Trump and the emerging international (dis)order

The most powerful country in the world, the US, has elected a President who at best is unpredictable

Zamir Akram February 11, 2017
The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan. The views expressed here are his own

Politics is not an exact science and political predictions are always uncertain. However, it is possible to make reasonable calculated assumptions based on existing facts. Current developments in the world portend a perfect storm emerging in the international system — a future of chaos, confrontation and conflict. We are, therefore, on the threshold of a new international disorder.

The most powerful country in the world, the US, has elected a President who at best is unpredictable. His world view is not only dangerous for his own country but for the world at large. His mantra of making “America great again” may be unexceptionable but the manner in which he is pursuing this could spell disaster all around. Within weeks of assuming office, President Trump has implemented decisions that were earlier dismissed as election rhetoric but have now become state policy — the decision to build a wall on the border with Mexico, however impractical and destructive that may be; to tear up trade pacts like the North American Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); to ban refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim countries as a first step to combat “Islamic terrorism”; to reverse America’s one-China policy and to further build up Americans nuclear weapons arsenal. These are all decisions that would have a destructive impact on an already unstable international political system apart from hurting the US itself. Not only have Trump’s decisions put into question relations with major powers like China and Russia but have given jitters to American allies in Nato as well as Japan, Australia and South Korea. And this is only the beginning of Trump’s tenure.

To be fair to Trump, he has inherited foreign and security policies already in a shambles. The much touted Obama legacy, though with some successes such as the nuclear deal with Iran and the climate change Paris agreement, has largely failed to overcome critical issues such as terrorism that has become worse as a result of US policies of regime change in Iraq, Libya and Syria, leaving the Middle East in flames. Trump’s highest priority will be to defeat the so-called radical Islamic terrorism. His ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim majority states, which can be further enlarged, is a part of this effort. But such a ban will play into the hands of the IS as it will help them recruit more adherents to their agenda. This is further complicated by the rhetoric used by Trump and some of his cronies like National Security Adviser Flynn who has described Islam as a “cancer” and Trump himself has claimed that “Islam hates us”. More substantively, Trump has asked Pentagon and the CIA to strike the IS harder, perhaps with use of more US artillery and air attacks and even more boots on the ground. But experience of the past two decades has shown that exclusive reliance on use of force without politically addressing the root causes of terrorism has not only failed but generated more support for terrorist groups. Meanwhile, the Middle East, the crucible for terrorism against the US and its allies, is aflame with terrorism, extremism and sectarianism on the rise in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. In this combustible mix, Trump’s molly-coddling of Israel’s expansionist policies will only add fuel to the fire.

Another major element of the Trump’s security policy is to build-up American strategic capabilities by increasing the Pentagon’s 600 billion dollars annual budget by an additional 430 billion dollars over the next five years according to The New York Times. This will not only involve an increase in US conventional forces but also its nuclear arsenal. Such a build-up will obviously be matched by a build-up by both Russia and China. No wonder, therefore, the “Doomsday clock”, maintained by the US Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has been advanced by 30 seconds to denote how close the world is to nuclear Armageddon.

Already the new US Secretary of State, Tillerson, has sounded American intentions to challenge Chinese presence in the South China Sea. Added to this are Trump’s questioning of America’s traditional “one-China” policy by reaching out to Taiwan and threatening to target Chinese exports to the US, both of which have incensed Beijing. The Sino-US confrontation is, therefore, about to become more dangerous.

The prognosis for US relations with Russia is so far uncertain. It remains to be seen, therefore, as to how Trump will handle relations with Moscow. The primary concern for Pakistan is how this evolving situation will affect Pakistan. So far Trump has not focused on our region, except for a positive conversation with our PM and remarks by Secretary of Defence Mattis about the need for engagement with Pakistan. But a coherent US policy has yet to emerge.

Three factors are likely to play an important role. The first is the issue of countering terrorism especially in the context of Afghanistan. Since the Obama days a negative narrative has emerged in the US that blames Pakistan for playing a “double game” of supporting American counter-terrorism efforts while simultaneously supporting the Taliban, especially the Haqqani network. This is partly a result of the US establishment’s penchant to use Pakistan as a scapegoat for its own failures in Afghanistan, including its indecision whether or not to seek a political solution through dialogue with the Taliban; and partly its refusal to recognise Pakistan’s own interests in Afghanistan and its border region where it itself is engaged in counter-terrorism efforts against the TTP which have been given sanctuary across the border. Even so, there is room for Pakistan-US counter-terrorism cooperation against the real threat in Afghanistan which is IS rather than the Taliban. The second factor is India. In the emerging strategic scenario, the Indo-US strategic alliance against China is likely to grow with adverse consequences for Pakistan since Washington will continue to help build up New Delhi as a counter-weight to Beijing. The resultant increase in Indian conventional and strategic capabilities will magnify the existential threat for Pakistan. Added to this is the hostile Indian attitude of refusing a dialogue with Pakistan to resolve outstanding disputes while blaming Pakistan for its own misdeeds, especially for the popular uprising in Kashmir against Indian occupation, characterised by brutal atrocities and flagrant human rights violations. The powerful Indian lobby in the US, whose tentacles are spread over American government, business, media and academia, will surely use every opportunity to vilify Pakistan as an alleged sponsor of terrorism. The third factor to affect Pakistan-US relations and closely related to the second, is our strategic capabilities that are critical for our deterrence against a belligerent and hegemonic India. While the Trump administration has not yet articulated its policy in this regard, the US has traditionally pursued a discriminatory approach — asking Pakistan to unilaterally “cap” its strategic capabilities while not only giving India a free-ride but actually helping the Indian military build-up. Most importantly, we will need to devise a multi-dimensional approach to deal with the emerging international disorder — an approach that positions Pakistan to safeguard and promote its interests. Accordingly, the out-reach to the US will have to be accompanied by further strengthening of our strategic partnership with China by taking it to even higher levels of political, economic and security cooperation. At the same time, we need to take forward our relations with Russia which has already signalled its willingness to increase bilateral cooperation. Last but not least, the ultimate guarantee of our security and prosperity will be our own ability to ensure our internal and external security as well as socio-economic development.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2017.

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