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In the ruins of unilateralism

Getty images/istockphoto

Getty images/istockphoto  

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Developments in 2019 suggest that the U.S.’s ability to shape global politics is clearly receding

If one looks for an overarching theme that defined global politics in 2019, one might settle for protests. Angry crowds, especially the youth, revolted against the establishment in several parts of the world — from Santiago to Hong Kong, Beirut and New Delhi. But the year also saw some defining trends in geopolitics as well such as China’s growing assertiveness both in trade and foreign policy, Iran’s dangerously aggressive, yet calculated, behaviour, and the rise of Turkey as a new power pole in West Asia. The most important of them all, however, was the relative decline in America’s power, which was manifested through a number of crises during the year.

The U.S. is the world’s mightiest military power and arguably the centre of the post-Soviet world order. In the 1990s, the U.S.’s dominance was at its peak with international and multilateral organisations getting overshadowed by its pre-eminence. In 2001, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, it got international support for its war in Afghanistan. In 2003, the U.S. went ahead with the plan to bomb Iraq despite the UN opposition, reminding the world of imperial invasions. But the global situation is different, and more complex today.

The Afghan experience

Changes under way over the past decade picked up pace in 2019, showing cracks in the post-Soviet order. At least three developments in 2019 suggested that the U.S.’s ability to shape global politics is clearly receding.

The U.S. went to Afghanistan in October 2001, with a vow to destroy al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban regime. Seventeen years later, the U.S., desperate to get out of a stalemated conflict, started direct negotiations with the Taliban. The talks almost led to a settlement last year, with both sides agreeing to a draft agreement under which the U.S. would pull out most of its troops from Afghanistan in return for assurances from the Taliban that it would not allow Afghan soil to be used by transnational terrorists. The agreement, however, was not signed as President Donald Trump cancelled the peace process in September after an American soldier was killed in a Taliban attack. A few weeks later, Mr. Trump resumed the talks.

The whole Afghan experience shows how the U.S. botched up the war. The U.S. has a superior hand in conventional warfare. But winning a war abroad is not just about toppling a hostile regime, but also about stabilising the country after the regime is toppled. The U.S., history shows, is good at the former but fares poorly in the latter. It is now left with no other option but to reach an agreement with the Taliban for a face-saving exit. That would leave Kabul’s fragile, faction-ridden government exposed to the Taliban insurgency, just like the Mohammed Najibullah government was left to the Afghan Mujahideen in 1989 after the Soviet withdrawal. The Soviet Union disintegrated in two years, and Najibullah’s government collapsed after a few months.

The Iran stand-off

The latest spell in the U.S.-Iran tensions was triggered by President Trump’s unilateral decision to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. Mr. Trump’s plan was to put “maximum pressure” on Iran through sanctions and force Tehran to renegotiate the nuclear deal. But Iran countered it through “maximum resistance”, instead of giving in.

The year 2019 saw Iran repeatedly provoking the U.S. and its allies. It shot down an American drone over the Gulf in June, captured a British tanker in July and is believed to have either carried out or orchestrated multiple attacks on oil tankers that pass through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway that connects the oil-rich Gulf with the Arabian Sea through the Gulf of Oman. In September, two Saudi oil facilities came under attack, which temporarily cut the kingdom’s oil output by half. Iran was blamed for the attacks.

The attacks on Saudi facilities challenged the post-war partnership between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that guaranteed American protection to the kingdom. Still, the only counter-measure the U.S. took in response to Iran’s growing provocations was imposing more sanctions. One can argue that the U.S.’s subdued response doesn’t have anything to do with a decline in its power but is rather due to the reluctance of the sitting President to launch new wars. Even if one buys this argument, the question remains: why is Mr. Trump reluctant to launch new wars? The answer, perhaps, is the wars the U.S. launched in the new century, be it Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, were not won. Sections in Washington don’t want the U.S. to get stuck in another long-drawn conflict in West Asia. Here, the U.S.’s inability to shape outcomes of the wars it launches is acting as a deterrent against its own war machines.

Cracks in the NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Cold War alliance that was formed as a counterweight to the Soviet Union, continued to act as a vehicle of Western military dominance under the leadership of the U.S. in the post-Soviet order. The alliance has come under pressure in recent years with the rise of nationalist-populist leaders, including Mr. Trump, who have a favourable view of Russian President Vladimir Putin and are critical of NATO. These contradictions sharpened in 2019, suggesting that there are growing cracks in the alliance. In October, Turkey invaded northeastern Syria’s Kurdish held-territories, which had housed U.S. troops during the war against the Islamic State. Ankara practically forced the Trump administration to pull back troops from the areas before it started air strikes. The U.S. was relegated to the role of a spectator when a determined Turkey first captured some towns on the border and then struck a deal with Russia to create a buffer between Turkey and the Kurdish-held territories of Syria, which will be manned by Russian and Turkish troops.

But the biggest crisis emerged when Turkey, the second largest military in NATO, purchased S-400 missile defence system from Russia, NATO’s primary enemy and the main geopolitical rival of the U.S., despite protests from the West. The U.S. expelled Turkey from the F-35 stealth fighter programme and has threatened to impose sanctions for the deal. It says Russia could use the system radars to spy on the F-35 jets. Turkey didn’t give in. It now says it could buy Su-57 jets from Russia if the U.S. does not lift the ban on F-35 sales. Moreover, in response to sanctions threats, Turkey has vowed to shut two U.S. bases in the country, which would mean a split within NATO.

These incidents do not mean that the U.S.’s dominance over global politics is over. But they do show that America’s long wars and its inability to shape post-war outcomes are impacting its stature in an international system that centres around it. If one translates Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory into geopolitics, the U.S., the core of the strategic world system, is facing revolts in the periphery. If in the 1990s and early 2000s, the periphery continued to be dependent on the core and thereby sustained what Wallerstein called the “unequal exchange” between the two, the sands are shifting now. And this is happening at a time when new economic powers (China, for example) are on the rise and an old military power (Russia) is making a comeback. The relative decline in America’s power coupled with the rise of new and old powers point to a structural churning in the post-Cold War order. In the world system, the core has never been static. Hegemony of a single power is temporary.

stanly.johny@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 12:17:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/in-the-ruins-of-unilateralism/article30463647.ece

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