Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The World Won't Be the Same After the Israel-Hamas War

| Nov. 08, 2023

The Middle East's latest war will have widespread geopolitical effects.

Will the latest Gaza war have far-reaching repercussions? As a rule, I think adverse geopolitical developments are usually balanced by countervailing forces of various kinds, and events in one small part of the world tend not to have vast ripple effects elsewhere. Crises and wars do occur, but cooler heads typically prevail and limit their consequences.

But not always, and the current war in Gaza may be one of those exceptions. No, I don't think we are on the brink of World War III; in fact, I'd be surprised if the current fighting leads to a larger regional conflict. I don't rule this possibility out entirely, but so far none of the states or groups on the sidelines (Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, Turkey, etc.) seem eager to get directly involved, and U.S. officials are trying to keep the conflict localized as well. Because larger regional conflict would be even more costly and dangerous, we should all hope these efforts succeed. But even if the war is confined to Gaza and ends soon, it is going to have significant repercussions around the world.

To see what these broader implications may be, it is important to recall the general state of geopolitics just before Hamas launched its surprise attack on Oct. 7. (For a trenchant summary of these conditions, watch John Mearsheimer's recent lecture here). Before Hamas attacked, the United States and its NATO allies were waging a proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. Their goal was to help Ukraine drive Russia from the territory it had seized after February 2022 and to weaken Russia to the point that it could not undertake similar actions in the future. The war was not going well, however: Ukraine's summer counteroffensive had stalled, the balance of military power seemed to be shifting gradually toward Moscow, and hopes that Kyiv could regain its lost territory either by force of arms or through negotiations were fading.

The United States was also waging a de facto economic war against China, intended to prevent Beijing from dominating the commanding heights of semiconductor production, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and other high-tech areas. Washington saw China as its primary long-term rival (in Pentagon-speak, the "pacing threat"), and the Biden administration intended to focus more and more attention on this challenge. Administration officials described its economic restrictions as tightly focused (i.e., a "small yard and high fence") and insisted that they were eager for other forms of cooperation with China. The small yard kept getting bigger, however, despite growing skepticism about whether the high fence would be able to prevent China from gaining ground in at least some significant areas of technology.

In the Middle East, the Biden administration was trying to pull off a complicated diplomatic bank shot: It sought to dissuade Saudi Arabia from moving closer to China by extending some sort of formal security guarantee to Riyadh and perhaps allowing it access to sensitive nuclear technology, in exchange for the Saudis normalizing relations with Israel. It was not clear whether the deal was going to come off, however, and critics had warned that ignoring the Palestinian issue and turning a blind eye to the Israeli government's increasingly harsh actions in the Palestinian territories risked an eventual explosion....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The World Won't Be the Same After the Israel-Hamas War.” Foreign Policy, November 8, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt