Washington has lost touch with reality. If it doesn’t adapt, the world will pay


The US intelligence community recently released its annual threat assessment, which focuses on worldwide threats to the country’s national security. The document reflects the collective analyses and insights of the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and more than a dozen other agencies.

The report’s foreword provides a clear sense of this community’s dystopian and self-referential thinking: “During the next year, the United States faces an increasingly fragile global order strained by accelerating strategic competition among major powers, more intense and unpredictable transnational challenges, and multiple regional conflicts with far-reaching implications.”

It continues: “An ambitious but anxious China, a confrontational Russia, some regional powers, such as Iran, and more capable non-state actors are challenging longstanding rules of the international system as well as U.S. primacy within it.” 

Iran, Russia and China are thus the main villains for allegedly challenging longstanding rules of the international system. No surprises here; this has been a US policy mantra for years. 

The problem, rather, is that it is not clear to which rules the report is referring: the customary international law enshrined in the UN Charter and UN conventions, or the so-called US-led rules-based world order. The main conceptual problem is that for the US political establishment and its key western allies, there is no distinction. But as is often the case, they are grossly mistaken. 

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International law and the UN Charter are the pillars of the global order built after the Second World War, to which the US provided an outstanding contribution. Conversely, the US-led rules-based international system is a more recent evolution of American political thinking: a self-referential mindset twisted to the interests of Washington and its allies. 

This order is based on neoliberal ideology and imbued with double standards, of which the tragedy unfolding in Gaza is the latest and most visible example. 

Based on a series of assumptions, such as US exceptionalism and the undisputed superiority of western democracies (ie, “western civilisation”), this system claims national laws as universal ones. It assumes a set of values and connected rules, but is quite careful not to implement them when they collide with its own interests. This order can be summarised by an informal motto: “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.” 

Challenging US hegemony

Unsurprisingly, the report from the US intelligence community blames China, Russia and Iran, along with a handful of non-state actors (including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and the Houthis in Yemen) for challenging not only the rules of the international system, but above all, US “primacy within it”.

It seems that the real crime is not challenging the system itself, but rather US hegemony. Yet, while such a preposterous position could still have been accepted a few years ago, it is now openly challenged – or at least resented – by many countries across the so-called Global South. 

Only a minority of countries in Europe and East Asia consider US primacy to be an essential prerequisite of a stable international system. In fact, scrutiny of the last two decades of history proves the opposite.

Throughout history, empires have risen and then collapsed. US policymakers would be wise to adjust to these rules of history 

The global order is shifting from a unipolar configuration centred on the US to a multipolar one. Throughout history, empires have risen and then collapsed. US policymakers would be wise to adjust to these rules of history and give up on the notion of their indispensability. They now face a binary choice: accept history’s verdict, as the UK has progressively done since 1945, or catastrophically resist it.

A reference to the Gaza crisis in the report is even more enlightening about the US intelligence community’s dystopian views: “One need only look at the Gaza crisis – triggered by a highly capable non-state terrorist group in Hamas, fueled in part by a regionally ambitious Iran, and exacerbated by narratives encouraged by China and Russia to undermine the United States on the global stage – to see how a regional crisis can have widespread spillover effects and complicate international cooperation on other pressing issues.”

This passage suggests that the US intelligence community is fundamentally incapable of seeing the conflict in Gaza for what it really is: a national liberation struggle triggered by decades of brutal and unpunished Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, facilitated by massive US weapons deliveries and a political shield at the UN Security Council, where the Israeli government would otherwise be held accountable for its war crimes. 

The US narrative – that the events of 7 October are also traceable to Chinese and Russian attempts to undermine Washington on the global stage – borders on the ridiculous.

Double standards

The real factor undermining the global standing of the US is not the alleged actions of certain autocracies, but mostly Washington’s own international behaviour and double standards, exemplified by its unwavering support for Israel’s bloodbath in Gaza – an assault that violates all the rules that the US has been preaching for decades.

The Biden administration thus missed another excellent opportunity to distance itself from hypocritical double standards

This is demonstrated perfectly by the Biden administration’s behaviour after the recent adoption of a UN Security Council resolution demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. After allowing the resolution to pass by abstaining, the US rushed to minimise its meaning and impact by qualifying it as non-binding

So, for the sake of clarity, the indispensable nation that prides itself as being the main enabler of the longstanding rules of the international system, the beacon on the hill, is essentially telling another UN member state (Israel) that it can ignore a Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire, after more than 34,000 people have been killed in Gaza. The tragic irony is that the Netanyahu government did not even need this US exhortation; it would have ignored the resolution anyway.

For the record, UN Security Council resolutions are always binding. The Biden administration thus missed another excellent opportunity to distance itself from hypocritical double standards. It accomplished an outstanding masterpiece by upsetting everyone: Israel and the vast pro-Israel lobby in the US for not casting its veto; and the left of the US Democratic Party, the Palestinian people and the rest of the world for outrageously calling the resolution non-binding.

A new world order will arise from the ashes of US supremacy

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Meanwhile, the US threat assessment attributes to China “the capability to directly compete with the United States and U.S. allies and to alter the rules-based global order”. It thus equates a simple Chinese capability into a deliberate intent pursued by its leadership, while indirectly confirming that in US official thinking, the only world order that can be contemplated is one led by Washington.

In a flash of common sense, the threat assessment acknowledges that US actions intended to deter foreign aggression are often “interpreted by adversaries as reinforcing their own perceptions that the United States is intending to contain or weaken them, and these misinterpretations can complicate escalation management and crisis communications”. 

If the US intelligence community’s analysts have been surprisingly smart and honest in recognising this problem, known by international relations experts as the concept of “the indivisibility of security” (ie, any security measure taken by one nation can be interpreted as a threat by another), they should also be able to admit that their tendency to equate hypothetical capabilities with automatic intentions, is a big part of the increased tensions characterising modern geopolitics.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

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