The Gaza war and the regional conflicts it has unleashed are revealing that, no matter how much political, financial, and military capital Washington invests, it can no longer force the policy outcomes it wants—if it ever could.

At every turn, the United States has enabled the Israeli invasion and decimation of Gaza, even as the Biden administration has touted its hopes for peace. It is a losing strategy. The world knows that the United States could force an end to the Israeli campaign and has chosen not to, and Washington’s international reputation is near an all-time low. A growing portion of the American electorate appears to be turning against Biden, at least in part because of the hypocritical U.S. policy on Palestine.

America’s role in the war has not only been politically costly. By the amoral measure of military victory, Washington has also been ineffective. The combined might of the United States and Israel has not been enough to achieve Israel’s stated goals, including the release of hostages and dismantling of Hamas. And American firepower has failed to deter Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping.

The United States has a way out of this mess, but it must act quickly: Washington needs to develop a recalibrated foreign policy tailored to America’s more limited power, and to a more competitive, less easily regimented global environment. While the government and American policy elites might not be ready to hear this message, sooner or later they will have to reckon with reality. In the meantime, progressives must begin developing a U.S. foreign policy that promotes American values while being more attuned to Washington’s attenuated influence.

An Inevitable Transition

Washington’s inability to drive events in the Middle East or achieve policy goals, and its shrinking global standing, are symptomatic of a long-term trend. American hegemony, while not fully expired, is in retreat. The United States must contend with an increasingly dynamic global balance of power. In the emerging world order, it is no longer possible for one or a few dominant states to impose their will on smaller countries, or on the swelling array of hybrid and nonstate actors that populate modern-day wars. Many so-called middle powers choose to balance multiple, overlapping alliances over preferential relationships with Washington. As the international order is transformed, the United States looks increasingly like just one player, albeit a significantly powerful one, among many.

This moment of transition contains elements of both risk and reward for the United States. On the one hand, America is well-placed to be a leader in the new international order. It is still the most powerful country with the most alliances, the most attractive economy, a huge military footprint, and a dominant platform in world culture.

Washington needs to develop a recalibrated foreign policy tailored to America’s more limited power.

But Washington will only be a beneficiary of the new order if it is willing to change the way it approaches its foreign policy. And right now, the rules-based order Washington claims to represent and the United States’ already damaged moral authority—an important pillar of its international influence—both look increasingly tenuous.

In a previous commentary, “Time to Discard the Bad Policy That Enabled the Gaza War,” we drew on conversations with dozens of policy experts and officials to map the roots of American policy misalignment in the Middle East. We argued that, before October 7, the United States had bought into the idea that the Middle East could be stabilized by a mixture of realpolitik, economic self-interest, authoritarianism, and managing rather than resolving wars, including the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. We argued that the American approach has proven counterproductive, increasing challenges to U.S. interests and international standing, and leading to an unending cycle of conflicts that spread human misery while deepening the Middle East’s strategic malaise.

Until now, Washington has refused to acknowledge its shrinking hegemony. It has tried to stay the course, and ended up in an even weaker position: multiple wars, severely eroded moral authority, and increasing insecurity. Here, we argue that the United States can negotiate these changes and still maximize its global influence, but only if it changes its approach to foreign policy.

Mismatched Ambitions and Influence

Simply put, a realignment of the international order is underway, and American foreign policy is not keeping up. At least since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, American foreign policy has been out of sync with U.S. capabilities: Even when its power was undisputed, the United States was unable to act as the world’s policeman, but nevertheless sought to assert itself as the indispensable global power. A series of events, bad policies, and setbacks since the 2003 invasion—painful not only for America’s self-image but for many communities destabilized or destroyed in the shockwaves—have been insufficient to force a correction.

Now, a more multipolar order is emerging, one in which the United States is likely to remain a preeminent player, perhaps the single most influential state. But Washington will no longer be able to determine outcomes or assume that its economic and political heft insulate it from paying major costs for its missteps.

U.S. government officials and many in the policy elite acknowledge that the world is changing. But they are not quite ready to contemplate, at least in public, an American strategy that accepts a more modest understanding of U.S. influence; or that accepts that Washington will have to triage its priorities on the global stage. President Trump’s “America First” and President Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” had one thing in common: neither acknowledged that U.S. power is in relative decline. Despite many differences, both doctrines began with a false belief that Washington could sustain international dominance at minimal cost and risk. Like pre-October 7 Middle East policy, these ambitious proposals to reconfigure U.S. foreign policy all too often disintegrate on contact with the real world.

Sooner or later, one U.S. administration or another will have to confront reality: there is no magic formula that will allow the United States to maintain its current level of global power and influence, prioritize its national interests and domestic politics, and continue to project moral authority without incurring huge, politically unpalatable costs.

At least since the invasion of Iraq, U.S. foreign policy has been out of sync with its capabilities.

The good news is that the United States can maintain its position of global leadership. Less welcome news is that this will mean a painful rethink of America’s place in the world and a different sort of leadership than the kind the United States displayed during the Cold War and the decades after it. Instead, it must act more like France and Germany do in the EU, or American automakers eventually did in response to globalization: leading as the first among equals in a competitive marketplace, and recognizing the outer limits of its influence and power. Crucially, the United States must understand the American value-add relative to other countries, by genuinely prioritizing issues like multilateralism and human rights that are core to its identity, and which its competitors disregard. If it can strike the right balance, the United States can accomplish important good for the world while pursuing its own interests and acknowledging the interests and priorities of other countries.

The Middle East would be a good place to pilot this new foreign policy—not only because the current violence and crisis demand better policies, but also because it is in the Middle East that U.S. aspirations are most strikingly misaligned with actual American power.

A New Approach

A new American approach would prioritize global cooperation to meet the sweeping structural challenges of our age. In bilateral relations with other states, the United States ought to recenter values. To execute this new approach, the U.S. government would have to set realistic expectations about what American power can achieve in regions like the Middle East.

Neither the United States nor Israel, for example, can dismantle Hamas—especially not with the current war in Gaza. The brutal military campaign has become an exercise in radicalizing the Palestinian population against Israel and the United States, and is driving the Middle East into region-wide conflict.

What is within American power is putting a stop to the Gaza war—not just pausing the fighting—and pursuing a political settlement to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, based on international law (including the 1967 borders), that reduces the chance of mass violence by any party. These actions would significantly improve regional security, and American standing in the Middle East and the world, while taking away a significant pillar of anti-American groups’ platforms.

Families and supporters of hostages held in Gaza protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv on March 1, 2024. Source: Amir Levy/Getty Images

The genuine pursuit of peace would also be politically and financially costly, and take years across multiple U.S. administrations. The United States needs to acknowledge that it cannot achieve its goals alone, and must seek to share the burden—including with key international competitors. America needs to reframe Middle Eastern conflict and instability as a global systemic issue on a par with COVID-19 or climate change, and seek a genuinely multilateral response that includes rival superpowers, including, for example, China.

For years, China has been a free-rider on American security guarantees in the Middle East while lambasting Washington for its regional policies, including on Israel–Palestine, propping up Iran’s economy, and seeking improved relations with American allies and partners. Beijing clearly has a vested interest in the stability of a region that is essential to its energy supply and the global trade routes that underpin its export-led economy, and has dipped its toes into mediation in the region. The United States should push for more‚ by publicly calling on the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom) to join Washington in supporting an Israeli–Palestinian peace process that includes a prominent role for regional mediation, and a Middle Eastern security framework that they jointly guarantee, with the United States and China taking the lead.

Actively encouraging autocratic competitor states to become more involved in the region might appear to be counter to U.S. interests and values. But a multilateral diplomatic effort on Israel–Palestine, and the development of a regional security architecture guaranteed by the Security Council that prioritizes conflict resolution and regional detente, would free the United States to stand up for its core values in ways that it struggles to achieve when it acts alone.

The United States is often hesitant to push its regional allies to comply with international humanitarian or human rights law, because it fears it will lose influence over their behavior, or that they might realign toward competitors like China. The Biden administration hoped its post-October 7 bear hug of Israel would provide it with influence over the military campaign in Gaza. But it hasn’t worked at all—Israel’s assault has been merciless, and it is now bearing down on Rafah, the last refuge of more than 1.5 million Palestinians. Meanwhile, keeping China completely out of the region is a lost cause: many regional players, including Israel and U.S. partners like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are already seeking improved relations with China, and will continue to do so in future.

Washington could secure its core strategic interests—trade and energy—with the other elements of this policy shift in place: A peace process would be underway in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The new security architecture would improve regional stability and, crucially, catalyze conflict resolution rather than merely managing conflict. Regional conflict between global superpowers would be somewhat mitigated. Washington could then condition military and other forms of support to its regional allies and partners (for example, Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia) on improved human rights and rule of law. In doing so, it would also call the bluff of partners who have tacitly threatened to defect to the Chinese or Russian camp, but know that neither Beijing nor Moscow is willing or able to provide the kind of security guarantees the U.S currently does.

No More Hegemony on the Cheap

A dose of realism would be required to successfully push for multilateral peace-brokering and stability initiatives while pursuing a values-based bilateral foreign policy. These policies would by no means achieve perfect outcomes, and would require the United States to accept some big up-front costs, including increased regional influence for its rivals and turbulent relations with long-standing partners.

Yet failure to correct the course would have much worse consequences. If Washington continues on its current path in the Middle East, it will remain on the hook for regional security as its influence fades and China and Russia continue to exploit conflicts to their own benefit.

The reality is that if American leaders continue to pursue a policy of hegemony on the cheap, while shunning other powers’ help on major structural issues, the American competitive advantage in world affairs will continue to shrink. Washington will be viewed as just another self-interested power among many, one struggling to maintain alliances with states whose values do not align with its own, yet unable to make some of the transactional accommodations that nondemocratic competitors have no problem making.

The American government and policy elite might not yet be ready to openly espouse a strategy that accepts the limits to U.S. influence and opens doors to competitors. But the realignment of relative world power is already underway, and in practice the United States has two obvious choices. It can double down on the status quo, and continue pretending it is still the world’s sole superpower while paying lip service to values that it fails to back with meaningful policies—thus forfeiting still more influence. Or it can embrace change, steer into the multipolar transition, and seek to lead, both in partnership with other strong countries, and as a force for good in the world.

Political constraints make it easier to stay on the current, flawed path, at least in the short term. But the best choice is clear: a more modest international role for the United States will ultimately be the braver and more effective policy.

Header image: President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the death of Alexei Navalny from the Roosevelt Room of the White House on February 16, 2024. Source: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images