Hezbollah supporters in southern Lebanon on October 23, 2023. (Photo by Manu Brabo via Getty Images)

Are We Tipping into a New World War?

Historian Walter Russell Mead explains how the battle between Israel and Hamas connects to changing global forces that affect every American.

If you’ve watched the news over the past few weeks, you’ve surely heard from many experts. People who know a great deal about Hamas or Hezbollah or Iran or China or Russia—regional experts. Or subject matter experts who can tell us about cyber warfare or decolonization or, for example, the way that foreign governments have influenced higher education in America.

Each one of those topics are important. But each one only gives you a slice of the whole story. What if you want to understand the whole thing?

That’s when you turn to Walter Russell Mead.

Mead—the foreign-affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal, a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College, and the author of several important books—is able to connect what can seem like disparate dots and pull them together to show us the big picture.

That’s especially critical right now. Because despite what you read in the headlines, this isn’t just a war between a terrorist group called Hamas and a small Jewish nation-state called Israel. This is the bleeding edge of something much more widespread that has the potential to touch the lives of every American. 

Right after we recorded this conversation with Walter the war widened on two fronts, with Houthi rebels firing missiles at the city of Eilat, and, in a major provocation, with China removing Israel from Baidu Maps. Both of those moves confirm exactly what Mead expresses in this conversation: that this war isn’t just a regional conflict. It is representative of a world, as he puts it, “spinning out of control.”

Read an edited excerpt from our conversation below or click here listen to our entire conversation.

On whether the pre-war era is over:

Bari Weiss: I’ve been so eager to talk to you since October 7. The last time I saw you was in Dallas, in June. We were both there teaching at UATX, this school that I’m on the board of. I remember you saying something that made the hair on my arm stand up and a sort of quiet wash over the room. Do you remember what you said that night? About the pre-war era? 

Walter Russell Mead: I was talking about how after the end of the Cold War, we went into a postwar moment era in history where the news was really driven, and international politics were driven, by dealing with the consequences and the loose ends from the last big international contest. It felt to me that right around 2014, about the time when Putin went into Ukraine the first time, we started shifting into a pre-war era, and in a pre-war era, the problems that you deal with, the things that you face internationally, are things that if they’re not successfully dealt with, could lead to a new era of major great power conflict. And we are there. October 7, I think, just hammered that home. 

BW: When you said that in June, could you have ever anticipated that it would only be a matter of months before that pre-war era came to a close and a sort of wartime era began? 

WRM: It felt like we were moving quickly and at an unpredictable pace towards a future—even now it’s still kind of unguessable—but something big does seem to be lying in our near future, something big and something bad. 

BW: Prime Minister Netanyahu recently announced that the second phase of the war had begun, with IDF troops officially entering Gaza on the ground. Is Israel right to pursue this ground invasion? Is there any other way that they could defeat Hamas other than this strategy? 

WRM: I don’t think there is an alternative. That doesn’t mean that this alternative will necessarily work. We’ll have to see. But I think after what happened, they have to—for domestic political reasons, for the strength of the Israeli deterrent internationally, and just sheer self-defense—they really have to break Hamas. 

BW: What does breaking Hamas look like, practically? 

WRM: It would look as if Hamas, as an organization, could no longer carry out initiatives on any serious scale. Similarly to ISIS, that went from being this territorial empire and quasi-state into scattered groups who still think of themselves as ISIS, they’re still ISIS fighters, but the entity that we saw that had controlled almost everything in central Syria and western Iraq, that no longer exists. The sentiments behind Hamas will not go away. The people who have had the training—that thanks to Hezbollah and Iran have been able to impart—will not leave their heads. There will be efforts to begin to reconstitute. Breaking Hamas is not the end of the terrorism problem, but it does change the focus. It’s an effective response to what Hamas has just done. 

On eliminating Hamas:

BW: There are a lot of progressive groups, including members of Congress, very prominent people here in America, and certainly around the world, calling for a cease-fire. Some are inclined to hear the word cease-fire and think, “a cease-fire is good. It means the end of war,” but in your writing, you explain that is incorrect. Why is a call for cease-fire misguided? 

WRM: Let’s travel back in time to 1944. The Allied soldiers have just landed on the Normandy beaches and are just beginning to expand their foothold. A cease-fire would have given the Germans the time they needed to assemble the forces that could throw the Allies back into the sea. A call for a cease-fire that sounded so humanitarian was actually an attempt to hand the victory to one party. Now, I would never say that everybody who calls for a cease-fire today is consciously trying to help Hamas. Nevertheless, it remains the fact that a cease-fire at this time allows Hamas to continue to prepare, it does nothing for the release of hostages, and it does nothing really to alleviate the suffering of the people in Gaza. The war will resume more bitterly than ever. I think it’s a real mistake to call for a cease-fire. 

BW: Let’s say Hamas fighters can be eliminated in the way that the U.S. helped get rid of ISIS. What happens the day after that? What would be the group that would take over Gaza in Hamas’s place, or is Israel’s endgame to reoccupy Gaza? 

WRM: We’re looking at an Israeli occupation of a hostile Gaza in wartime conditions, and that will continue right through to final victory, assuming that that comes. The question is not whether there will be an Israeli occupation at the end of the war, but how it will end. To whom will the Israelis hand over power? We can actually be a little bit optimistic here because I think many people in the Arab world, including many of the Gulf Arabs, sympathize with the Palestinians as a people and sympathize with the Palestinian cause, but have lost all faith in Palestinian political leadership. The Fatah, the group that controls the West Bank, is seen as hopelessly incompetent and corrupt.

Hamas is an Iranian-linked death cult, and there are a lot of people in the Gulf who see that with all of the horror and loathing that you and I see it. It’s not that hard. It’s a human thing to understand what a terrorist death cult is and why you don’t want one operating in your backyard. I really wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see something of an Arab initiative to bring in new leadership for the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, possibly as well as Gaza. Some Arab governments, due to public opinion and perhaps their own emotional reactions to what they see, have certainly not been shy about condemning Israel. But many also condemned Hamas very strongly at the beginning. Behind the scenes, we’re seeing all kinds of indications that they are looking to work cooperatively with Israel to get to a future in which there’ll be order in the Palestinian territories and some form of Palestinian governance, but the Arabs are going to want to make sure that it’s a sort of rational, pragmatic leadership. 

On ridding Gaza of Hamas:

BW: While many Palestinians in Gaza just want a good life—they hate Hamas and hate what Hamas has done to their people—there are also a good number of people there who support Hamas, who have been indoctrinating their children in schools from an extremely young age to become martyrs and kill Jews. What would it look like to de-Hamasify Gaza? 

WRM: The trend across the Arab world has been away from the kind of deadly and perverse form of radical Islamism that Hamas has come to embody. If you take surveys of young people in Egypt, across the Gulf, and in other parts of the Arab world, they’re sick of it. It leads to terrible governance. It leads to civil war. It leads to unbelievable chaos and random death. There’s nothing good down that road. Hamas has created something unusual by Middle Eastern standards today. When I think about how the place might evolve in a post-combat era with the Arab world helping to build something new there and put in new governors with new ideas, it seems to me there are going to be a lot of people at the end of this war in Gaza who look around the ruins and ask themselves, “What good has come from this? Is Israel any weaker than it was at the start? Is my house any nicer than it was at the start?” Even angry people who’ve been socialized into some kind of fanaticism are capable of learning from experience. The Nazi Party was not as popular in May of 1945 as it was in June of 1940. 

On if we’re in the eye of the storm: 

BW: You’ve written about how the war in Israel is merely one hot spot in a world spinning out of control. What are the things spinning out of control? 

WRM The best way to think about the world situation in our time is to think about this cliché that everybody’s always talking about: the information revolution. The economy is changing. Technology is changing. In so many ways, old industries are dying, and new industries and new jobs are coming. Think about the Industrial Revolution, when all the spinners and weavers suddenly lost their jobs because of the textile mills and the other upheavals. There were riots, revolutions, and the political situation inside every country went out of control because nobody understood these new forces. Nobody knew in 1820 that the railroad was coming and would make things even more chaotic and upset the status quo in every possible way. 

BW: So in other words, technological change leads to economic upheaval, which leads to conflict, and maybe the war that we’re seeing is in some way connected to the digital revolution that until now has seemed pretty bloodless?

WRM: That’s right. It took time for things like communism to grow out of the social stresses that the Industrial Revolution produced. The first wars of the Industrial Revolution were cavalry campaigns in the age of Napoleon. The last war of the industrial era was probably World War II. That ended with atom bombs. Everything changed during the Industrial Revolution: the nature of the state, the nature of political parties, the nature of religious institutions, and the nature of the family. We saw mass immigration on a scale nobody had ever seen. For much of that time, nobody quite understood how the economy worked. No one understood what prevented a recession or a depression, or what made one. No one knew how to develop a social safety net that would take care of the costs of the Industrial Revolution. We are moving into another one of those storms. The 1990s, that people thought of as the end of history and an era of permanent calm—it was the eye of the storm. It looks to me like the eye is passing over and we’re about to get hit with the backside of it.

On how antisemitism equates to societal decline:

BW: One of the things that has happened since the massacre of October 7 is an orgy of antisemitic assaults, harassment, and violence all over the world, and it feels like the lid was just pulled off of something that was already boiling for most Jews. In your latest column for The Wall Street Journal—and you’re not Jewish, Walter—you make the case that this isn’t really a Jewish issue. It’s an issue for all Americans and for all people in the West. How is that?

WRM: I’ve just written this book on the history of U.S.-Israel relations, Arc of a Covenant, which involved a really deep dive into the history of the Jewish people in America. It struck me over and over how the attitudes that have made the United States historically the most hospitable country in the world for the Jewish population are directly linked to the ideas that make America work for everybody. We’ve long thought that in order for this country to work, it has to be a place where people from many different cultural backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, and religious backgrounds can work together, all accepting the common ideas of constitutional order, or the rule of law. You can be whomever you want. It doesn’t matter to the government or to society as long as you just pull your weight in this common American enterprise. That’s the vision that enables us to work. Now, it’s always been imperfect, but here’s the thing. Those who believe in the American way, and I am one of them, believe that while we haven’t built Utopia, it has gotten remarkably better. The essence of America is to get better.

Now, with antisemitism in America, historically, we’ve had several peaks. There was one in the 1890s and another in the 1930s and 1940s, but these were some of the worst times in American history. During the Great Depression, unemployment reached 25 percent. People lost faith in the American way and as they did, they lost faith in this idea that people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds could work constructively together to make it better for everyone. When we lose that, two things happen. America doesn’t work as well, and antisemitism rises. You can look at those tiki torch boys in Charlottesville back in 2017, or the people marching on campuses today and talking about death to the Jews. They share three beliefs in common: one, they make an idol of ethnic identity. For the white nationalists, if you’re not in the white pure group, you’re only a destructive influence in America, and as for the far left, if you’re white, you’re not right. Two, neither the far left or the far right believe in the promise of the American Dream—that if we follow the American Dream, it gets better for everybody. Thirdly, the far right and the far left both hate Jews. For the white nationalists, the Jews are part of the Great Replacement. For the far left, the Jews are white. They’re uber-white, even. These two groups share these three things in common, and they’re all destructive to what has historically made America work. Our enemies overseas are glad to see the far right and/or the far left rise up. It warms their cold hearts to see us ripping and tearing at each other and denying the truths that over the centuries have made us the most successful large human society in history. 

BW: So what you’re saying is that when you see the swastika daubed on a school or when you hear about death threats to Jewish students at Cornell, don’t think about those things as a Jewish issue? Think about those attacks as an American issue, because societies where antisemitism is unleashed are societies that are dead? 

WRM: That’s right. Antisemitism is both a sort of mental impairment and a barrier to learning. If you think that “the Jews” control the banks, you don’t understand finance, and will never understand it because you have this happy conspiracy theory and you think you already know everything. If you think “the Jews” control the weather with their space lasers, you’re not going to bother to study meteorological science. A society in which this kind of antisemitism is prevalent is not going to be a sign of a society on the cutting edge of science or business or economics or anything else. In our society, these beliefs are toxic. They’re terrible for Jews, but they are actually poison to what makes America, America. 

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