From Ukraine to Gaza: Cracks in the International Order

A World at War: Ukraine, Gaza, and the US-Led World Order


With no end to the Ukraine war in sight, the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza has exacerbated domestic and global divisions and made it more difficult than ever for the United States to assert its leadership. The author examines the two wars in the context of the shifting global power balance.

More than two years have passed since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The feelings of shock and outrage provoked by that act of aggression have given way to a mixture of frustration, anxiety, and bewilderment over a war that drags on with no end in sight. Meanwhile, fighting has spread in the Middle East as Israel wreaks vengeance on Gaza for the October 7 armed attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Although very different in nature, these conflicts are linked in the public consciousness as symbols of our fractured world.

We are living in a time fraught with uncertainty and instability, with the future of the international order hanging in the balance. Augmenting that impression is the fact that more than 50 countries—home to about half the world’s population—are scheduled to hold national elections this year. The results of the November US presidential and congressional races in particular could have a major impact on the outcome of both wars. In the following, we will explore the interrelationship between the two conflicts amid the shifting global balance of power.

The Shifting Balance

President Richard Nixon articulated his basic philosophy of international relations in an interview published in the January 3, 1972, issue of Time magazine. “We must remember,” he said, “the only time in the history of the world that we have had any extended periods of peace is when there has been balance of power. . . . So I believe in a world in which the United States is powerful.” I made a similar observation in 2012 in the introduction to my book Kokusai chitsujo—18 seiki Yōroppa kara 21 seiki Ajia e (The World Order—From Eighteenth-Century Europe to Twenty-First-Century Asia), noting that “history teaches us that new conflicts tend to erupt when the balance of power shifts suddenly.” I stressed the need to “be fully alert, in today’s world, to the instability and danger of a shifting power balance resulting from the rise of the emerging powers.”

It was in February of the same year, 2012, that Xi Jinping, then vice-president of the People’s Republic of China, called on the nation to “forge a new model of great-power relations with the United States.” Not long after taking office as president, Xi floated the same vision in his June 2013 talks with US President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands estate in California, remarking that “the vast Pacific Ocean has ample space for China and the United States.” Implicit in this vision was the idea of the United States and China amicably dividing the Pacific between them, one controlling the eastern half and the other the west.

Under three successive presidents—Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden—the United States has scaled back its global military presence, withdrawing its forces from hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan. This draw-down was predicated on the optimistic assumption that it was possible to cultivate amicable, cooperative ties with authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. Exemplifying this belief, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s “Strategic Concept 2010” stated, “We want to see a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia, and we will act accordingly, with the expectation of reciprocity from Russia.”

By the middle of that decade, events had forced the White House to rethink such rosy assumptions. In 2014, Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula and seized control of parts of eastern Ukraine. China was flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea and making moves to alter the territorial status quo in the region. The National Security Strategy unveiled by the Trump administration in December 2017 focused on the threat from “rival states” like China and Russia and the need to maintain military superiority over those rivals.

The expanding power vacuum created by the decline of US influence in continental Europe and the Middle East was creating a space in which countries like Russia and China could move more aggressively. The limits of US influence were on display for the world to see in August 2021, with the fall of Kabul, the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s immediate return to power. International relations had entered an era of flux and strife after a brief post–Cold War period of peace and stability. The wars in Ukraine and Gaza did not create the present climate of global instability. Rather, both wars were brought about by the long-term destabilization of the world order caused by the rise of the emerging powers and the shift in the global power balance.

US Politics and the Two Wars

With the US presidential and congressional elections in the offing, neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has much incentive to succumb to pressure for an early ceasefire. From Putin’s standpoint, a Trump victory could open the way for further Russian gains as Congress slashes military aid to Ukraine. Similarly, a Trump win would be expected to amplify Republican support for Netanyahu’s policy while muting sympathy for the Palestinians within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, thus skewing the international environment in favor of the Israeli offensive. US domestic politics and the outcome of the two wars are closely linked.

Even if Biden manages to win a second term, congressional gains by Trump supporters could make it harder than ever to govern and to articulate a clear policy vis-à-vis Ukraine and Gaza. In the absence of strong leadership from the United States, there is no telling how long the wars will drag on.

This situation stands in stark contrast to the era of the Oslo Accords (1993 and 1995), when Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization laid the groundwork for a peace process with support from President Bill Clinton’s White House. Although US economic and military power still carry great weight, the American people are far less willing to use that power to intervene in conflicts overseas.

Ukraine on the Back Foot

As if to demonstrate this decline in US leadership, a national security bill centered on emergency funding for Ukraine has been languishing in the Republican-led House of Representatives for weeks while Ukrainian forces struggle on the battlefield, waiting for much-needed equipment. A shortage of ammunition and other supplies is blamed for the February 17 decision to withdraw Ukrainian troops from the town of Avdiivka on the country’s eastern front. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, who was in Tokyo at the time, told the Japanese media that the Russians had seized a strong advantage in the air and that Russia was firing about 10 times as many shells as Ukraine. Until more US aid comes, Ukraine will have to revert to a defensive posture, relying on drones to counter Russia’s advance.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy revealed on February 25 that some 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since Russia had launched its full-scale invasion two years earlier. The Pentagon estimated that 315,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or wounded and that military operations in Ukraine had cost Russia as much as $211 billion. Clearly, the conflict has taken a terrible toll on both countries. Yet the prospects for peace are as remote as ever.

By mid-summer, Ukraine should be in a position to deploy some of the F-16 jet fighters it has been promised. The country’s strategists are hopeful that, with the aircraft’s help, Ukraine will be able to turn the tide and resume its counteroffensive. But in a recent online survey conducted across 12 countries in the European Union, only 10% of respondents thought it likely that Ukraine would win the war outright. While recognizing the need to continue aid to Ukraine, most Europeans understand how difficult it will be to achieve victory.

Where the Wars Intersect

The ability of the United States to assert global leadership in connection with the wars is further complicated by the perception that it is applying a double standard. While fiercely criticizing Russia’s actions on humanitarian as well as legal grounds, Washington has been hesitant to call out Tel Aviv on the civilian toll and humanitarian consequences of its operations in Gaza. In this way, the two wars, while quite different in character, have highlighted and accentuated internal disagreements and divisions in the United States and Europe alike.

Russia and China have made the most of the Gaza crisis to discredit the United States in the eyes of the international community, particularly the so-called Global South. On October 10 last year, as Israel was launching its first retaliatory strikes against Gaza, Putin said, “I think many people will agree with me that this is a vivid example of the failure of United States policy in the Middle East.“ At the same time, Moscow and Beijing have tried to boost their own moral stature by drawing a contrast between America’s unqualified backing of Israel and their own “noble” humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.

Since last October, with media attention shifting from Ukraine to the conflict in the Middle East, the flow of aid to Ukraine has tapered off, augmenting the challenges facing Ukrainian forces on the battlefield. Russia and China have grown closer than ever, and many countries of the Global South have distanced themselves from the pro-Ukrainian Western bloc. Moreover, some members of the latter group are showing signs of “donor fatigue.” As a result, the war’s momentum has been shifting in Russia’s favor. Meanwhile, Israel and its main backer, the United States, are becoming isolated in the international community. The interaction of the two wars has further complicated international relations.

In the midst of this turmoil, Japanese diplomacy has focused on building common ground and fostering consensus in the international community by emphasizing such fundamental principles as “human dignity” and an “international order based on the rule of law.” But in today’s highly charged, divisive environment, such diplomatic efforts face an uphill battle.

The biggest fear in Japan is that the two wars will somehow lead to a contingency in the Taiwan Strait and spawn a third conflict. At this point, we would have to call that an unlikely scenario. But in these days of growing uncertainty and opacity, it is more important than ever to approach international affairs from a macroscopic perspective so as to grasp current developments in their larger global and historical context.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A child standing inside a damaged building stares at the ruins of the Al-Faruq mosque, leveled by Israeli bombing, in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, February 25, 2024. © Mohammed Abed / AFP)

security Israel Middle East Ukraine Gaza