The Foreign policy of the United States of America has been in disarray from the second term of Barak Obama through the two years of President Donald Trump. It has been somewhat confused and directionless at best in Obama’s last two years, and now for the last two years is rocking the very foundations of the international order that emerged from the ashes of the Second World War and sustained the world peace and security through the volatile Cold War and in the face of the aggressive geo-strategic policies of the Soviet Union. Both the administrations failed to fully comprehend and evaluate the challenges inherent in the assertive political, economic and strategic policies of Russia, China and Iran.
Disillusioned with the long war in Afghanistan and the persistently worsening security situation in the Middle East, President Obama appeared to have lost the will to step up and give a direction to the Arab Spring towards democracy and prevent civil wars in the Middle East or mediate between the warring factions to end the ongoing civil strife in many countries. He was just meddling through tilting to one group or the other further compounding the critical situation in countries like Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. This conceded space for other major powers including Russia, Turkey and Iran to step in the fray. This inertia turned into unsettling exercise in his successor’s administration.
Russia, under Vladimir Putin, began to assert its influence in the former territories of the Soviet Union. The Russian leaders were irked by the fast expansion of NATO and the European Union eastward taking all the East European countries and the tiny Baltic and Central Asian states into their fold. There were segments of the Russian populations in all these states. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of Russians returned to Russia. The Russians who chose to live in their adopted countries roughly averaged 14% of the population of some countries like Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine and Baltic states. The Russian leaders were concerned about their political, economic interests and security.
President Putin was swift in striking resonance with the Central Asian leaders belonging to the erstwhile communist party who were in power when the Soviet Union disintegrated. He intensified cooperative relations with these countries within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Eurasian Economic Commission and finally Shanghai Cooperation Organization. He opposed tooth and nail to the alternative corridors for the hydrocarbon resources of Central Asia to reach the Western market, particularly the Western-funded Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) corridor fueling military conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno Karabakh, Georgia and the autonomous Abkhazia – even rolling his tanks in Tbilisi in 2008 to the peril of the Western world and NATO.
The European Union, in a bid to free Ukraine from the influence of Russia, offered to sign a wider association agreement with the Kremlin-supported President Victor Yanukovych pledging $3billion in economic aid. Yanukovych caved in under pressure from the Kremlin. This sparked public protests against him and finally forced him to flee to Moscow in February 2014. The Russian leader ordered his troops to enter into Crimea to protect the Russian population there and the eastern region of Donbas in Ukraine. He was apprehensive that the EU would accept Ukraine as member and the new administration in Kiev would evict the Russian Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol. The US imposed economic sanctions on Russia. The Kremlin has since been prolonging the implementation of the Minsk-II agreement.
Encouraged by its adventure in Crimea, Russia intervened in Syria. The Kremlin’s intimidating pastures to towards Baltic and East European countries, interference in the European elections by supporting Eurosceptics and nativist leaders have been unsettling for the EU. The controversy over the Russian interference in the US presidential elections has defied all attempts to abate. President Vladimir Putin has continuously been on the offensive to challenge the unipolar order to the ridicule of the US leadership.
While the Arab leaders were undermining each other with the help of their Western allies in the wake of the Arab Spring, Iran was unobtrusively deepening its footprints in the region. The Nuclear Deal signed with the US afforded Iran respite from the economic and financial hardships caused by the decades-long economic and trade sanctions and the US hostility. Though Iran could not afford to remain indifferent to what was happening in the Middle East particularly given the historic animosity between the Arabs and the Persians, it had stopped or greatly slowed down its quest for nuclear weapons in compliance with the nuclear deal. Nevertheless, it continued with its missile development programme which, as affirmed by EU leaders, was not included in the nuclear deal. What actually irks the US and its Arab allies is the Iranian entrenchment in Hamas-ruled Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Also, the Gulf countries particularly Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait have always been wary of the increasing Iranian influence in their Shia populations. Ideologically, Iran considers itself the guardian of Shias all over the world. The Shias also look to Iran as their spiritual center. This factor has been at the core of the Arab-Persian hostility.
Israel now feels no threat of traditional war from any Arab country except security threats from Hezbollah, Al-Quds and other loose militant groups allegedly aided by Iran. The Arabs combined their efforts with Israel to influence the US leadership to quit the nuclear deal. Their designs to subdue Iran have resulted in the current escalation of tension in the Gulf. The Saudi and UAE efforts to rally the support of the Arab and Muslim leaders for any potential war in the region are in full swing. They are buying latest weapons to bolster their strategic capacity. President Trump, bypassing the Congress, has given green signal to the sale of weapons of $8billion to them.
From early 1990s, China embarked on the path to political, economic and strategic ascendancy, though its strategic doctrine is waded to peace and good neighborliness. China has acquired enough economic power and military muscle to stand out as an emerging superpower to the awe and fear of its neighbors in East Asia and surrounding regions of Pacific and South Asia. Today, China has the second highest GDP of over $11.5 trillion. The Chinese economy will potentially take over that of the USA in the coming two decades. This economic and military rise of a regional state is deemed a direct threat to the US domination and can take the two countries into the Thucydidean trap.
China currently is the top trading partner of the East Asian and Pacific countries and has signed regional economic deals that included free trade agreements with Australia, Singapore, South Korea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) and others. All such deals exclude the USA. The past decade witnessed China building institutional infrastructure to add to its economic clout at the expense of the US dominated International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and the Japanese-led Asian Development Bank. In 2014, China, coopting BRICS countries, created the $100 billion New Development Bank, and the following year, set up the $100 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The US tried in vain to prevent its allies in the East Asia and Pacific from joining the Bank. However, eight US allies of the region joined it within the first two years. So far some 80 countries have joined the Bank.
At the heels of these banks, China also launched the One Belt and One Road Initiative (BRI) that seeks to interconnect over 60 countries from East Asia and Pacific to South Asia, Central and Caucasian regions, the Middle East, the African and the European continents. The Initiative envisages development of interconnecting roads and railways and a string of Seaports at a cost of over $1trillion. BRI promises financial assistance and investment in regional communication and agricultural infrastructure and natural resources. The Chinese trade with each Africa and Latin America is estimated at over $300 billion annually. The flow of finances from China to Africa from 2000 to 2014 peaked at $122billion dwarfing the US finances of $106.7billion. The OECD has termed about 40% of this huge amount as financial aid.
China has built the region’s largest coast guard and controls a vast militia of civilian fishing vessels. China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017and it is likely to build more bases along the African East Coast and the Indian Ocean in the coming years, says the US National Security Advisor John Bolton. In the South China Sea, it has developed over half a dozen Islands that house air force bases, missile shelters, and radar and communication facilities. The Americans apprehend that China has the ability of striking their naval vessels, and posing an increased missile threat to their air bases and ports.
Au contraire, the US under President Trump was undermining the trade agreements with old allies including Trans-Atlantic Trade Partnership, North American Free Trade Agreement, Pacific Partnership Treaty and NATO. President Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy was silently shelved without unfolding a new rebalancing policy in East Asia and Pacific. The quadrilateral Naval Alliance (US, Australia, Japan and India) has not assuaged the security concerns of the regional states. President Trump has been on rampage in the Middle East denigrating the Palestinian issue, undermining the Arab world and is now on the cusp of plunging the Gulf region into a devastating turmoil at the behest of its Gulf allies and Israel. He has already undermined the EU-supported Government of National Reconciliation in Libya by encouraging General Khalifa Haftar to attack Tripoli. The General – having adopted the American Nationality in his exile in the US – is supported by Egypt, UAE and France. What has so far come out of the sluggish Afghan talks is quite unsettling and reflects the US failure to address the Taliban’s concerns on certain vital issues.