Seeking to reverse decades of diplomatic isolation, and in response to increasing hostility from Western Europe, Jerusalem in recent years has cultivated better relations with a variety of states, including some with unsavory rulers—ranging from the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. While such a policy has provoked sharp criticism in some quarters, Seth Cropsey and Harry Halem explain that a small country like Israel does not have the luxury of disdaining potential allies, and, moreover, continues to do much to support American interests and with them the “liberal international order,” such as it is. Take the fraught case of its relations with Russia:
Small powers such as Israel illustrate the liberal international order’s pathology. The Jewish state in particular feels the existential edge of political competition, having faced annihilation from its inception. Today, Iran is Israel’s greatest adversary. A unique blend of Shiite supremacism and Persian imperial revanchism drives Iran’s leaders to recover Sassanid and Safavid lost glory.
Rather than striking Iran directly, Israel has opted to attack its network of proxies that stretch from the Tigris to the Levantine basin. However, the United States no longer dominates the region’s airspace. Any Israeli action against Iran requires Russian assent as a simple geographical fact. This situation will persist indefinitely, as America shows no desire to challenge the Russian presence in Syria. So Israel must work with Russia if it hopes to combat Iranian expansion—as a matter of course, small powers must search for other options during periods of strategic turmoil, whatever their ideological preferences may be.
The irony is that Israel’s cognizance of Russian interests actually furthers American security goals. Iran poses a threat to the United States irrespective of its alliance with Israel. If a hostile power were to control the Middle East, it could sever the U.S.’s sea lines of communication and supply, preventing effective coordination between American forces and allies in Europe and Asia. Moreover, it could use its oil exports to threaten the reliance of U.S. partners on oil imports, such as Japan.
It is therefore no surprise that the U.S.’s interest in a stable Middle Eastern balance of power has persisted since the 1940s. But the age of imperial dominion has passed. America cannot govern as Britain and France once did. It must work with and through local actors. Critically, every attempt that the U.S., or any Western power, has made to court the “Arab street” has failed irrespective of support for Israel.