Usually, history’s turning points are invisible to the living.
Forks in the road are spotted by historians only long after events and their immediate repercussions have faded. But sometimes history visibly shifts for its participants onto a new course. We are now living through one of those turning points in history.
2023 was the year that it became clear that Russia and China, along with their allies North Korea and Iran, united against nations on their peripheries, NATO, and the great guarantor of global security itself, the United States. It is a war of armies in Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. It is an economic war of trade embargoes against Iran and Russia and, increasingly, against China. It is a diplomatic and cultural conflict. But, most of all, it is a war of values.
President Joseph Biden’s speech of October 19 came at a time when democracies face sustained and systematic attacks from those who abhor freedom because it threatens their power.
Biden sees that history is moving. And he is right.
Iran has been the world’s largest financier of terrorism ever since its 1979 revolution. Tehran has long used a strategy of proxy war, directing its militias in Syria and Yemen to attack Sunni Arabs, its militias in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip to kill and kidnap innocent citizens, and its militias in Tindouf to kill innocent Moroccan citizens.
So, what has changed in 2023?
Vladimir Putin benefits from dividing America’s attention. China, too, wants to topple the post-World War II order that extended prosperity and peace to much of the globe. Instead, China prefers to return to a world of empires, one in which its dominion is unchallenged. Iran offers China a chance to gain influence over the Persian Gulf—where a third of the world’s oil threads through straits barely eighteen miles wide. China has also encouraged more cooperation between historical antagonists Iran and Russia.
The emergence of this alliance means an intensifying challenge to America’s global leadership.
Imagine a world without American leadership. The US Navy no longer safeguards global shipping, meaning shortages multiply and prices climb. Without the US dollar as the reserve currency, prices are hard to compare across a welter of fluctuating local currencies. Without American might, larger nations invade their smaller neighbors, and terrorists strike with impunity. Democracy and cooperation die. Authoritarian predators loom and lurk, striking at will, with all other countries seen as prey. To keep this nightmare at bay, America must continue to fulfill its role as the indispensable global leader.
As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of the United States in 1943: “The price of greatness is responsibility.”
The military power available to the United States is essential to deter aggression. But equally vital is its self-confidence, its willingness to act upon its lofty ideals.
What does the global shift mean for American foreign policy?
First, policy towards Iran must be revised entirely. The current approach—endless negotiations over Iran’s needless construction of nuclear weapons, releasing some $6 billion in frozen funds to free five hostages—has failed.
Iran’s proxies have attacked, taking a dozen US hostages along with over 200 people of other nationalities. Thousands of innocent people on both sides have been killed. Iran wanted war and Hamas complied. The time for such engagement with Iran has passed.
While Iran is already one of the most sanctioned nations on Earth by the United States, the European Union, and other allied nations, Washington must impose new “smart” sanctions on the international travel of the mullahs and their revolutionary guard leadership. Controls on the sale of Iran’s oil and gas reserves must be reimposed.
Hamas’ leaders, Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mash’al, must no longer be received as heroes in Arab capitals. The US Treasury must sanction them, their families and deprive them of travel and international payments.
Iran will continually test President Biden’s resolve, as it recently did through proxy attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria. Yemen’s Houthi militia has launched ballistic and cruise missiles as well as drones toward Israeli targets.
In the coming weeks, as the war between Israel and Hamas escalates, aggressions against U.S. military bases will grow. A military response may be necessary, but it will not be sufficient. America will have to maintain its aircraft carrier groups in or near the region for the foreseeable future and must also ensure this war does not spread to other countries.
Leadership starts with articulating a vision, a perspective for the post-war period.
The second task for American policy is to give Gaza a better future. Even if the war in Gaza were to eradicate the military capabilities of Hamas, the threat of violence would only disappear once Palestinian youth have a better future.
Then, we need to replace hate with hope in the hearts of ordinary Palestinians. How?
Palestinians need to be shown a clear path to a better life. This begins with an imperative: after the war, a new renewed Palestinian Authority will have to be stood up in Gaza supported by an international coalition under US leadership to provide aid, security and training to the Palestinian police.
Rebuilding Gaza is not just about rebuilding buildings. We must create hospitals, schools, places of culture, and, above all, long-term jobs. It is this material base that will allow a political outcome.
What is expected of a US president after the end of military operations is to create the conditions to negotiate a lasting peace. It is not simple, since sometimes painful concessions must be made, but it is not impossible.
The current crisis offers America the opportunity to reaffirm its leadership in the region and present a new vision that will enable the democratic world to contain Iran, to weaken or even destroy its proxies, but also to begin the long march towards the resolution of a conflict that is the thorniest in the world.
America has always risen to take on seemingly impossible tasks. Here is the next one.
A version of this article was published earlier in The National Interest.