Strategy-free force

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, President Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, and senior economic adviser, Gary Cohn, wrote: “The world is not a global community but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage”, and “we embrace” this “elemental nature of international affairs”.
Under the slogan ‘America First’, and led largely by his generals, Trump seeks to reassert global primacy through raw military and economic power. In almost every conflict where it is engaged, the US has escalated or threatened to escalate the use of force, even in the absence of a long-term strategy.
Unfortunately, the preference for military options can be contagious. Other powers, like Russia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have not been reluctant to resort to force. Even mini-money states, like the UAE and Qatar, have embarked on foreign military operations. If military force becomes the first rather than last option for states, international relations will be transformed into a Hobbesian jungle of all against all.
In almost every conflict where it is engaged, the US has escalated the use of force. The wars in Syria and Iraq reflect this dystopian reality. Latest events — the US downing of a Syrian government aircraft and the Russian demand that US aircraft not fly west of the Euphrates — have confirmed the danger of a direct US-Russia conflict in Syria. Once the militant Islamic State group is defeated, Iraq’s three-way (Shia, Sunni, Kurd) crisis will revive, with the Sunni minority turning to Saudi Arabia for support against the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
The Kurds in Iraq and Syria will try to break away, but face Turkish and Iranian opposition and may be ultimately betrayed by their Western sponsors (again). Even after its defeat in Mosul and Raqqa, IS will survive in some form, perhaps merging with other Sunni extremist groups, or escaping to new locations, like Afghanistan. Its campaign of global terror will remain potent.
The Trump summit in Riyadh virtually declared the opening of hostilities against Iran. Predictably, Iran blamed Saudi Arabia for the subsequent terror attacks in Tehran. US Secretary of State Tillerson has upped the ante by referring to the prospect of regime change in Iran.
The recent Iranian missile strikes against IS in Syria were an unsubtle message to the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia that Tehran has the will and capacity to retaliate against hostile actions. Iran could inflame West Asia and the Levant; rain Hezbollah rockets on Israel; threaten Saudi oilfields and US bases in Afghanistan; mobilise Shia minorities to destabilise shaky rulers in the Gulf. The Saudi-UAE vendetta against Qatar reveals the fault lines within the Sunni alliance which can be exploited by Iran in the context of the wider regional confrontation.
Afghanistan is about to endure another cycle of violence as the US digs itself deeper into the Afghan quagmire. The new US ‘surge’ (of 4,000 troops) may prevent the collapse of the US-installed Kabul regime, at enormous human and financial cost; but it will not deliver either military victory or force the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. Pressure on Pakistan to eliminate the alleged safe havens may prove counterproductive. A focus on fighting the Afghan Taliban will erode the prospects of collective action against IS and other terrorist groups, like the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, etc which are present in Afghanistan and pose a threat to the entire region.
Kashmir could spark another India-Pakistan war. The popular Kashmiri revolt against Indian rule has persisted for over a year despite Indian brutality, Pakistani impotence and world indifference. In the run-up to the 2019, Indian general elections, Prime Minister Modi may try to deflect attention from India’s Kashmiri quagmire by escalating the Line of Control ceasefire violations or even attempting a (real) cross-LOC ‘strike’. The ensuing Pakistan-India conventional conflict will not remain limited and could easily escalate to the nuclear level. President Trump should press Modi in Washington this week to accept his offer of mediation to avoid a disastrous Pakistan-India war.
So far, Trump has avoided the Thucydides Trap by holding back from an overt containment of China. He has conditioned the US position on trade on Beijing’s ability to restrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.
However, extreme Chinese pressure on North Korea is unlikely since this may lead to regime collapse, millions of refugees, Korean unification and US troops on China’s border. Beijing’s preference is for a freeze in North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes and reciprocal military restraint by the US and its allies. If attempts to evolve a deal collapse, the military option may come back to the fore and Sino-US differences on trade, the South China Sea and other issues may revive, generating tensions across Asia.
Despite the early optimism in Moscow, Trump’s campaign desire for a cooperative relationship with Russia has been stymied by the American ‘establishment’. On the contrary, the new unilateral anti-Russia sanctions imposed by the US Congress last week are an indication that US-Russian tensions will persist and probably escalate. Close ‘encounters’ between Russian-Nato air and naval forces are now commonplace and could lead to a military incident.
The balance of power in Europe favours Russia. Its absorption of Crimea is a reality. Ukraine’s division is unlikely to be overcome except on Moscow’s terms. Nato’s forward deployments, and/or installation of an advanced ballistic missile defence system, will evoke strong Russian responses even as support of several European countries, which desire cooperative relations with Russia, wavers.
To manage the several simultaneous political, economic and technological transitions under way, and meet the existential challenges of climate change, demographic explosion, poverty, terrorism, refugees and communicable diseases, the international community requires intense cooperation and collective action.
Such cooperation is impossible while states are allowed to have recourse to the untrammelled and unilateral use of force. It is essential to revive unconditional adherence by states to their UN Charter commitment to refrain from the use or threat of force in their international relations

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One thought on “Strategy-free force

  1. This is a bit of a scrambled article about everything, but I see the point nonetheless. You use the phrase ‘world indifference’ (with regards to Kashmir). We wouldn’t be forced to rush from major issue to major issue if Western media would spend more time on the reality of what is going on than on their interpretation of twitter messages. Everything important is sidelined these days.

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