US Foreign Policy: A distracted America in a dangerous world

October 19.2016

US Foreign Policy

A distracted America in a dangerous world

The next three months will be a perilous time from Mosul to the South China Sea

by Gideon Rachman

The assault on the Iraqi city of Mosul that began this week underlines the fact that the next three months will be a perilous period in international politics. Fighting is intensifying in the Middle East. Tensions are rising between Russia and the west. And relations between China and its Asian neighbours are getting edgier. All this is happening while the US is diverted by the Trump-Clinton melodrama and the transition to a new president.


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For Russia and China — two countries that are openly unhappy with the US-dominated world order — a distracted America will look like an opportunity. Both Moscow and Beijing regard Hillary Clinton with suspicion and believe that her probable arrival in the Oval Office would herald a more hawkish US foreign policy. They may be tempted to act swiftly, before she has a chance to settle into the White House.

A temporarily preoccupied America might not matter much in normal times. But big and dangerous decisions are looming. In the Middle East, the bombardment of Aleppo by Russian and Syrian government forces has led to a near-breakdown in relations between Moscow and the west. Without a common diplomatic project to hold them together, the two sides may slide into outright confrontation in Syria. Further sanctions on Russia are in the offing and the west’s military options are also being reviewed.

President Vladimir Putin may calculate that a US administration that has refused to take military action against the Assad regime since 2011 is unlikely to reverse course in President Barack Obama’s last few months in office. But if the Russians push too hard, they could miscalculate and provoke an American reaction. That is particularly the case because the Obama administration is angered by Russian cyber warfare, aimed at influencing the US presidential election. Joe Biden, the vice-president, has already signalled that America intends to retaliate in cyber space.

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Even without a worsening of the situation in Syria, fighting in the Middle East will intensify in the coming weeks. The Iraqi government, backed by the air power of a US-led coalition, has begun a major push to retake Mosul from Isis. With one eye on his legacy and another on the presidential election, Mr Obama would be delighted to notch up a significant victory against Isis in the coming weeks.

Going on the offensive in Iraq, rather than Syria, is also more attractive for America because there is less chance of an accidental clash with the Russians. A successful US-backed assault on Mosul could also counteract the impression of American weakness in the Middle East. But the comparisons between Mosul and Aleppo are also a warning. There are more than 1m civilians living in and around Mosul who could be caught up in the fighting. The battle for the city could also lead to a clash between the Turkish and Iraqi governments, both nominally American allies.

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Who is Right–One Shoe Fits all?

The Russians may also feel that the next few months offer an opportunity in eastern Europe and Ukraine, with the EU distracted by Brexit and the run-up to the French presidential election. Moscow had hoped that, by now, the EU would have eased the economic sanctions that were imposed in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Instead, the west has collectively strengthened its stance by moving more Nato troops into the Baltic states that border Russia. In response, the Russians have moved nuclear-capable missiles into Kaliningrad, a Russian territorial enclave that lies between Lithuania and Poland. Russia’s nuclear posturing is clearly intended to unnerve but it is dangerous for all that.

The Chinese government is more controlled and ambiguous in its belligerence than Moscow. Nevertheless, Beijing’s actions in recent months have set the nerves of its neighbours on edge. The Chinese were enraged by an international tribunal’s ruling in July that Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are largely specious. Since then the official media in Beijing has become ever more ferocious, berating and threatening otherwise friendly countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Australia for following America’s line on security issues. The Japanese say that they have seen a recent increase in Chinese activity in the disputed waters of the East China Sea.

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As Mr Obama prepares to pack his bags in the White House, he may look back wryly at the foreign-policy goals that he set eight years ago.

There was to be a “reset” that would lead to better relations with Russia. There would also be a new and closer working relationship with China. And there would be an end to war in the Middle East. None of those policies has come to fruition. Instead, Mr Obama will be fortunate if he can negotiate his last three months in office without presiding over a major international crisis.



8 thoughts on “US Foreign Policy: A distracted America in a dangerous world

  1. Obama administration view Mosul liberation as a legacy project, a box it wants to check before the November election. Its aim is to drive the ISIS into Syria, to complicate the Russian success there.

    But the situation in Mosul may not turn out as Obama expected, even though it looks pretty good for him right now. Turkey is wary of the Kurdish involvement in this campaign. Any Turkish forceful intervention for any reason could polarize and complicate the situation. And then you have the Shiite Iranian, and other Sunni players….

    I have written in my previous post: “We are on the edge of several geopolitical precipices. America will highly likely either be forced into humiliating retreat or war.”

    With an exceptionalist like Hillary expecting into office, taking a humiliating retreat is highly unlikely. It will mean tarnishing the American credibility internationally. War is the option.

    The U.S. has succeeded to use the pretext of North Korea to “ring China with missiles,” to use Hillary’s words. But with the U.S. bogged down in the Mid-East, again, and with the completely surprising act of Duterte, China will have a little breathing room for a short while.

    The biggest mistake by Obama in this geopolitical game is having pushed Russia, China, and Iran coming together. Duterte’s turning against him has made his South China Sea policy a theatrical joke of his administration.

  2. //Rachman has a strong interest in East Asia and the rise of China, and has repeatedly[7][8] warned that inflexibility on the part of both China and the USA may lead to conflict. He has also often focussed on the challenges to US power around the world.
    I prefer to think Premier Xi is too pre-occupied with local politics to care.
    I am beginning to see the wisdom in Gary Johnson ‘s response of what is Aleppo.

    Most Americans cannot tell where Kuala Lumpur is, not to mention Shenzhen, nor Singapore. Too bad no such POTUS could be found anywhere.

  3. We all underestimate the US. But we forget that that nation is an open book. More people and many more people are going to get richer because of the US. In many respects they are more transparent than many countries on this globe and people are still attracted to it because they believe that when they do get there they have a fair chance to get ahead in life. Many rejects of the Third World have gone there to become famous. Do we know that the person who came out with the technology to build even taller buildings came from Bangladesh. What a loss for Bangladesh. The list goes on.

    While we take pot-shots at the US we should not forget the a Nation becomes great because it allows an individual to become as great as he or she wants to be. And on the backs of those great individuals the whole nation turns itself around and in turn becomes great.

    I am not the first person to have such views and what I have said here is as old as the hills. I am where I am to day because my father disciplined me along every step of the way and wanted me to become as great as I can. He never gave up on a chance to tick me off to say that I have done something wrong. Till the end he never gave up. And being himself a Junior Cambridge Holder ( Form Four) he told me when I emerged as the first graduate in the family, ” You are a Bachelor of Arts with Honors. But I am a Master of Arts without a degree.

  4. As the US has lost more international status and influence since the global financial crisis in 2008, the international community is raising doubts about its leadership and ability to contribute to the world, an expert said, analyzing that such a decline of influence can be attributed to some deep-seated reasons, including its self-willed overseas military operations.

    Since the financial crisis, the US can neither provide effective solutions to a host of global challenges, nor sustain its control over other countries, Zhang Ruizhuang, Director of the Center of American Studies at Nankai University, wrote in an article published in the People’s Daily on Sunday.

    In the commentary titled “The City upon a Hill is not there any more,” he gave an in-depth analysis on the reasons of such changes.

    Zhang says that “A City upon a Hill,” often cited by American politicians as their political creed, verified the self-labelling of the arrogant Americans as “God’s Chosen Ones” to lead the world. After the Cold War, the preaching about the superiority of its values brought US much popularity and pulled the country to a commanding stage.

    But it over-consumed its accumulated political capital during the last quarter of the 20th century, which resulted in a decline in its global influence, Zhang said, adding that the most destructive threat to its dropping status can be attributed to overseas military operations.

    After the Soviet Union collapsed with the end of the Cold War, the US dominated the world and launched a series of capricious measures. With the excuse of protecting democracy, human rights and the world order, Uncle Sam trampled on the post-war international law based on the UN Charter and norms governing global relations by bringing the flames of war to many parts of the world.

    Panama, Somalia, Haiti and Kosovo are all victims of such wars waged by the superpower. With a made-up excuse, it pulled Iraq into a war and this political farce finally brought the latter millions of civilian casualties, endless terrorist attacks and ceaseless disturbance.

    What the US gained, after it paid a price of trillions of dollars for the war, was a hotbed for terrorist organizations which in turn threatened the security of itself and other Western countries. The war against Iraq ultimately turned out to be a foolish one that not only crumbled its diplomatic morality, but undermined its own strategic interests, Zhang concluded.

    Despite the lessons, the US never gave up every opportunity to start “color revolutions.” Its attacks on Libya and Syria, once again, dragged these nations into raging wars. What’s worse, as a result of the wars, a number of regulation vacuums provided ISIS and other religious extremist organizations a bed in which to grow stronger.

    The US, its Western allies, as well as the whole world, are now swallowing the sour fruits resulted from its self-willed deed, he added.

    According to the scholar, apart from its frequent diplomatic mistakes, its economy, politics and society, in which the Americans once took pride, are all in a predicament, arising more doubts over the superiority of the US system.

    The global financial crisis breaking out in 2008 exposed the defects of capitalism once again. It brought to light not only the failure of Keynesian policy to narrow the wealth gap and boost effective demand, but the greed and corruption of financial executives, the ineffectiveness of financial supervision, plus the government’s shielding of tycoons.

    The US public felt shock, despair and anger towards such defects, and the ensuing “Occupy Wall Street” movement is one of their ways to express dissatisfaction. The protest wave later spilled to other part of the world, triggering worldwide query over the US system and its values.

    Zhang also criticized US domestic politics, citing its notorious presidential election system as an example.

    Manipulated by capital, the “winner takes all” election system in many states gives no chance to other newborn parties besides the two major parties. The American elections of the past two to three decades have been more like technical games.

    The candidates now focus more on technical details for the sake of more votes rather than their political ideas and governance philosophies, and the whole process has fallen into personal attacks between the two candidates, he added.

    Coupled with some other faults, the US and even the whole world began to question on the effectiveness of US democracy, as well as its leader selected in such a flawed way.

    The article analyzed that one key reason for its flopping election lies in a lack of innovative governing ideas.

    Barely stimulated by major crisis, US society tends to be mediocre and conservative about its ideas, the commentary further explained, adding that the prevailing philosophy of so-called “political correctness” also created an unfavorable environment for the candidates to come up with new ideas acceptable to the public.

    Lack of foresighted candidates with outstanding capability is another reason for its unsuccessful election, Zhang wrote.

    He explained that some capable politicians are not willing to embarrass themselves on the election stage at the cost of their privacy and that of their family as the butt of jokes.

    “As a result, the world was presented with an election farce performed by the two unqualified and big-mouth candidates selected by the two parties,” the author concluded.

    “It is obvious that the US is seeing a decline in terms of both prestige and influence, but such a drop is not so eye-catching as it has no strong competitors yet. It would be a complicated historic path,” the scholar said, calling for more attention to the course of the world pattern. – People’s Daily

    Related :

    US presidential hopefuls show a country lacking in leadership, debate falls into trite format

    Modern finance and money being managed like a Ponzi scheme ! Economic Collapse soon?

  5. @CLF is it just me or you too have been getting the feeling that Beijing really prefers Trump over Hillary. Rightway’s posting and what I read in wechat is sending such a strong signal 😄 Too bad, Beijing did not like a friendly Communist Bernie. Perhaps they prefer a KFC colonel Sanders over a modern day Comrade Sanders. We wonder what does ideal mean. Layu-layu us Chinese also. There goes my dream of sleeping easy.

  6. Most studies on the US situation overlook what is the most bizarre crime of successive administrations…against their very own citizens…

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