America is facing more international crises today than at any time since the Cold War. What’s more, the level of volatility afflicting the American-led global order is not merely the result of general instability accompanying changes in the balance of power. Rather, America’s compounding problems internationally have been caused by a uniquely negative feedback loop brought about by the shortsightedness of America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. This short-sightedness has put the US in a perilous cycle that will become increasingly difficult to break if not counteracted soon.
Much has already been written on this significant blow to American credibility, but it must be emphasized just how directly the fall of Kabul is linked to the concentric crises America currently confronts. It’s almost farcical how quickly after the Taliban entered Kabul that Vladimir Putin began amassing troops on the Ukrainian border. It’s no coincidence that Hamas launches such a deadly attack with Iranian assistance just as the Abraham Accords were making progress. And it’s also no coincidence that, since August 2021, China has only stepped up its bellicose rhetoric regarding a forceful unification with Taiwan and become more aggressive in its sorties into Taiwanese airspace.
While the particulars of each conflict are different, one commonality underlies them all: a failure of American deterrence. The threat of overwhelming American force has historically been a check on regional actors, preventing further escalation. The national humiliation that took place in Kabul changed that.
The current moment is the consequence of American might having been diminished psychologically in the minds of our adversaries. Across disparate strategic theaters, the United States is seen as unwilling to intercede; more worried about becoming embroiled in a prolonged conflict in the short term than defending her interests in the long run. Herein lies the paradox: the more the Leader of the Free World tries to avoid armed conflict, the more likely it becomes.
As the world’s hegemon, each additional crisis facing America increases the likelihood of future crises as our adversaries recognize our limited attention pulled in multiple directions, not to mention eroding support for American internationalism domestically. A show of weakness leads to a further weakening of the hegemon. A single crisis, poorly managed, begets further crises, leading to a cascading series of crises that can, if not stopped, become a death spiral.
This occurs because the risk threshold for acting against the reigning hegemon decreases with each additional crisis that requires its time and attention. Smaller conflicts that do not merit much US attention, like Azerbaijan ethnically cleansing Armenians from Artsakh or a coup in Niger, become increasingly likely as regional actors sense that the hegemon is too distracted to even condemn their actions, much less act to stop them. In this way, a show of weakness in a crisis begets more crises, a feedback loop where crises cascade into a world of instability and uncertainty. Our adversaries smell blood in the water and feel that now is the time to strike.
Now, this does not mean that the American spiral is fatal. But, it does mean that ground lost (both literally and figuratively) will continue to become increasingly difficult to retake.
At any point, bold, decisive action can put a stop to further crises and deter further actions. The problem preventing the Biden administration from doing so is cratering poll numbers at home. For example, while any soberminded analyst would agree that support for Israel is in the American national interest, Biden’s lack of support on the far left, heading into a close election next year, impedes his ability to do what needs to be done.
A lack of domestic support is an all-too-common feature of American diplomacy. There exist isolationist sympathies in both parties, most notably the anti-Ukraine aid Freedom Caucasus in the House of Representatives. Such sympathies constrain adventurist policymakers and play into the cycle of democratic nations overextending in periods of generally hawkish sympathies and pulling back in periods of generally dovish sympathies.
What makes the conflict in Gaza unique is that the pushback Biden is getting from his own party is less strategic than it is moral. On the American left, foreign policy priorities will increasingly be set according to which international actors are categorized as oppressed and oppressors through the filter of American politics. If Israel and the US are cast in the latter category, as oppressors rather than liberators and advocates of democracy, then the left will oppose them as well. This means that the President’s base is actively advocating subversive policies against the national interest.
A strong leader would, ideally, disavow the radicals in his own party and do what is best for the nation. However, given the closeness of the upcoming election, Biden has a very delicate balancing act to pull off. Be too restrained or fail to fully support our allies, and the cycle will continue, and more blood will be spilled. At the same time, if America charges headlong into trying to solve all the world’s problems immediately there will be a backlash from voters. It is still possible to break the cycle, but time is running out and the current outlook for both Biden’s Democratic coalition and American global leadership, is bleak.