, or when China built and militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea), our adversaries gradually lost their inhibitions and dared to challenge us more directly in more damaging ways.

Mr. Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine in defiance of direct American warnings was a major step. Iran’s support for Hamas’s strike on Israel is an even bolder attack on the American order. If President Biden’s response to Hamas and its patron Iran fails to restore respect for American power, wisdom and will, our enemies everywhere will draw conclusions and take steps that we and our allies won’t like.

As Mr. Biden analyzes his options and the support he is prepared to offer Israel, he needs to remember that the world is watching. Strategic passivity as deterrence erodes is a recipe for escalating crises and, ultimately and sometimes quite suddenly, war. 

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