It’s Still America

For some Israeli analysts, new strains in U.S.-Israel relations in 2009 shook confidence in the longstanding alliance. They point to the cumulative effect of several factors: missteps by the adamantly pro-Israel Bush Administration that had the effect of strengthening Hamas and, with the Iraqi decapitation, the Islamic Republic of Iran; the economic crisis with its policy distractions in Washington and revelations of growing U.S. dependence on China to finance its growth and recovery; and, most immediately, the way the Obama Administration relates to longstanding U.S. allies—not just Israel. These have generated a kind of shell-shocked Israeli search for alternatives to the alliance.

It has certainly been a challenging year to be an American ally. The posture of the Obama Administration and, evidently, the president's own disposition tend toward sometimes dispassionate analyses of U.S. interests. Hair-trigger responses to provocation and reflexive defense of the policies of allied nations cannot be assumed.

To a certain extent this Administration is following an honorable American tradition going back to President Wilson: that the United States ought to be above the fray so that it can stand as the great exponent of international justice and peace. But fretful Israeli commentators see Washington carrying this approach even further, reaching out to America’s avowed enemies—so far with meager results. Mr. Obama and his team have projected a belief that foreign relations—with Iran, for instance, or Sudan—need not be a zero-sum game so that, in general, all sides can emerge winners. Consciously or not, policymakers often speak neutrally, as if umpiring the game of international relations.

Allies may not see this as umpiring, but as a weakening of ties that raises questions of reliability. Some countries closely bound to the United States have had to adjust this year to new signals from Washington.

For those who nervously think in the long term, questions arise: Is U.S. foreign policy consistent enough, dependable enough for its allies to rely on it for their future security? Is America going to remain strong enough that its power will protect its friends? These doubts are being whispered in the corridors of power in Israel, and presumably elsewhere. Some believe that the world powers of tomorrow are India and China, and it is with them that alliances ought to be built.

A cold shower is in order for people who get too excited by these ideas. While good relations with the rising powers of Asia and the lethargic EU are certainly an important goal, America is still dominant, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Looking beyond today's adversity, no country can match America's fundamental advantages. It is a demographic powerhouse, expected to add one hundred million to its population by mid-century, contrasting sharply with the population declines foreseen in virtually all the other major industrial powers. Rather like the rising third-world countries, more of those Americans will be young, highly productive and hard-working than in almost any other industrialized nation. Currently, they work some 300 hours per year more than their counterparts do in the EU, and that will likely continue. Similar to Israelis, they are more entrepreneurial, more technologically innovative and greater risk-takers.

All of the overheated chatter about the perceived collapse of American capitalism ignores how highly adaptive it is. The American economic system has repeatedly shown the ability to address its structural deficits, creating mechanisms to repair damage wrought by its flaws. The New Deal, to give just one example, did not introduce socialism, but rather reformed and rejuvenated American capitalism. And we already witness today American action on the reforms necessary to reshape the system so that it continues to promote American creativity and productivity.

From a Jewish perspective, America will continue to be home to a Jewish community that constitutes 70% of the Diaspora and supplies the lion's share of its cultural creativity. Moreover, basic support for Israel among the general population is one of the few stable facts of American domestic politics, transcending party and ethnic lines. America remains a power whose fundamental values, moral instincts and democratic traditions speak deeply to Israelis. The answer to the errant analysts is that no alliance with any other power could possibly have the rootedness or the dynamism of the connection with the United States.

In looking back at 2009, we must also remember that alongside tense diplomatic moments, the U.S. has also done all in its power to work with Israel on shoring up its military posture in light of the Iranian threat, including the unprecedented size of the Juniper Cobra joint maneuvers and extensive shared consultation. Indeed, building on this unparalleled cooperation in the security realm, perhaps Israel, in order to make peace and gain reliable safety, should not distance itself from America, but the opposite: seek to raise that still informal alliance to a higher level through a formal treaty that would place Israel under the American nuclear and security umbrella.

Indeed, given the immutability of the physical geography of the Land of Israel, a case can be made that only a deeper alliance with America, with the resulting American guaranties and American commitment, can turn the otherwise indefensible contours of Israel into the "secure borders" envisioned by UN Resolution 242.
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