Late last week, with a view to the then-upcoming Israeli elections, a very long, 7,000-word essay appeared in the Washington Post under the portentous and ominous-sounding title “Israel and the Decline of the Liberal Order.” Its author, Robert Kagan, is a distinguished historian and analyst of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and a regular writer for the Post. Given the essay’s unusual length, and the high reputation of its author, one had reason to harbor hopes of an objective, in-depth look at Israel’s geopolitical situation, its choices, and its strategic outlook at this critical moment in time.
Unfortunately, for all its length, Kagan’s essay offers a defective, superficial, and misleading account of the “liberal order” and its decline, yoked to a confusing, unjust, and somewhat nasty attack on the state of Israel and its current leaders, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Let’s take this from the top, beginning with Kagan’s fast-and-loose way with his own terms.
Considering Israel’s relationship to what he calls the liberal world order and the new anti-liberal world order peopled by nationalist and authoritarian leaders, Kagan poses the question, “Which side does Israel want to be on?” And he answers: “in recent years Israeli foreign policy has been trending in a decidedly anti-liberal direction,” thus showing that the country actively desires to join the anti-liberal camp.
In justification of this charge, Kagan notes that Israel has pursued and maintained relations with the new leaders around the world whose authoritarian power and politics are replacing, to his dismay, the old liberal international order created by the United States after World War II and again at the end of the cold war. Kagan cites many such leaders: Putin of Russia, Xi of China, Modi of India, Orban of Hungary, and others, including the authoritarian leaders of Middle Eastern countries.
Setting aside the question of whether there are any Middle Eastern leaders besides Netanyahu who are not and have not long been authoritarian, the burden of this account would seem to be completely vitiated by two elements that Kagan himself mentions: first, that the new anti-liberal order is a fact of life, however unfortunate; and second, that Israel, despite its present success, is a tiny country endangered in a truly existential way by truly mortal enemies from its founding 71 years ago down to the present day, most recently in the form of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Indeed, in the course of his essay Kagan goes out of his way to insist on how ultimately small, weak, and thus inconsequential Israel is. He describes it as essentially a burden to the U.S. ever since its founding. Even at present, on his reckoning, were it not for America’s concern for the Jewish state, neither Iran nor Israel’s efforts to defend itself and even others in the region from Iran’s predations would matter to the U.S. Iran itself, he reassures us, is “not yet” a threat to America.
If so, what’s the big deal? The obvious conclusion to be drawn from these facts is that Israel, in order to continue to survive, is adapting to a new order created by forces much greater than its own and very much beyond its control. In so doing, it is behaving the same way other small states must behave, now and always—as a historian like Kagan well knows. From time to time in his essay, he even seems to draw the same conclusion. How, then, does the behavior of this small and ultimately inconsequential state matter as anything more than another sign of our lamentable times? Why Kagan’s preoccupation with Israel, of all the small states faced with the same circumstances?
He never says. Indeed, in the course of his account it emerges that one major cause of the decline is America itself. At most, then, Israel’s alleged embrace of the new anti-liberal order should be seen as a function of and reaction to America’s own behavior. But here we come to Kagan’s real complaint, hinted at above, which is that Israel actually welcomes the new anti-liberal order. Worse still, for him the Israeli shift reflects not merely the exigencies of foreign policy but changes internal to Israeli politics that are themselves anti-liberal. This, to Kagan, grossly betrays what Israel owes to its own past and specifically to the legacy of liberalism bequeathed to it by America and the liberal world order that America created. Without these, Israel would not have been established, let alone have survived, notwithstanding what Kagan describes, in a rare moment of generosity, as “its [own] heroic efforts.” Israel’s current orientation is thus, among other vices, an act of blatant ingratitude.
To establish all of this, Kagan requires more evidence and argument than his list of the authoritarian leaders with whom Netanyahu has met. Hence the length of his essay. Even so, however, his 7,000 words fail to do the trick except through the use of unworthy sleights of hand and some quite remarkable omissions to which we can now turn.
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One omission is the lack of any proper treatment of how the world order became anti-liberal and the bearing of this development on Israel within the geopolitical context of the Middle East.
According to Kagan, the transformation took place very recently; a decade ago, the liberal order still held:
But then the world changed. Over the past decade the United States has diminished its power and influence in the Middle East. Anti-liberal great powers Russia and China have begun to fill the vacuum and illiberal nationalist forces—which barely existed a decade ago—have swept through the liberal world.
Among other consequences, Kagan observes, the “United States has allowed Russia to expand its influence in Syria, forge an alliance with Iran, and again become a player in Middle East affairs.”
This is all quite true. But who was the agent of this great change? Israel? Obviously not. For some reason, Kagan is reluctant to say directly who was responsible, perhaps because the person was President Obama. Only later does he note, in a remarkably passive voice, that “since the Barack Obama presidency, the United States has been subcontracting its leadership role in the region to [Middle East dictatorships].”
So not Obama but his “presidency” was the responsible party. Whichever, this hardly prevents Kagan from smearing Israel instead as the “preeminent promoter of Middle East dictatorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.”
One might much more fairly point out that the most powerful dictatorship promoted by the Obama “presidency” was none other than the Islamic Republic of Iran. Obama had his reasons for this deliberate act of elevation, which he has fully explained. Whatever their merit or lack of merit, they emphatically did not include supporting a “liberal order” for the Middle East, as Kagan knows full well, just as he knows full well that, under President Obama, America’s withdrawal of support for the liberal order was hardly limited to the Middle East. For one larger case in point, one need look no farther than at America’s ultimately weak response to Putin’s predations in Ukraine and Crimea.
As for Israel, during this same decade it, too, was a potential and sometimes actual victim of these same American changes, which in its case included the pronounced personal hostility of Obama himself. Far from “embracing” these changes, it endeavored to navigate them. Through its campaign to make people wake up to the Iran threat, it even tried to prevent them. About all of this, Kagan again says not a word.
Now that the world order has changed, and the liberal order is collapsing, what should Israel do?
It would seem, according to Kagan, that it should hold fast to liberalism even if no one else, or practically no one else, is doing so. Perhaps it should even go down with the liberal ship with all liberal guns heroically blazing.
But in what does this liberalism consist? Another striking omission, or sleight of hand, is that Kagan never actually defines or describes it even as he remains remarkably sure that Israel is abandoning it. After all, he suggests, if Israel were serious about liberalism, it would pursue it by banding together with the remaining liberal states. And where are these states located? Apparently within the EU and among its supporters.
But there is this difficulty: the EU is generally hostile to Israel. And why is that? Because, Kagan tells us, of two political features that Israel combines: its liberalism—its genuine liberalism, the liberalism of “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex” as defined by Israel’s Declaration of Independence—and its nationalism, that is, its Jewish nationalism.
In this connection, Kagan quotes Abba Eban, Israel’s most famous foreign minister, to the effect that Israel’s challenge from the beginning was to find “a point of balance and reconciliation . . . between the two poles of Jewish universalism [a/k/a liberalism] and national particularism”— a balance that impresses Kagan as also a “conundrum.”
Over its history, as anyone who has visited the country can plainly see, Israel has been remarkably successful in finding that balance. Indeed, its present liberal order, like others, has expanded to embrace additional rights (like gender) unmentioned in its founding document. And yet, as Kagan himself stipulates, “[n]ations of the liberal world”—in point of fact, nations of the European liberal world—have been “remarkably unsympathetic to [Israel’s] conundrum” or to the species of nationalism that created it. Although Kagan’s treatment of this attitude does not do justice to the sheer extent of European hostility, not to speak of outright betrayals of commitments made to Israel by, for example, France, that hostility is now rampant. These days, Israeli nationalism, however it might be combined with liberal democratic practice, is unacceptable, period.
In the meantime, these same “liberal” European nations, (one thinks especially of Germany but not Germany alone) have hardly acted as towers of strength when it comes to dealing with the anti-liberal Russia or for that matter the anti-liberal China and the anti-liberal Iran. Just why, then, should Israel regard the EU as an honest judge of these matters, or a guide to going forward? Just why should it not make its peace with other, allegedly anti-liberal, European countries?
Instead of confronting or answering such questions, Kagan goes on to charge Israel, and especially its leadership, with repudiating liberalism altogether, of doing so as a matter of explicit and self-conscious principle, and of embracing anti-liberal nationalism in the same “principled” manner. In the past, he writes, Israelis “sometimes defied the liberal order but they never repudiated it”; now, according to him, they do.
One looks expectantly to Kagan to document explicit statements of this change on the part of Israeli leaders, in particular on the part of Netanyahu, who forms the particular object of his charges and vituperation. But he does not. And this is more or less simply because he cannot. Netanyahu never says any such things. Instead, Kagan tries to make the claim stick dishonestly, by associating Netanyahu with people who do say such things or things like them.
Adducing the views of a handful of conservative Israeli intellectuals. almost as if they speak for Israel as a whole, Kagan singles out Yoram Hazony, whom he identifies as a one-time aide to Netanyahu, the author of a recent book, The Virtue of Nationalism, and a self-declared opponent of what he, Hazony, calls the U.S.-led “liberal empire.”
Hazony’s views might be wise or foolish, well or poorly supported. But what have they to do with Netanyahu or other Israeli leaders? Yes, Hazony was once an aide to Netanyahu, some 30 years ago; he didn’t speak for him then, let alone now. Moreover, as Kagan observes, Hazony has written other things—for example, that an international system based not on liberalism but on nationalism “will inculcate ‘an aversion to the conquest of foreign nations’ and open ‘the door to a tolerance of diverse ways of life’”—but as Kagan himself says, Hazony may be the only person in the world who believes such a thing. It is certainly not Israelis in general who say it, and certainly not Netanyahu, who has never tired of pointing out the dangerous character of the world. So what is the point of this exercise if not to promote a distorted view of Netanyahu’s approach to domestic as well as foreign policy and proceed to tar him with it?
Kagan’s final concern is with just how Israel’s policy sits with, affects, and may even endanger American Jews. In this connection he bemoans the decline of America’s own internal liberal order—another function, this time homegrown, of the new nationalism—and the threat this decline poses to Jews. Here, apparently, the point is that Israel must remain liberal in order to help rescue and reinforce the American liberal order.
But what is today’s American “liberal order” and what are the concomitant threats affecting American Jews? Kagan’s woefully incomplete report touches on recent anti-Semitic attacks at the hands of perpetrators from the extreme right of the American political spectrum. These are certainly despicable and of serious concern. But what, then, of the substantial part of the putatively “liberal” spectrum that now goes by the name of “progressivism,” some elements of which could be fairly described as anti-liberal in the once universally accepted sense of the word liberal?
About this, Kagan is silent. Nor does he mention that the most anti-liberal progressives are overtly hostile to, in particular, Israel and Jews, and some now hold high office in the U.S. Congress. Could Israel help make a contribution to this new anti-Israel and anti-Jewish “liberal order”? Only by ceasing to exist.
Given Kagan’s grand scheme of things, given how small and inconsequential in that scheme he considers Israel to be, and given how apparently repulsive he deems it to all that is liberal and good, even ceasing to exist should hardly matter. Which leads one to suggest that instead of expending his energies on tearing Israel down, he could have saved his breath for more important missions like the fight to preserve or, at this point, revive the dying liberal world order.
By his own account, few today are devoted to that task, so it will be a lonely fight. All the more reason, one might think, to leave Israel, Netanyahu, and other Israeli leaders to pursue their own lonely fight, however inconsequential, to preserve the lives, safety, and well-being of eight million Israeli citizens, Arab and Jewish alike. After all, the conduct of that fight is their job, required of them by the Israeli public and given to them through the institutions of what one may dare to call Israel’s liberal democratic order.