On this dawn of the Trump administration’s second year, it seems an opportune time to look at what is in store around the world for America’s far-flung foreign relations. The purpose of this brief overview is to emphasize areas of uncertainties and to suggest ways for more pragmatic management of them.
Many Americans would probably agree that Putin’s Russia is America’s most dangerous adversary. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, believes the collapse of communism is the greatest tragedy in human history. When the Berlin Wall fell, Mr. Putin was stationed in the former DDR, East Germany, and personally witnessed the Communist Block’s disgrace.
When the Soviet Union descend from a feared superpower to an insignificant country with a bankrupt economy, it deeply impacted the psyche of the vast majority of Russians. A major reason for the widespread support President Putin commands comes, despite his corrupt and imperial rule, from his people’s conviction that he’s the only person who could return Russia to its former glory. And he’s gradually succeeding.
Russia’s days, when it begged for a billion dollars here and a billion there, are gone. The chaotic time when the old, who couldn’t survive on their pensions as the value of the ruble had plunged into worthlessness, and they had to put their household goods for sale at roadsides to subsist, belongs to that fearful time of their country’s disintegration.
Early in this century, when Russian high-priced oil and natural gas fed an energy-hungry and rich Europe, Russia made enough money to accumulate a reserve of about $ 420 million and keep public debt at a mere 12% of GDP.
That this vast country of about 145 million people has a miniscule economy of $ 1.5 trillion has not prevented Putin’s regime to rebuild and modernize its military forces to world-class standards. Putin displayed his military might when he dispatched his new fighter-bombers to Syria. And there was no reason for also firing off cruise missiles from southern Russia to destroy rebel positions in Syria, His fighter-bombers already stationed in Syria could have accomplished that. The reason he sent those missiles was to show the world he had them, and they were both dependable and accurate.
Washington’s failure in Syria facilitated Russia’s joining the fray.
Turkey’s historic animosity for its Kurdish minority has clashed with Washington’s plan to create a strong Kurdish force to control northern Syria. Turkey worries that the territory under Kurdish control could tempt the Kurdish force to secede from Syria and form an independent Kurdistan. Such a move, Turkey fears, could threaten its own territorial integrity, eventually leading to the secession of the part of Turkish territory where the Kurds are in the majority.
American planners should have taken this sensitive situation seriously before it led the U.S. and Turkey, two NATO allies, to be acting in conflict with one another. Before acting on its plan, Washington should have approached Turkey and try to find a modus operandi that would have satisfied Turkish preoccupations.
Where American foreign policy has failed, Russia has stepped in and extended its influence. Iran, Syria, and Ukraine are visible examples.
Washington’s animosity for Iran has pushed that country into Russia’s arms. Iran, the most populous and powerful country in the volatile Middle East, has established a close partnership with Russia, a relationship that has facilitated Russian exports to Iran and extended Moscow’s influence into the Middle East, a region from where Moscow was once virtually absent.
American policymakers haven’t overcome their hatred for Iran’s mullah-led regime. The hostage taking of the American embassy in Tehran during the early stages of the Islamic revolution still clouds the minds of American diplomats. It’s time for the U.S. to reconsider its approach to Iran, trying to find other ways in dealing with that country. In time, Tehran could be, if not an ally of the United States, a potentially important trading partner.
The tragedy of Ukraine could, I believe, have been avoided. The West, led by the U.S., was too eager to bring this large country in its fold. Ukraine is a country with two large ethnicities, the Russian speakers in the country’s east and the Ukrainian speakers in its west. No doubt, the Russian-speaking Ukrainians were an invaluable asset for Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine. However, they were not the main reason for Russia’s aggression.
What caused Russia’s assault was the heavy industries in eastern Ukraine. During Soviet times, many of Russia’s heavy industries were located in what later became an independent Ukraine. Some factories in Russia depend on parts and products from the heavy industries which Ukraine inherited when the Soviet Union disintegrated. The fear to lose access to those industries triggered the Russian response.
Russia viewed the West’s intense courting of Ukraine not only as political encroachment on its European border but also perceived it as a threat to its economy. Before rushing to make Ukraine a part of NATO or simply to incorporate it into the Western camp, Washington should have taken into consideration Russia’s economic dependence on the Ukraine-based manufacturing industries and offered assurances of continued access to them.
While this matter by no means justifies Russia’s aggression, it does indicate that with a more patient and cautious approach Ukraine’s dismemberment and destruction could possibly have been preempted.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Washington’s action that would curb the spread of Russia’s influence in the rest of the world. On the contrary, it is a necessary policy. Once Russia has successfully allied a large number of countries with itself, it may regain the political will to use its vast nuclear arsenal for political gain. That would take us back to the Cold-War era, something we should avoid.
But the U.S. must be more deliberate and sensitive to possible unintended side effects its policies might engender, taking those potentialities into consideration before taking action.
Although, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un occupied an inordinate amount of the Trump administration’s time, the situation in East Asia seems to be as settled as one could expect in these tumultuous times.
North Korea’s rogue ruler will certainly remain a source of worry. However, its regime saw its longer-term survival in having the nuclear bomb and the means to carry it. They seem to have got both. The country has reached what it for a long time had wanted. Therefore, further instabilities will probably not come from there.
If the U.S. accepts with a measure of grace that the Far East will for all practical purposes be China’s playground, then we can confidently prognosticate that the Far East will stay calm. What the U.S. has to accept is that the region’s ever-growing power is China and that it probably wants to have a major say there.
By the mid-2020s, China will probably surpass the size of the American economy. Calculating on the basis of purchasing power, China’s economy of $ 23 trillion is already larger than the American economy of $ 19.5 trillion. While China has to be recognized for its achievement of the past four decades, it still has about 500 million people to lift above the poverty line. It should be understandable that it would like to have some room to expand its interests.
If China doesn’t threaten American interests, the U.S. would do the right thing to let China play that role in the Far East. For one, China has displayed a good measure of caution and maturity in the way it pursues its foreign policy and can be trusted not to go too far. Besides, as much as Russia has throughout its history exhibited an expansionist behavior, China, with the exception of Tibet, has never displayed a hunger for conquering other nations. It is safe to say that, if given the space it needs to feel secure, China would be, if not a perfect, but a reliable partner to the U.S.
As America’s existential threat comes from Russia, Washington’s non-existential headache will continue to emanate from the Middle East.
This is the area where illegitimate regimes hold unlimited power and corruption reigns supreme. This is the area where civil wars have already caused havoc in a number of countries and, it’s just a matter of time, when more regional nations will slide into mayhem.
So far, the troubles have hit the less wealthy Arab countries. The oil-rich nations, who have kept the revolutionaries and their revolutions away from their countries with heavy bribe money, have as of late begun interfering in the struggles in Egypt, Syria, and Yemen. Having thus made themselves participants in the region’s struggles, they will be the next countries to be subsumed by the regionwide carnage.
This will probably bother Washington as it has always supported those corrupt and illegitimate regimes. Here, too, it’s high time for the U.S. to rethink its priorities. The Arab Middle East needs to change. Its people want their fair share of political and economic rights. They want to be free and protected by laws rather than depend on the goodwill of men. They badly need and dearly want to enter the 21st century.
The U.S. would do itself and those affected nations a favor by staying out of their internal conflicts, leaving it to the peoples of those nations to fight it out among themselves. For sure, it will be difficult to watch the bloodbath. The temptation to interfere would be intense, if for no other reason than human concern. But those temptations must be resisted. The notion of the “white man’s burden” has caused enough devastation in that region.
Those nations have a right to choose their own ways. If history is a guide, those unfortunate people would first do enormous harm to themselves and their countries before they can find peace and start rebuilding their lives. That is what happens when change is prevented from taking place naturally and in stages. Change explodes upon people when it’s blocked for too long.
What is also important to realize is that the chaos in those countries would likely not produce terrorists who would endanger the U.S. They would target the U.S only if Washington took it upon itself to interfere in their internal struggles.
My suggestion would be that the U.S. leave the Arab Middle East to itself. They have two enormous problems to solve: The minds of most Arabs live anywhere between the years 1,200 and 1,600. They must overcome this enormous time gap and try to enter the 21st century. At the same time, they are entrapped in corruption-ridden, family-based dictatorships which rob them blind and deny them the smallest measure of freedom.
The process of closing the time gap and getting rid of their despots will cost many lives, destroy their livelihood, and their countries. And as we saw in Libya, Iraq, and Syria, there’s nothing any one from the outside could do to lessen their pain. These examples clearly demonstrate that when we interfere, we prolong their agony and create terrorists who would penetrate our own peaceful lives and cause havoc among us, too.
Tragically, in Egypt the flow of history was interrupted. Eventually, history will take its course. When it does, the process will be more bloody and destructive as it would have been the first time.
In South Asia, where the U.S. is deeply involved in the war in Afghanistan, Washington must marshal the determination to bring the war there to an acceptable conclusion. However, the task also contains political and economic components. While the military part has been initiated, there is no sign how and when the economic and political segments will be tackled. These two sectors are hard and need political courage to handle but under no circumstances should be neglected. Otherwise, the effort will fail as it did in the past 16 years.
Finally, America must search for more equitable ways in dealing with the Third World. But first, American policymakers should not consider poor and backward people as lesser humans. As long as American officials consider themselves to be the modern-day Romans and the backward people their vassals, what is more often the case than not, they will never acquire the needed respect to treat Third-World peoples as equal.
Only if there is a human identification factor, the U.S. assistance will be effective as it would be implemented honestly.
The Third World, the part of the human community that is growing rapidly in numbers and will eventually grow economically, will be the future markets and areas of expansion that a growing American economy will need to be a part of. Trust, respect, and goodwill will enhance America’s chances for being at the forefront for investing in and trading with those newly developed markets.
Nasir Shansab has maintained homes, business interests and dual citizenship in both the United States and Afghanistan for the past three decades.
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