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Geopolitics

America's Dilemma: Between Middle East Quagmire And The "Real" Threat In China

In the wake of Hamas's attack on Israel, the United States, often projected as no longer wanting to be the region's policeman, finds itself deploying aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean and conducting F16 raids against Iranian targets in Syria. But the epoch-shifting challenge is elsewhere.

photo of an aircraft carrier in blue seas

The U.S. Navy America-class amphibious assault ship USS America, leads a formation with the Royal Australian Navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Korean Navy during Exercise Talisman Sabre, July 29, 2023 on the Coral Sea.

Mc2 Thomas Contant/Us Navy/Planet Pix via ZUMA
Pierre Haski

PARIS — Jake Sullivan, the White House National Security Advisor, recently wrote an article for Foreign Affairs magazine, praising the foreign policy of his "boss," Joe Biden, in anticipation of his bid for a second term.

The bit that particularly draws the reader's attention is Sullivan's assertion that the Biden administration had "de-escalated crises in Gaza and restored direct diplomacy between the parties after years of its absence." This sentence, obviously written before Oct. 7, appears in the November issue of Foreign Affairs, but the online version has since been edited.

Sullivan's claim is indicative of American and Western complacency toward the absence of a solution to the Palestinian question — it casts doubt on a vision that paints as a success what was merely a time bomb.

This delusion also illustrates an American dilemma. The United States believes it has better things to do than to exhaust itself trying to relaunch peace processes that nobody wants. For instance, it has its rivalry with China, the defining relationship of the 21st century.

Except that the Middle East cannot be ignored so easily.

Post policeman?

Washington, so often projected as no longer wanting to be the policeman of the Middle East, finds itself deploying two aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean and bombers in Jordan; organizing F-16 raids against Iranian targets in Syria and missile intercepts from Yemen; and suffering casualties in what remains of its military presence in Iraq. And this may just be the beginning, as fears grow of the looming regional conflagration in which the U.S. could be implicated.

As a kind of geopolitical inevitability, America has barely shaken off its two "endless wars" of the 2000s, Afghanistan and Iraq, only to find itself drawn into two new conflicts in which it plays a major indirect role: Ukraine and the Middle East. On the horizon is a potential third, with China, around the Philippines, or in Taiwan.

It's as if it were impossible for America to rid itself of the role of policeman that has been its trademark for half a century. As if the credibility of American power was at stake in every hotspot.

In the painful recomposition of the world's equilibrium that we are witnessing, the United States is again playing its leading role, flexing its superpower status. And it is doing so with all the contradictions that come this status, which prevents it from being as coherent in Palestine as it is in Ukraine.

Domestic uncertainty

This renewed military activism is taking place at a time when the United States is sinking into a domestic political confusion that will last at least until the presidential election a year from now.

The way in which the Republicans have proceeded with the election of the Speaker of the House of Representatives is one sign of this crisis of nerves. The Democratic hesitations around the aging captain are another.

So far, the outrages of American political life have had no effect on Washington's ability to play its global game, as we saw immediately after Oct. 7 in Israel. But things could get tense in the run-up to, and especially immediately after, next year's elections.

Jake Sullivan entitled his Foreign Policy article "The Sources of American Power." He asks the right questions about the role of foreign policy in a world on the move. Washington should not forget that the rest of the world has some legitimate doubts about any answers coming from an America that is more nervous and uncertain than ever.

— Pierre Haski/L'OBS

In other news ...

🗞 UP, FRONT PAGE AND CENTER

“If it’s Trump again, there will be a global crisis," reads the front page of Antwerp-based daily De Morgen. The Flemish-language newspaper features an interview with renowned Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev on the future of the European Union, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza — and how next year’s U.S. presidential election will affect global stability in the future. Krastev warns that former U.S. president Donald Trump and his supporters would like to see the United States take a back seat in world affairs, and worries that such disengagement would leave a gap for “middle powers,” such as Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil and Turkey, to fill. In the face of a multipolar world with a less-involved American administration, the political scientist concludes that European countries must stay united to resist pressure from “authoritarian regimes such as China.”

✍🏻 IN BRIEF

This week, the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C. had to say goodbye to three giant pandas that were sent back to China, marking the end of more than 50 years of Chinese pandas being housed at the zoo.

As Spanish daily Heraldo reminds its readers, no country outside of China can actually own a panda: all belong to Beijing, which lends the animals for a certain period of time “as a token of friendship” (along with the “rental fee” of $1 million a year). Giant pandas have been used by China as a soft power tool for more than ten centuries, the daily notes, going back to the Tang dynasty. Today, about 65 panda bears are on loan in 19 different countries. In the U.S., Georgia’s Zoo Atlanta remains the only facility to feature pandas from China, but not for much longer, as its contract expires next year, with no sign of an extension.

Read more on China’s giant panda diplomacy in this piece from France Inter, translated from French to English by Worldcrunch.

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

What Are Iran's Real Intentions? Watch What The Houthis Do Next

Three commercial ships traveling through the Red Sea were attacked by missiles launched by Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels, while the U.S. Navy shot down three drones. Tensions that are linked to the ongoing war in Gaza conflict and that may serve as an indication as to Iran's wider intentions.

photo of Raisi of iran speaking in parliament

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the Iranian parliament in Tehran.

Icana News Agency via ZUMA
Pierre Haski

-Analysis

PARIS — It’s a parallel war that has so far claimed fewer victims and attracted less public attention than the one in Gaza. Yet it increasingly poses a serious threat of escalating at any time.

This conflict playing out in the international waters of the Red Sea, a strategic maritime route, features the U.S. Navy pitted against Yemen's Houthi rebels. But the stakes go beyond the Yemeni militants — with the latter being supported by Iran, which has a hand in virtually every hotspot in the region.

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Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the Houthis have been making headlines, despite Yemen’s distance from the Gaza front. Starting with missiles launched directed toward southern Israel, which were intercepted by U.S. forces. Then came attacks on ships belonging, or suspected of belonging, to Israeli interests.

On Sunday, no fewer than three commercial ships were targeted by ballistic missiles in the Red Sea. The missiles caused minor damage and no casualties. Meanwhile, three drones were intercepted and destroyed by the U.S. Navy, currently deployed in full force in the region.

The Houthis claimed responsibility for these attacks, stating their intention to block Israeli ships' passage for as long as there was war in Gaza. The ships targeted on Sunday were registered in Panama, but at least one of them was Israeli. In the days before, several other ships were attacked and an Israeli cargo ship carrying cars was seized, and is still being held in the Yemeni port of Hodeida.

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