Photo (left) by Vlada Republike Slovenije on Wikimedia Commons and Photo (right) by عباد ديرانية on Wikimedia Commons

America’s Reckoning with Gaza at Home and the Great Rupture in International Relations

Fawaz A. Gerges—

In May 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, more than a thousand school students participated in the Children’s March intended to force the city to reckon with the demands to end racial segregation. As vividly recounted by the historian Taylor Branch in his trilogy on the Civil Rights Movement, the Birmingham police force met the peaceful student protestors with overwhelming force, arresting them by the dozens. When Birmingham ran out of paddy wagons and sheriff’s patrol cars to use, they called in school buses to take the students to jail. 

Speaking to many of the parents at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church after the first wave of arrests, Martin Luther King, Jr. told them not to worry. “They are suffering for what they believe,” said King, “and they are suffering to make this nation a better nation.” It would later be said of the many students who were arrested protesting for civil rights that their “zeal overflowed so freely” that they “bent the leaden habits of jail to their own convictions.”

Sixty years later, American universities and local police forces brutalize and arrest scores of peaceful student protesters bravely speaking out against the horrors unfolding in Gaza. This recalls the repression of the peaceful civil rights protestors in Birmingham and elsewhere in the 1960s. Now, like then, politicians accuse the students of naivete and being manipulated by others. Now, like then, “outside agitators” are blamed for inflaming the situation. Now, like then, the students are marched off to jail while they joyfully sing about dignity and humanity.

What is perhaps most startling about this critical juncture in American history is how comfortable President Biden and his Administration are with the moral, strategic, and political costs of his “ironclad” support for Israel. Unlike Presidents Kennedy and Johnson who slowly recognized that the demands of civil rights protestors needed to be met, President Biden appears to be all too willing to ignore the protestors’ demands.

Biden also risks permanently undermining America’s standing in the world while also creating an opening for America’s geopolitical adversaries to exploit the suffering of the Palestinians to undermine American interests globally. 

This is a choice that the United States will come to deeply regret. The current conflict may ultimately represent a turning point in international affairs, hardening long-dormant fault lines between the West and the Global South and shattering the rules-based international liberal order, a pillar of American hegemony since the end of the Second World War.

Instead of respecting the neutrality and independence of the international criminal court whose chief prosecutor Karim Khan requested arrest warrants against Benjamin Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials, Biden objected, calling Khan’s request “outrageous.” Biden and his aides claim that Khan’s decision sets a false equivalence between terrorist Hamas and democratic Israel. This is far from the case, because Khan seeks justice to all victims. Biden had also previously applauded Khan’s swift decision to issue a similar arrest warrant against Russian President Putin after he invaded Ukraine in Feb. 2022.

If there is not a fundamental and immediate change in course, the consequences of the growing north-south polarization will likely have transformative effects on international politics for generations. It will also accelerate the decline of the United States’ global influence. The extent of America’s isolation in the Global South was telegraphed worldwide in the UN general assembly when on December 12, 153 states supported an unconditional ceasefire, with only 10 against and 23 abstentions. In another move that signaled America’s growing global isolation, the assembly voted last week by 143 to nine, with 25 abstentions to back the Palestinian bid for full UN membership.

China and Russia will be the main beneficiaries of the West’s colossal failure in Gaza. Both powers have been challenging the US’s rules-based international order, asserting that the rules are rigged in the West’s favor. Recent opinion polls in the Global South indicate that China and Russia are more popular than the United States and are gaining ground at its expense. As the IDF methodically annihilates Gaza, with US weapons and support, Western protests over human rights abuses in Ukraine and China will now fall on deaf ears across the Arab-Islamic world and much of the Global South.

The longer this conflict goes on, the greater the erosion of American credibility and global authority. As a scholar of international relations, I had never seen so much anger and rage throughout the Arab-Islamic world, Africa, and Asia, directed against the United States and Europe. More and more people in the Global South say there is one rule for “the West” and another for “the rest.” More than seventy-five percent of respondents across the Arab world said the US (and Israel) is “the biggest threat to the security and stability of the region,” according to the first survey conducted by the reputed Doha Institute’s Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in January. Similar findings are reported in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.   

In an age of America’s global decline versus the rise of China (and a more assertive Russia), it is in the long-term interests of the US to uphold the rules-based international order, not only in words but in deeds. This means defending the same international norms in both Ukraine and in Israel-Palestine, such as opposing occupation and annexation of lands and demanding accountability for gross human rights violations. In a recent CNN interview, Biden said the US was halting arm sales to Israel because it was wrong to attack “population centers.” This was a step in the right direction. He must go much further by supporting the international consensus on Palestinian statehood at the UN and stopping using its veto.

The stakes in the coming weeks are very high, for Palestinians and Israelis, for the Middle East, and for humanity more broadly. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has repeatedly warned that security and stability in the Middle East and indeed international peace more generally hangs in the balance. Guterres’s plea to the world is to reject a global “epidemic of impunity” and to use this moment to rebuild stronger and more inclusive multinational institutions with new opportunities for balance and justice in international relations.

This is the same plea being made by student protestors in the United States and elsewhere.  They are demanding that their governments end their complicity in the violence in Gaza and are suffering arrest, suspension, and expulsion to make their nations better. The only solution is for Biden to listen to the students’ call to action and exercise America’s tremendous leverage to confront Prime Minister Netanyahu and to put a stop to the violence.


Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the author of Making the Arab World, ISIS: A History, and What Really Went Wrong: The West and the Failure of Democracy in the Middle East. He lives in London, UK.


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