Most columns which talk about Israel in conjunction with the rise of global illiberal nationalism basically are exercises in what Marx would've called "bourgeois moralism" -- calling for Israel to resist it (or to stop actively participating in it) because it's wrong. Now, unlike Marx I think there is a perfectly valid place for moralistic appeals. But it certainly opens itself up to a response from a certain sort of fellow, who deems him or herself a hard-headed realist, who knows that such high-minded ethical appeals have no actual purchase in the dog-eat-dog, every-nation-for-itself world of realpolitik. Israel has to do what's best for Israel -- same as every other country. If that means shedding democracy, or liberalism, or egalitarianism, well, boo-hoo for them.
Kagan's contribution is useful because it is expressly addressed to that sort of fellow, and I endorse it not because I agree with this outlook but because I recognize it is an important one that many people -- rightly or not -- hold.
Kagan's essay explores what Israel's status would be -- not what it ought to be, not what it should be if states were fair and just and nice, but what it would be -- in an illiberal world where America and other major powers were motivated primarily by a sort of insular, anti-cosmopolitan nationalism. In this world, bonds between nations would, where they form at all, be based on material concerns and the conveniences of power -- the world Charles de Gaulle imagined when he said "nations don't have friends, only interests." And the answer is that while in the immediate term Israel might find friends in the budding illiberal powers currently popping up -- from Trump to Orban to Modi to Putin -- in the long-term such a world would almost certainly result in an Israel isolated, alone, and -- at best -- abandoned to its own fate.
Historically, Israel viewed its own security and standing as a new and relatively fragile state as being intricately connected to its status as a democratic state and society that would be a member in good-standing of the liberal political order. In a world where Israel's neighbors had more people, more territory, more wealth, and more oil, the main factor that could bind any major power to the Jewish state is a perception of shared values.
But the decline of the post-Cold War liberal order (liberal America and the EU) and the rise of illiberal alternatives (e.g., China and Russia, but also Trumpism in America and right-wing populism in Europe and globally) has given Israel a choice in didn't have before. Today, Israel doesn't have to be liberal in order to gain the support from other global powers. China doesn't care if Israel is democratic. Russia hardly minds if Israel is repressive. And within the traditional seats of international liberalism, one sees rot from the inside -- from Trump's rise to the chaos over Brexit. A right-wing populist like Netanyahu doesn't lack for ideological allies in the international system.
Yet, Kagan warns, Israel is delusional if it thinks that an "America first!" America, no longer concerned with trifling things like "democracy" or "shared liberal values", will be a reliable ally ever outward into the future. Why would it? Insular nationalism by its very nature doesn't lend itself to establishing these sort of enduring, values-based bonds. It is facile to assume that America will simultaneously retreat from seeking to promote a vision of liberal internationalism yet will remain committed to the security and flourishing of small nations halfway across the globe whose very presence seems to alienate much larger and objectively more important countries. If shared values matter, Israel can argue the fact that it's a pariah among some many states is a case of hypocrisy, illiberalism, or outright hate, and that it'd be just plain wrong for America to give into it. But that refrain -- whether fair or not as an ethical matter -- is simply irrelevant if America's foreign policy is "America first!" Only in a world where international ethics matter can Israel appeal to ethics as basis of a stable diplomatic relationship.
Kagan draws a parallel to right-wing Polish nationalists, who somehow think that a US that chooses to abandon NATO will nonetheless maintain a special security commitment to Poland. Those figures are out of their minds: if America ceases to care about the NATO alliance, it will in turn cease to care about Poland -- if not immediately, then shortly thereafter. More broadly: if America is in the game only for itself, playing real power politics, eventually Israel will find itself cut loose as soon as its in the transient American interest to abandon it.
What makes Israelis think if the United States were to cease supporting the liberal world order and began shedding the alliances it created after World War II, that the only ally it would not shed would be Israel? (Amusingly, many Poles these days also seem to believe that if the United States pulled out of NATO, it would still maintain the security relationship with Poland.) And how would Israel fare in the kind of world that would emerge if the United States stopped trying to uphold the liberal order? Such a world would once again be a multipolar struggle for power and advantage, pitting Russia, China, India, Japan, Iran, the stronger European powers and the United States against one another — all with large populations, significant territories and vast economies. What would be the fate of tiny nations such as Israel in such a world, no matter how well they might be armed and no matter how advanced their economies? In today’s world, Israel is strong and successful. It outshines its weaker and less-developed neighbors. But in the world of self-interested sovereign nation-states, a world with no liberal community, Israel is a mouse surrounded by elephants, all clamoring for a piece of the Middle East. Historically, from the Romans to the Ottomans to the British and French, the peoples of the Middle East have enjoyed only such autonomy as the ruling empires granted them. Otherwise, they were pawns and victims in a much larger game in which they were hopelessly outmatched.
Could Israel, with its few millions of citizens, surrounded by enemies on all sides, and no longer living under the umbrella of the United States’ global hegemony, rely on the support of European nations ruled by right-wing nationalists?The answer is simply: no. It cannot rely on the enduring backing of foreign nation's committed to their own brand of domestic ultranationalism (it is frankly bizarre that anyone with a modicum of knowledge about Jewish history could believe otherwise), and a world where Israel has thrown its lot with that crowd is a world that will rapidly become exceptionally dangerous for Israel. Kagan concludes:
The price Israel paid for being born into the liberal world order was that it would have to suffer liberal criticisms and be held to liberal standards. This may have been difficult and even, from Israelis’ perspective, unfair, but Israeli leaders have borne this burden for 70 years because they knew Israel had no choice, that there was no home for Israel except within the liberal world order. That many Israelis now believe they have a choice is a reflection of our times, but it is a dangerous illusion. Those Netanyahu campaign posters showing him shaking hands with Putin, Modi and Trump carry the tagline, “A Different League.” Indeed, it is. Good luck.Good luck indeed. The world Netanyahu hopes to help build is a world where Israel one day -- and perhaps not a particularly distant day -- will find itself truly alone, truly cut-off, and if the worst comes without America or anyone else interested in bailing it out.