Empire strikes back

IN a little over a year, US President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ posture has been translated into an extensive and aggressive agenda to reclaim US global pre-eminence: the strategic containment of China and Russia; the denuclearisation of North Korea; the regional and nuclear reversal of Iran; a stabilised occupation of Afghanistan; a pliant Pakistan; an extended ‘war’ against ‘radical Islam’ and the acceptance, by allies and adversaries across Asia, Europe and the Americas, of US economic supremacy.

Threats, coercion and force are the preferred modus operandi to achieve these ambitious goals. Such behaviour is a throwback to an earlier era; before international law, reflected in the UN Charter, prohibited the use or threat of force in interstate relations (except in self-defence or when authorised by the UN Security Council) and prescribed cooperation as the means to promote peace and prosperity.

In the past year, US air strikes have been conducted in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border regions. US ground forces are engaged in military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Sahel. North Korea and Iran have been threatened with pre-emptive strikes.

There are five areas where America’s current postures could lead to disastrous consequences.

There are five areas where America’s current postures could lead to disastrous consequences.

First, the strategic contest with China. This involves three dimensions. Trade is the simplest among them. Trump’s tariffs are meant mainly to appease his rust belt constituency. Washington knows that the trade ‘imbalance’ is unlikely to be corrected through tariffs and restrictions. The US and Chinese economies are closely intertwined and interdependent. Higher tariffs will hurt American consumers; Chinese retaliation will hurt US farmers, workers and investors. The tariffs so far announced by Trump will affect only around five per cent of Chinese exports to the US. China’s response is also carefully calibrated.

The core of the Sino-US contest for future economic and military leadership involves access to and utilisation of advanced technologies. China was technologically far behind the US; but it is catching up rapidly. The US is specifically attempting to restrict China’s access to and development of those advanced technologies which Beijing has targeted in its 2030 vision plan. This is likely to be a long and complex contest.

The most dangerous dimension of the Sino-US ‘contest’ is the prospect of a US challenge to China’s claims in the South China Sea and, even more seriously, the possibility that Washington may reopen the ‘One China Policy’. As President Xi recently reiterated, China will use all its capabilities to defend its ‘territorial integrity’. US miscalculation could lead to conflict.

Second, the strategic resurgence of Russia. Despite their economic disparity, Russia is keeping pace with the US in the modernisation of nuclear weapons, missile and anti-missile systems and conventional armaments. In Europe, there is now a military stand-off between a weakened Nato and a confident Russia. The US and Russia are also competitively engaged in several other countries and regions: Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan, Central and Northeast Asia. Furthermore, Russia has formed a strategic partnership with China that spans Eurasia.

Third, the North Korean challenge. The young Kim Jong-un has displayed strategic and diplomatic adroitness. Trump has accepted his proposal to discuss denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in a US-North Korea summit. The odds are against success. Kim is likely to propose a staggered process of denuclearisation accompanied by reciprocal removal of US and UN sanctions, US military withdrawal from Korea and guarantees for North Korea’s security. An impatient Trump will find it difficult to accept such a process and could revert to coercion and threats, reviving the danger of war.

Fourth, the confrontation with Iran. This perhaps poses the most proximate danger of a conflict. Trump and his principal advisers are now unanimous in their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and Tehran’s expanding role and influence in the Middle East and beyond. Mattis reportedly nurses a grudge for the 1983 Beirut bombing that killed over 200 US marines. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is urging renunciation of the nuclear deal, elimination of Iran’s military presence in Syria and military strikes if Iran revives its nuclear programme. Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies are of similar mind.

Matters may come to a head soon. Trump has reportedly threatened to denounce the nuclear deal in May unless America’s European allies secure an indefinite extension of the 15-year restraints on Iran’s nuclear programme and a halt in the development of its long-range missiles. Iran has rejected these demands.

Fifth, the Afghan quagmire. Trump was reportedly convinced by his previous national security adviser, Gen H.R. McMaster, and the Pentagon to undertake another mini-surge to bludgeon the Afghan Taliban into accepting a political settlement. Expanded air strikes, special operations and Taliban retaliation have resulted in an increase in Afghan civilian and military casualties. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has offered a “dignified dialogue” to the Taliban who, however, want to talk only to the Americans. Nor is it clear if the proffered political settlement would be designed to facilitate a US withdrawal or merely to ease its indefinite stay in Afghanistan. The war continues by default.

There is considerable concern that Trump’s domestic troubles — the alleged ‘electoral collusion with Russia’ and myriad sex scandals — and the appointment of uber-hawks, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, may propel the US president into an external conflict.

Pompeo is an anti-Muslim, anti-Iran, tea party Republican. Bolton is an ultra-nationalist; but not an ideologue. (In our first meeting at the UN in 2005, Bolton demanded deletion of the reference to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in a UN document under negotiation. I agreed, but asked just as adamantly for removal of the reference to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. He agreed. After that, we got along famously!)

Bolton is an experienced and a strong-willed bureaucrat and is likely to play a central role in policy formulation and execution. He is aware of the danger of destabilising Pakistan (“Iran on steroids”). He may not be as committed as the US generals to an unending and expensive war in Afghanistan. It may be timely for Pakistan’s diplomacy to explore a mutually acceptable solution in Afghanistan with the new Trump team.

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