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Why American engagement is necessary

By Simon Louie - posted Tuesday, 4 October 2016


With the Obama administration coming to an end in a little over three months, the world waits anxiously as to who the next US president will be. One thing is certain though, that whoever holds office will be faced with an enormous number of geo-political problems and more likely than not we are going to see a much more assertive US posture than has been demonstrated by the current administration.

The world currently faces a large number of geo-political hotspots, more so than at any other time in the post-Cold War era. Some of these already involve actual conflict, whilst others have the potential to escalate into full-blown war. For example in Eastern Europe, Vladimir Putin's 'Little green men' have occupied the Crimea in Ukraine and continue to destabilise the region.

In the Middle East, the ongoing Syrian civil war has already claimed over 400,000 lives, according to the UN special envoy for Syria, and it continues to spiral increasingly out of control as large parts of the country are controlled by the terrorist organisation ISIS, who themselves have committed unspeakable barbarities. The ongoing Yemeni civil war has claimed over 10,000 lives as the Iranian backed Houthi group fights against the Saudi backed Yemen president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. As bad as though it may currently seem, conflicts in the Middle-East may yet worsen, as Saudi Arabia and Iran inch ever closer from proxy war to outright conflict as the two countries vie for regional dominance. In a globalised world, problems in one part of the world do not stay contained, as can be seen by the huge numbers of Middle-Eastern refugees currently in Europe.

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Within our own region, the Asia-Pacific is currently at peace, however there are a number of hotspots which could see it plunged into outright war. The first of these is the odious North Korean regime, which tested its fifth nuclear device in September and continues to destabilize the Korean peninsula. Two other potential hot-spots are the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and China's claims over the vast majority of the South China Sea. Indeed recently, China sent 40 military aircraft into the Miyako strait prompting Japan to scramble its own jets over the region. Additionally, China and Russia recently conducted naval drills within the South China Sea, as well as practising 'island seizure' techniques in an ostensible show of force against the United States and its allies.

What is the cause of these problems? Part of the answer lies with a renewed assertiveness on the part of Russia, which is led by a thuggish former KGB operative unhappy with the break-up of the former Soviet Union and looking to reassert himself across Europe. Another part of the problem is a re-emerging China which is unhappy with the US led global order. After the Global Financial Crisis and all the problems which have fallen upon the developed world, China suddenly found itself ascendant, and under current president Xi no longer abides by Deng Xiaoping's maxim of 'hide brightness and nourish obscurity.'

Whilst assertiveness on the part of China and Russia may be factors, just as importantly is the Obama administration's indecisiveness and reluctance to use the U.S military to enforce the global status quo. For example during 2013 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killed more than 1,300 Syrians in a chemical weapons attack, which crossed Obama's self-declared 'red-line.' Instead of ordering US warplanes to bomb Syria, the issue was put to a vote in Congress effectively putting action on hold, whilst in the meantime the Russians outmanoeuvred Obama by offering to dispose of Syria's chemical weapons. Former secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel himself has voiced his frustration at the Obama administration's seeming indecisiveness on the issue-he cites endless unproductive meetings that failed to form a coherent strategy for dealing with Syria.

In the Persian Gulf for example, a U.S EP-3 reconnaissance plane flying off the coast in Iran in September was threatened with being shot down with missiles despite being in international waters. Fast boats from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have harassed US naval vessels in the Persian Gulf at least 30 times this year.

Another instance of where the Obama administration has been seen to be weak is the South China Sea. Despite China's blatant bullying and intimidation of smaller countries, the building of artificial islands and rampant environmental destruction, the US has been reluctant to confront China over the issue.

To be fair, the Obama administration did not want to repeat the mistakes of the former Bush administration by undertaking foreign military adventures that could drag on endlessly for years. However this perceived weakness and reluctance by the Obama administration to use force has dangerous implications for global stability. For one thing, the free world needs a strong America to enforce global rules and norms. Other potential global players that could enforce norms are simply not strong enough to do so-the United Nations is close to becoming a useless talking shop akin to the former League of Nations with its inability to stop many of the world's current conflicts, whilst the European Union is too riddled with internal economic and political problems to take on a more global role. The current US administration's reluctance to use force has meant that many of the world's more nasty regimes, such as Russia, China and Iran are growing emboldened and more willing to undertake military adventure.

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In many respects the world resembles the years preceding the Second World War-a large number of seemingly intractable conflicts, the emboldening of revanchist autocrats willing to use force to take territory from others and a reluctance on the part of the Western democracies to use force to stand up against them. The next American President will find him/herself having to be much, much more assertive in asserting global norms in order to prevent a complete break-down of the international system.

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About the Author

Simon Louie is research associate with Risk Intelligence Solutions.

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