The world is watching in horror the events following the October 7th massacre by Hamas, and the beginning of a new chapter of the Israeli-Palestine carnage, where there are normally no real winners, and the parties are both stuck on a sub-optimal stalemate, where Palestinian civilians increased the lines of the sadly labeled, collateral casualties, while Israel, mostly as an unintended consequence of its operations, sees its legitimacy around the world decreasing and, in turn, fueling the antisemitic rhetoric around the world, which in turn increases its perception of existential threat. While antisemitism is not something dependent on the Israeli action, nor is a mere scarecrow instrumentally used by the Israeli government to legitimize all their actions, the Palestine-Israel conflict gives of course a platform to the international web of extreme right-wing groups to express their xenophobic views, which is detrimental for both camps. Indeed, this new explosion of violence might be another proof of how the policies supported by the nationalist international, i.e. the web of radical right-wing movement and parties, generally backfire for the weakening of the Western block.
Over the tragedy of this conflict, another clash made much of the news, the one between the Israeli ambassador at the UN, Gilad Erdan,and the UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres. Specifically, what mostly enraged the Israeli ambassadorwas the statements of the General Secretarywhen he referred to the attacks byHamas as “not happening in a vacuum”and were the results of “56 years of suffocatingoccupations”.While the words of the General Secretary were the result of emotional participation to the Israeli-Palestine tragedy, it could also be said that his position is a signof the decreased legitimacy and power of the US inside theSecurity Council, and the gradual, but steady, shiftfrom a unipolar world to a multipolar-bipolar one.
Trump administration: weakening behind the rhetoric of power
Although the Trump administration lasted only one term, the repercussions of the policies implemented are lasting. Behind the words “Make America Great Again” and his bombastic appearances on the international scene, the Trump administration enacted a series of policies that weakened the US on the international stage and tried to cosmetically solve the various conflicts in the Middle East. These policies now show their fragilities.
Starting from his way of dealing with the relationship of the US in the UN, Trump consistently weakened the position of the United States by decreasing one of the main sources of power it had in influencing UN resolutions, i.e. funding. Specifically, he canceled funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency, which aids Palestinian refugees not only in occupied territories but also in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. It also served as a tool to control the Palestine Liberation Organization. Moreover, his unilateral actions on the Middle East, especially regarding the withdrawal from the accord with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and his unilateral decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, further weakened the alliance between the US and the other two permanent members of the council, i.e., the UK and France.
On the grounds, the policies of the Trump administration were characterized by electoral harshness. The policies were much more focused on gaining domestic support through symbolic actions than on policies for long-term stability in the region. Together with the questionable decisions to withdraw from the JCPOA and to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Middle East peace process, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, didn’t engage the Palestinian Authority and, faced with the inability to promote a two-state solution, focused mainly on the creation of an anti-Iran coalition among Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE. However, this coalition is contingent on peaceful coexistence with Palestinians, and it remains to be seen how the Arab side of the coalition would react to the Israeli bombing of Gaza. Indeed, only the pre-electoral harshness could explain how the Trump administration did not consider that a dissatisfied Palestinian population could be a danger to the internal anti-Iranian front, and hence the fragility of the Abraham Accords. Indeed, the populations of the UAE and Bahrain were already less on board than their respective leaders, and the continued implementation of the UAE could depend on Netanyahu moderating his policies towards Palestinians.
The Dawn of the multipolar world and its effect on international institutions
One major player had benefited from the funding and legitimacy weakening of the US inside the Security Council, i.e. China. Indeed, while Trump decreased funding, China gave annual six-figure voluntary contributions to the UN Department of Political Affairs, becoming the second-largest provider of UN assessed budgetary contributions and moving from a rule-taker role to increasingly a rule-maker role. Behind China, there is also the rise of another powerful group of countries, which represent an increasing share of the Security Council’s “shareholding”, i.e. the BRICS. The rise of these new players is increasingly challenging the power structure that existed under colonial rule after World War II. Moreover, despite the opposition of the US, the majority of the council members are generally in favor of issuing a statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and China and Russia are developing their own diplomatic channels to the conflict. Indeed, in 2021, the Chinese side became more vocal on the conflict when they accused the US of obstructing the United Nations Security Council’s efforts to take action on the conflict.
Although both Israel and China have in the past taken diplomatic measures to close their ties, China has moved closer to the Palestinian side, albeit with caution. Indeed, while President Xi remained silent on the issue, his Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said that Israel has “gone beyond the scope of self-defense” and should “stop its collective punishment” of people in Gaza. To some theorists, the increased redistribution of power inside the Security Council could be seen as a positive development in an increasingly multipolar world. This would increase the global representativeness within international institutions and reduce the absolutism of the US veto, also promoting a two-state solution. Indeed, BRICS countries have shown criticism of Israel over the years and have supported Palestinian self-determination with measures such as supporting the membership of the PLO in the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The rise of such power may increase the representativeness of weaker groups, assuming that the universal international society is a synergic society, where parties can use effective strategies to influence the behavior of the most powerful. This would enhance institutional pluralism and reduce the degree to which these institutions can be single-handedly used by anyone. However, as ever, there is another side of the coin.
The two BRICS major powers, and permanent members of the UN Security Council, which hold veto power, i.e., Russia and China, have shown much more interest in protecting state sovereignty than in protecting human rights and democracy. This has created frictions within the group, with democratic members, i.e., India, South Africa, and Brazil, growing increasingly uneasy with the authoritarian leaning of the two major players. However, as the only permanent members in the group, only China and Russia have veto powers, leaving the other members almost powerless in the resolution of the security council. This led the three democracies to leave the security council during the Arab Spring when they came into friction with China and Russia over the support of authoritarian leaders in Syria and Libya against their own citizens. Interestingly, the change in government from the left-leaning governments of Lula-Rousseff to the more radical right-wing government of Bolsonaro implied a strong shift in Brazil’s political orientation toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, while Lula was active in the Middle East, offering to mediate in the conflict and increasing the financial contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, Bolsonaro applied a foreign policy more in line with the Israeli-US position, supporting the decision to depict Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
As such, the idea that a more multipolar world can increase the democratization and the equitability of international institutions, such as the UN Security Council, is contingent on the institutional, ideological, and power structure of its members. This is also seen by the degree to which Guterres appointed two Chinese diplomats in 2019 to lead the peace operation special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa and the deputy special representative for political affairs for the mission in South Sudan. These two appointments were not unusual per se, as Western countries had multiple diplomats leading peacekeeping operations. What was unusual, according to the US diplomat at the UN, Jeffrey Feltman, was to have a U.N. peace operation in Africa with both its head and the political deputy coming from outside the continent, claiming that the interest of China in Africa might have played a role in the decision of the Secretary-General. This is a testament to how there is no direct passthrough from multipolarity to democratization and equality, but it is contingent on the ideological-institutional framework of its major members. Consequently, given that institutional legitimacy comes from the capacity of such institutions to represent the power structure, in this case, in the international field, one could argue that if Western countries are serious in their endeavor to support human rights and democracy, they might consider extending permanent membership to the democracies of the BRICS. This measure could move them away from the forced partnership with China and Russia, and create the opportunity to build geopolitical interest to align with the Western front.
- Burton, G. (2021). “The BRICS and the Arab Uprising, 2011-20.” Journal of Rising Powers and Global Governance, Volume 2(1), pp. 29-49.
- De Aguiar, Patriota (2019). “Is the world ready for cooperative multipolarity?” Globus Research Paper.
- De Coning, C. (2019). “How UN Peacekeeping Operations Can Adapt to a New Multipolar World Order.” The International Peacekeeping, Vol. 26(5), pp. 536-539.
- Feltman, J. (2020). “China’s expanding influence at the United Nations—and how the United States should react.”
- Jett, J. and Simmons, K. (2023). “As China strengthens ties with Russia, the Israel-Hamas war deepens their divide with the U.S.”
- Mic, Alina Daniela (2021). “Unipolarity and Multipolarity in the System of International Relations.” Pp. 165-173.