Dissolution of the familiar status-quo in post-Cold War international relations (IR) and the uneasy free-fall into an uncertain new global disorder are the dominant features of how 2018 will be remembered.
While there have been many indicators related to global trade and climate change that hinted at such a rejection of the normative collective interest and its consensual prioritization by the major power cluster (recall G- 20 and COP24), towards the year-end, US President Donald Trump announced the new IR template in his distinctive manner.
On Wednesday (December 26), the US President made a secret trip to Iraq and declared that “the US cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.” And specific to Syria, he added: “We’re no longer the suckers, folks. Our presence in Syria was not open-ended and it was never intended to be permanent.”
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It may be recalled that just the previous week, Mr. Trump had surprised his closest cabinet members by announcing (Dec 20) that US troops would be withdrawn from both Syria and Afghanistan. The timing and manner of conveying this major policy decision went against the advice of the professionals in the Beltway and predictably, the widely-respected US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis , a retired marine general submitted his resignation.
The Trump decision and the Mattis resignation were met with dismay both within the US and by the major allies and considerable disquiet was expressed at the implications of such a move in the extended southern Asian region that encompasses both Syria and Afghanistan.
The US has its fair share of warts like many other democracies but it has retained the ability to shine the torch inwards and recall its enshrined constitutional valuesC. Uday Bhaskar
The steady hand that Jim Mattis brought to his domain was praised by all his interlocutors and it was suggested that the ‘only adult’ in the Trump team was leaving adding to the presidential outrage.
And in keeping with the impulsive manner in which Trump ‘hires and fires’ his core team – the US President decided to force the exit of Mattis which was brought forward to end December instead of the end February schedule that had been indicated in the resignation letter.
The Mattis letter is a dignified statement, wherein the disagreement with the US President, also the commander-in-chief has been conveyed in a courteous yet firm manner. The sub-text alludes to certain aspects of the US profile that have given Washington the primacy it has enjoyed since the end of World War II in August 1945.
The US led western alliance that brought together a large number of democracies during the Cold War was envisioned as a grouping that would support the global ‘liberal’ order and the contrast was with the totalitarian ideology associated with the communist block that had the former USSR and China as the leading members.
It is a different matter that the US-led liberal pursuit was often ‘illiberal’ and toward the end of the Cold War, the US partnered with communist China to contain the Soviet block and the world’s largest democracy – India was more aligned to Moscow than Washington!
Perceived national security/strategic interests often trumped the commitment to values and principles and yet the global benchmark was a normative mix of liberal democracy and a free-market orientation, that while being inherently favorable to the rich, was cognizant of the need for equitable socio-economic growth across the global demography.
The Mattis letter highlights the self-image of the US, which “remains the indispensable nation in the free world” and provides the most lucid contextualization about the role of the US military and its long-term political cum strategic objective.
The combat veteran notes: “I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.”
However the Trump doctrine has reduced this leadership role to that of being “suckered” and has introduced a binary transactional approach that is almost mercenary – by indicating that the allies need to pay if they seek US protection.
While making an objective case for why the US should remain invested in its alliance relationships, Mattis frames the Holy Grail for the White House in an unambiguous manner. He asserts: “We must do everything possible to advance an international order (emphasis added) that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values.”
The protection of self-interest and seeking to consolidate advantage or power is a natural compulsion among both individuals and states. The US has its fair share of warts like many other democracies but it has retained the ability to shine the torch inwards and recall its enshrined constitutional values. Institutional integrity is under attack but civil society has demonstrated a push-back capacity and individuals like Jim Mattis are illustrative.
The texture of this emerging “international order” will be contested in 2019 by the major powers. Trump has triggered the retreat and dilution of US credibility in regional geo-politics. Syria-Turkey and the Kurdish denouement are case in point. Will the Moscow-Beijing combine begin to fill the regional geo-political vacuum of 2018?
Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore who served in the Indian Navy, is one of India's leading experts and outspoken critics on security and strategic affairs. Commodore Bhaskar is currently the Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India. He has the rare distinction of being the head of three think tanks during his career - the earlier two being the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a columnist, editor, and contributor of numerous research-articles on nuclear and international security issues to reputed journals in India and abroad. Bhaskar has an abiding interest in the visual arts, film and theater. He tweets. @theUdayB.