Limits of American power The Trump administration has got into the dangerous habit
0 comments | by Javid Husain
The Trump administration has got into the dangerous habit of issuing unilateral demands and ultimatums to governments around the world that do not see eye to eye with it on different issues. Unilateral demands on Pakistan relating to the Afghanistan situation are an example of this tendency. During the Cold War, the US, because of the global competition waged by the Soviet Union and its need for support worldwide, was more circumspect in making such demands on other sovereign nations. The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of the US as the sole super power whose economic and military might dwarfed that of any other country in the world. With the Soviet Union gone and China yet unable to pose any challenge, the US was in a position to dictate to the rest of the world. In historical terms this was the moment of unipolarity when no country in the world could afford to stand in the way of the American power. The absence of a countervailing power enabled Washington to launch invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11 and of Iraq in 2003 without any UN sanction. In fact, the US invasion of Iraq was a blatant violation of international law and the UN Charter. The atrocities that its forces committed in Iraq and the degrading treatment to which they subjected the Iraqi people, involving the loss of lives of about half a million Iraqis according to some estimates, were no less than war crimes and even crimes against humanity. But no country could raise its voice effectively against those transgressions of international law and morality because of the weight of American power. The US simply ignored or paid lip service to criticism and opposition from any side.
The global political scene and the security environment have undergone a dramatic change since then, mainly because of the phenomenal growth of China’s economic power followed by the rapid build-up of its military muscle. In 1980, China’s GDP was less than $300 billion. By 2017, it had risen to $11.9 trillion making it the world’s second-largest economy at market exchange rates. The US GDP during the same year was estimated to be $19.4 trillion. IN PPP terms, China’s GDP exceeded that of the US in 2014. It is expected to surpass the US at market exchange rates by the end of the next decade. The rapid growth of China’s economy has enabled it to increase its military expenditure at a fast pace. China’s defense budget of $146 billion announced in 2017 ranks second only to that of the US which is estimated to be $700 billion for the fiscal year 2017-18. Realistically speaking, however, it will take China several decades to catch up with the US in terms of over-all military strength and the quality of its military technology and equipment, especially in the case of naval and air forces.
Nevertheless, the present geopolitical reality is that the US unipolar moment is behind us in historical terms because of China’s phenomenal rise and a re-assertive Russia. The US is no longer in a position to dictate to the rest of the world with the same ease as it used to do in 1990’s. Its demands now face resistance and determined opposition in different parts of the world. It has been effectively checkmated by Russia and Iran in Syria where the government of Bashar al-Assad supported by Moscow and Tehran is slowly regaining strength in the teeth of the opposition by the US. Russia was able to defy the US and the EU during the Ukraine crisis and annex Crimea. In the face of strategic moves by the US to rebalance its forces in favour of the Asia-Pacific region and strengthen its alliances with countries on China’s periphery, especially Japan, South Korea and Australia, China and Russia are steadily developing their strategic partnership. Washington’s decision to strengthen its strategic cooperation with India to check the expansion of China’s influence and power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region has led to the deepening of strategic links between China and Pakistan. CPEC is not only a vehicle of close Pakistan-China cooperation in economic and commercial fields and a means of regional connectivity and expansion of trade, it also provides China with a strategic bypass to the Persian Gulf region and the Indian Ocean outflanking the US moves to contain it.
North Korea has successfully defied Washington’s attempts to roll back its nuclear program. Developments in Southeast Asia show that the weight of China’s economy and external trade is persuading the countries of the region, particularly the Philippines, to respond positively to China’s overtures to woo them. The second Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Leaders’ Meeting, held on 10 January, 2018 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, has given a much-needed boost to cooperation among the member states including China, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar. Even American allies in Europe do not always accept Washington’s diktat. An example was the unsuccessful attempt by Washington in 2015 to prevent its Western allies such as the UK, France, Italy, and Germany from becoming members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), established at China’s initiative with the authorized capital of $100 billion as a possible rival to the Asian Development Bank dominated by the US.
However, old habits die hard. Washington continues to operate on the questionable assumption that it can dictate to the rest of the world. There is thus a bad mismatch between the US power and capabilities, on the one hand, and its policy goals, on the other. This is an extremely dangerous situation as it can cause serious miscalculations on the part of policy makers, leading to avoidable strains in the US relations with foreign countries and even to armed conflicts. The US, therefore, would be well-advised to carry out a careful assessment of its relative power in taking important decisions on issues of peace and security and in making demands on other countries. Instead of trying to impose its own thinking and views on others, it should make a serious attempt to understand the point of view of the relevant countries in such matters.
This consideration is particularly relevant to America’s deeply flawed Afghanistan policy. A detached analysis of this policy reveals its three fundamental flaws: it is aimed at imposing a regime of Washington’s own choice on the Afghan people virtually disenfranchising the Pashtuns who constitute about half the population of Afghanistan; it has over-emphasized military action to the neglect of the need for a political settlement of the Afghan civil war; and it has categorized the Afghan Taliban, who now control over 40 per cent of the Afghan territory, as terrorists instead of engaging them in talks as an Afghan political party. If the US persists in its flawed Afghanistan policy, it should get ready for a war of indefinite duration in that country where its forces are seen as an occupation army. It should also understand that 15000 NATO troops despite the changed rules of engagement would not succeed in realizing its unrealistic policy goals where over 130,000 NATO troops failed. Scapegoating Pakistan for the consequences of the flawed US Afghanistan policy will not do. At the same time, Pakistan needs to put its own house in order. In particular, it should take all possible steps in accordance with its declared policy to deny space to any Afghan militants to operate from its soil for carrying out militant activities in Afghanistan.