Just days before October 7, President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, was radiating confidence that Washington had effectively brought all of West Asia’s long-roiling conflicts under control. Washington could now, he believed, accelerate the pivot of attention, forces, and funding toward what had long topped Biden’s agenda: containing Chinese power in East Asia. Then came the Hamas-led attack on Israel and Israel’s onslaught on Gaza. By late January, Sullivan was flying to Bangkok to plead with top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi for help in defusing the sharp, Gaza-spurred conflict that had erupted in the globally vital waterway of the Red Sea. (Wang politely blew him off.)

Over the past four months, the United States has become increasingly isolated on the world stage. In October and again in November, the United States vetoed resolutions at the UN Security Council that called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza on the grounds that they did not condemn Hamas. Then, on December 12, a special session of the UN General Assembly—where no country has veto power—voted 153 to 10, with 23 abstentions, in favor of a ceasefire resolution that made no mention of condemning Hamas. Those supporting the resolution included the BRICS group of nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), nearly all the other nations of the Global South, and some West European states, including France and Spain. The only states that joined the United States and Israel in voting against it were Austria, Czechia, Guatemala, Liberia, Paraguay, Papua New Guinea, and the tiny countries of Micronesia and Nauru.

The United States has become increasingly isolated on the world stage.

In late December South Africa brought an impressively documented case against Israel to the UN’s highest judicial body, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), claiming that Israel had been committing genocide in Gaza and was likely to continue doing so unless the ICJ ordered it to comply with a set of strict “provisional measures.” Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken impatiently dismissed the suit as “meritless.” On January 26, the veteran (and U.S.-nominated) ICJ President, Judge Joan Donoghue, delivered the court’s ruling: it was “plausible” to conclude that some of Israel’s actions in Gaza since October 7 could constitute genocide, and Israel should therefore comply with six of the nine provisional measures South Africa had requested. Washington issued no comment on the ruling and made no move to condition the “ironclad” military and political aid it was continuing to give Israel on the latter’s compliance with the ICJ’s orders.

Today Gaza stands at the fulcrum of world history. As its people slog on under Israel’s unrelenting assault, they have won the empathy and support of the vast majority of the world’s peoples. And over the past few months, it has become increasingly clear that the close ties Biden has retained with Israel have gravely damaged the United States’ global standing. The actions that the two countries have taken throughout the crisis have posed an increasingly serious challenge to the whole system of governance that since 1945 has preserved, with many lacunae, the global peace. And they have brought the United States ever closer to the brink of a major war in West Asia.

The first signs of that broader war were quick to emerge. The events of October 7 dealt a strong blow to Israel’s entire national security concept. As Israeli historian Uri Bar-Joseph recalled in mid-January, since the early 1950s Israel had based its security on three premises: maintaining an effective deterrent, ensuring that this deterrent was fine-tuned through smart intelligence and maintenance of a strong “qualitative military edge,” and crucially, full confidence that if Israel should go to war it could deliver a speedy and decisive blow to the enemy. He concluded that the events since October 7 showed that Israel had failed on all three counts. Rather than delivering any kind of conclusive strike to Hamas, the IDF now seemed increasingly bogged down in Gaza.

In fact, the Israeli security establishment had not planned or trained for anything like what it has been trying to achieve in Gaza. After all, Prime Minister Netanyahu had long assured them that he had successfully pacified Gaza—why should they bother? Thus, almost immediately after the great shock of October 7, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant urged action on what the Israeli military had been training for: to undertake a major new attack against Hezbollah to drive its fighters back from Israel’s northern border and thus restore the deterrent power against the organization (and its allies) the Israelis had lost in Lebanon in 2006.

Gallant’s order to evacuate all Israeli civilians from along the Lebanese border was a clear signal of that intent. However, given the close relationship between Hezbollah and Iran, Washington quite rationally feared that any escalation across the long-simmering Israel-Lebanon border might trigger a much broader war that could engulf much or all of West Asia. Thus, even as the Biden administration started sending a tsunami of American arms and ammunition to Israel, it also initiated the deployment of two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region. Those deployments were certainly part of the “ironclad” level of reassurance the United States has promised Israel, but they were also aimed at tamping down any desire by Israel’s leaders to launch a new and potentially destabilizing military adventure against Lebanon: an attempt to contain and deter Israel just as much as Iran.

But the prospect of a widening conflict still loomed. In late November, Yemen’s Houthis launched a campaign at their southern end of the Red Sea to block Israel-linked shipping until Israel agreed to a ceasefire in Gaza. The Houthis are allied with Iran and are fiercely pro-Palestinian. (Their battle flag reads, in part, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curses to the Jews.”) After Houthi marines boarded and took over a large cargo ship owned by Israeli interests, many global shipping companies re-routed vessels plying between Asia and Europe to the longer and more expensive route around Southern Africa. Others, including some big Chinese shipping companies, chose instead to accede to the Houthis’ demands that they certify their ships’ compliance with the Houthis’ ceasefire-supporting conditions. As the Houthis’ action threatened increasing disruptions to international trade (and also to the revenues Egypt gets from its Suez Canal transit fees), U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced the formation of a U.S.-led naval coalition in the Red Sea called Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG). But to Washington’s embarrassment, only a handful of nations wanted to join it. The only non-Western states initially prepared to be associated with OPG were the tiny Gulf Arab state of Bahrain, which hosts (and is propped up by) the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and the small, distant archipelago of Seychelles. Significantly, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which had been engaged from 2015 until recently in a punishing war against the Houthis, both declined to join.

To Washington’s embarrassment, only a handful of nations wanted to join its naval coalition in the Red Sea.

In early January the U.S. and U.K. navies started sending intermittent volleys of missiles against alleged Houthi weapons sites in Yemen. But the Houthis have thus far not been deterred. Instead, after the OPG attacks started, the Houthis announced that they would attack commercial shipping linked to American and British interests as well as Israeli ones. On January 18 even President Biden admitted that the OPG’s attacks against Houthi targets were ineffective, while vowing they would continue.

Washington’s difficulty in assembling a broad international coalition to fight the Houthis reflected a clear loss of U.S. global power. But the confrontation in the Red Sea is also significant because it is just one of a growing number of points of conflict between the U.S.-Israeli alliance and the Iranian-led one, any one of which could erupt into a broad regional war at any time.

The other potentially explosive flashpoints include Gaza itself; the Israel-Lebanon border; Syria, a longtime Iran ally in whose country both Israel and the United States have a military presence; Iraq, home to a number of U.S. military bases and also some powerful Iran-allied militias; Jordan, which is effectively a U.S. protectorate and whose citizenry is mostly of Palestinian origin; and the seas in the southeast of the Persian Gulf and around the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, where a large U.S. naval presence enforces Washington’s longstanding sanctions on Iran. Only the first two of those sub-theaters, Gaza and Lebanon, directly involve Israel. But the tight interlocking of the U.S. and Israeli militaries means that an escalation in any one sub-theater could easily trigger a larger conflict.

And yet, despite skirmishes in all these sites, all parties—including both the United States and Iran—have wanted to prevent any broader explosion. Israeli hawks like Gallant have used this fact to their advantage: the entanglement of the U.S. military in the regional situation has allowed those hawks to use threats (or threats of threats) of escalating against Hezbollah and other groups to ensure that Washington carries on giving Israel whatever it needs in Gaza, whether that is continuing shipments of heavy weaponry, targeting help, copious economic aid, or the deployment of a veto in the Security Council.

The Gaza crisis erupted toward the end of a year that had already seen three major shifts in the global balance that had great resonance in West Asia. In March, China unveiled the success of its push to heal the long-running rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Throughout the summer months, the failure of Ukraine’s U.S.-supported counteroffensive against Russia became increasingly evident—as did that of the parallel effort Washington had pursued since February 2022 to subdue Russia through super-tough economic sanctions. And in late August, BRICS held a momentous summit in South Africa where it decided to admit six new members, including four of the most economically powerful states in West Asia.

The Beijing-aided reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran transformed the politics of the entire Gulf/West Asia region, and in some ways made the October 7 action more feasible for Hamas’s leaders. The reconciliation reestablished China as a power with major influence within West Asia after an absence of more than five hundred years. It also signaled to a long-complacent Washington that Saudi Arabia, a country with long and deep ties to United States, was now prepared to play a game of realpolitik considerably more sophisticated and independent than the role Washington had long envisioned for it. Ever since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Saudi capital of Riyadh had acted as a key node of Washington’s campaign to contain—or topple—Iran’s Islamist government. The Chinese reconciliation upended that picture.

Over the preceding decades, Western leaders framed the feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia as part of a broader regionwide contest between Sunni Muslims, led by Saudi Arabia, and a deeply anti-U.S. “Shiite axis” led by Iran. The leaders of Saudi Arabia and other majority-Sunni countries feared any growth in the power of majority-Shiite Iran or its allies in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, or Iraq, a situation the United States played on to further its own aims. In 2011 Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers like Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE joined Washington in giving massive support to the anti-Assad movement in Syria. And in 2015, the United States joined most of the Sunni powers in supporting the vicious war that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman launched against Yemen’s Houthis.

China’s ability to reconcile Iran and Saudi Arabia allowed Hamas and Hezbollah to resume their political and military coordination.

Hamas, whose origins lie deep in the moderately Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, was significantly weakened by the widening Sunni-Shiite split. Until late 2011, the Hamas leadership benefitted greatly from the close coordination they had enjoyed for years with Hezbollah, a movement rooted in Lebanon’s large Shiite community. Hamas’s military had a Syria-sanctioned presence in Lebanon, and its political leadership was headquartered in Damascus, Syria, despite the fact that Syria’s ruling circles had long been dominated by members of the country’s Shiite-adjacent Alawite minority. After the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, Hamas and Hezbollah found themselves on opposing sides: Hezbollah sent fighting units to aid the Syrian government forces, and while Hamas did not align openly with the Syrian opposition, many Hamas supporters in West Asia and worldwide expressed strong support for Syria’s opposition and deep, often openly sectarian, hatred of the Assad government. As the civil war dragged on, the Hamas leadership was forced out of Damascus. Their highest cadres congregated in Qatar, a small but wealthy petrostate that has long managed the paradoxical feat of hosting a robust U.S. military and political presence while also continuing to support various wings of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas’s expulsion from Syria—and Lebanon—in 2011 was a major setback for the movement. Not only did their political leadership have to scatter far from the Palestinian homeland; they also lost their close operational ties with Hezbollah.

China’s ability to reconcile Iran and Saudi Arabia transformed that fractured regional picture. When the Chinese unveiled their diplomatic breakthrough on March 10, 2023 in a widely publicized photo op in Beijing with high-level negotiators from Saudi Arabia and Iran, Western diplomats were caught by surprise. And since Beijing had pursued its mediation push for many months in close coordination with two states judged fairly close to Washington—Iraq and Oman—news of the reconciliation also signaled a serious failure by Western intelligence agencies. In early May, the Saudi-dominated Arab League formally voted to rescind the expulsion of Syria that had been in place since 2011. Qatar was the only state to express reservations.

The Saudi-Iran reconciliation did not immediately end Syria’s internal conflict, but it did allow Hamas and Hezbollah to resume their political and military coordination. Last spring and summer, Hamas strengthened its organizing work in nearby Lebanon. In late December, when high-level representatives of Hamas and the other Palestinian resistance factions issued a statement outlining their political demands for the postwar era in Gaza, they did so in the Hezbollah-protected areas of Beirut, not in the capital of any state supporter like Qatar, Turkey, or Iran.

While China was quietly displaying its diplomatic heft in the Persian Gulf, Washington and its NATO allies had their eyes fixed on Ukraine, hopeful that their support for the counteroffensive against Russia’s occupying forces could achieve a clear victory. But as the months passed with no such victory in sight, those hopes started to fade. The stalemate on the battlefields of Ukraine led to some diminution of American soft power around the world. But the failure to defeat Russia had another key dimension, too. In late February 2022, just hours after Russia invaded Ukraine, Washington had slapped tough sanctions on Russia in an effort to crater Russia’s economy and force President Putin into speedy submission. Eighteen months later, not only was Russia’s economy surviving the sanctions (indeed, it was growing by 2023), but the severity of the sanctions had thrust Russia into the leadership of the group of nations that I have called “Team Sanctioned.”

Washington’s reliance on (non-U.N.-mandated) economic sanctions has ballooned in recent years. By one count, the number of countries sanctioned by Washington leaped from three to eleven between 2009 and 2019; by 2019, Iran and Venezuela were each subjected to more than 180 different U.S. sanctions. The use of sanctions expanded even further after 2019, most notably with the addition of the anti-Russia sanctions announced in early 2022.

One of the major tools the Treasury Department uses to enforce U.S. sanctions is through its control of the SWIFT system through which all significant dollar-based international payments must pass. But over the years, as Washington expanded its use of sanctions, many of those targeted began to develop workarounds to SWIFT, either by bartering or by pegging transactions to other currencies. Those arrangements remained fragmentary until Russia joined them in early 2022. At that point, the campaign by leaders of U.S.-sanctioned countries to develop alternatives gathered new impetus and capabilities—no small feat, since many sanctioned countries were still wary of breaking economic ties with the United States too completely or too speedily. In April 2023 The Cradle’s Pepe Escobar reported that the Brazil-based Banco Bocom BBM had become the first Latin American bank to adopt the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS), the “Chinese alternative” to SWIFT, joining a number of Russian banks also using the system. At this point, it is unclear whether, or to what extent, the growth of alternatives to SWIFT helped Hamas in its planning for October 7. But what is clear is that all these moves toward de-dollarization have weakened the ability the United States long had to exercise unilateral economic-coercive power at a global level.

In late August 2023, the impact the deep shifts in the global balance were having on West Asia was revealed a more direct way when the BRICS grouping held a landmark summit in South Africa. That summit had three key achievements. First, it showed the world that after a period of uncertainty marked by Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency in Brazil, the global disruptions of COVID-19, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, BRICS was still alive and kicking and determined to become a lasting force in the world. Second, it demonstrated publicly that Washington’s hard-fought campaign to isolate Russia had failed. And third, it opened the path for significant growth. At the summit, the BRICS leaders agreed to admit six new members, including four West Asian powers: Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, and Egypt. (Ethiopia and Argentina were also admitted, but after Argentina elected right-wing populist Javier Milei president in late November, its admission was quietly dropped.)

The relationships among old and new BRICS members provided a rich network of “postcolonial” solidarity for Palestine.

The BRICS expansion went into effect on January 1, raising hopes among many that this new kind of global grouping—not a military alliance, not a Cold War-style bloc with one dominant superpower, and not an exclusive proposition that forces members to cut off ties with global powers—could soon be an effective, multipolar balance to the diminishing global hegemon, Washington. Analysts of West Asia had already, since March, noted the expansion of Beijing’s influence among the majority-Muslim states in the region, especially after its successful diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and Iran—both of which are now full members of the newly expanded BRICS. (Less well-noticed, but equally significant, was a roughly parallel decrease after 2018 in the robust ties that China once enjoyed with Israel.)

In the years prior to October 7, other BRICS founders strengthened their influence in West Asia, too. Russia had long had very close ties to Syria; and since 2017 it has been developing close transportation links with Iran under the rubric of the International North-South Transportation Corridor, which aims to connect Russia via the Arabian Sea with markets around the Indian Ocean. After the start of the Russia-Ukraine war and Biden’s 2022 sanctions on Russia, Moscow’s ties with Iran became crucial for both Russia’s war effort and its economy.

When the Gaza-Israel crisis broke out in October, the crisscrossing relationships that had been built up among BRICS members old and new provided a rich network of “postcolonial” solidarity for the anticolonial national liberation struggle Hamas’s leaders and supporters saw themselves as fighting. South Africa’s most notable contribution to this effort has been the role it played in taking Israel to the ICJ.

Four months after Hamas’s breakout and assault on Israel and Israel’s ensuing mass killings in Gaza, President Biden seems intent on continuing to give support to Netanyahu’s crisis-wracked government, seemingly regardless of the steep costs this alliance has inflicted on Washington’s increasingly fragile worldwide standing. In recent weeks, his administration has escalated its engagement in direct military conflict against Gaza-supporting movements at several points around the “ring of fire” that encircles West Asia, sending volleys of lethal fire against numerous targets in Syria and Iraq, as well as Yemen. (The U.S. attacks against Iraq and Syria, which reportedly killed some dozens of residents of those areas, were described as a response to an earlier attack by a suspected pro-Iranian militia in Iraq that killed three soldiers serving at a U.S. base in northern Jordan.) Until now, officials in both Washington and Tehran have signaled clear reluctance to escalate to the level of a direct U.S.–Iran war. But in Washington, numerous voices in Congress have urged Biden to hit back hard against Iran, and it is likely that hardliners in Tehran have been mirroring those calls.

The Gaza crisis, seventeen weeks old at the time of this writing, has not only brought West Asia (and the world) to the brink of a major war. It has sent shockwaves into the heart of a world order that United States took the lead in designing in 1945 and in which, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it has acted as hegemon. Netanyahu and his political allies have adopted an openly confrontational stand not only against the UN’s refugee agency, but also against the UN itself and its highest judicial body, remaining implacably opposed to all those fundamentals of the world system. But over the past four months, the de facto coalition of governments from around the world determined to resist his government’s violent repudiation of the rule of law has been steadily growing. At the global level, the calls for a ceasefire in Gaza have grown louder, as has the insistence of the world’s governments that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians needs to be steered to a resolution based on the time-honored formula of a two-state solution.

Washington has for years paid lip service to this goal. But in practice, throughout the fifty years it has monopolized Arab-Israeli peacemaking, it has indulged the ongoing taking of Palestinian land by Israel’s settler extremists and the governments in Tel Aviv in which, for some decades now, those extremists have continued to gain power. And under both Presidents Trump and Biden, the United States has endorsed Israel’s outright annexation of East Jerusalem, an act that directly assails the possibility of an independent Palestine.

Back in 1956, the rapidly fading British and French empires made a pact with Israel under which the three states would use their militaries to attack Egypt (and along the way, Gaza) with the goal of toppling Egypt’s nationalist president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. They succeeded in capturing the Suez Canal, though not in toppling Nasser. In Washington, President Dwight Eisenhower was horrified by the assault the three powers had launched on the whole concept of the post–World War II world order at a delicate time in international diplomacy. So he speedily forced them to give up their gains and return home, a move he achieved not by threatening military counter-action, but by using a tough form of economic suasion—in Britain’s case, threatening to pull the plug on the pound sterling.

Eisenhower’s actions had the desired effect. Is there a chance the new constellation of powers arising around the banner of BRICS might now be ready to bring similar forms of suasion to bear on Washington and Tel Aviv, and thus to reach both a complete ceasefire in Gaza and powerful, U.N.-led diplomacy to achieve an independent Palestinian state?