Downgrading the war on terror
On 19 January 2018, the US defense secretary unveiled the country’s Defense Strategy, companion document to the National Security Strategy, which was announced by President Donald Trump himself at the Ronald Reagan Building and National Trade Center in Washington before the top security establishment. Curiously, the mood, emphasis, focus, presentation and orientation of the two strategies have been remarkably different.
President Trump’s national security strategy looked more like ‘business as usual’ with measured nuances against Russia and China and focused more on war on terror (ISIS, al Qaida) and challenges from North Korea and Iran. The strategic alliances were limited to remarks about building the four-nation alliance (India, Australia, Japan and the US), bolstering India as a regional power and warning Pakistan to cooperate with the American Afghan war effort if wants to be a friend.
In sharp contrast, National Defense Strategy is somber, tightly focused and makes a radical departure from the strategy that has dominated for nearly two decades, or at least after 9/11. After noting that “[f]or decades, the United States has enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain,” where “[w]e could generally deploy our forces when we wanted, assemble them where we wanted, and operate how we wanted”, it laments, “[t]oday, every domain is contested — air, land, sea, space and cyberspace.”
The strategy focuses on competition from major state powers, rather than non-state actors – a focus of the previous defense strategies – global processes, like climate and demography. “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security,” the strategy declares and points out that “America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.” Accordingly, checking the gains made by Russia and China and retrieving the lost ground are the major objectives spelled out in the strategy. China and Russia have been characterised as revisionist powers that are bent upon casting the world in their authoritarian mould. “We face growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia, nations that seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models,” Mr Mattis said. Protecting the liberal world order is the primary aim of rebuilding American superiority in military power. A cooperative approach to promote such a world, the strategy declares, is possible only “from a position of strength and based on our national interests”.
The soft power of America has nearly vanished with increasing push back on immigration, and other places rising in Europe and East Asia as favoured destinations for education, immigration and tourism
To acquire global superiority, classic military power is inevitable and the new defense strategy clearly delineates this. This has to be measured against well-defined adversaries which makes Russia a perfect target both psychologically — the Cold War-era rivalry — and practically, as Russia’s growing military strength and its ability to credibly project its power in international conflicts (Syria) it a real threat. Thus, competition with Russia would only be the resumption as opposed to the opening of a new front.
The opening of new front is reserved for China. “China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarising features in the South China Sea,” the 2018 NDS said. “It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” The emerging world is therefore described as “increased global disorder, characterised by decline in the long-standing, rules-based international order.”
The NDS is an extraordinary statement of how the threats facing the US have transformed and, admittedly, why it has warranted a new ranking. After nearly two decades, the war on terror has lost the top slot and erosion of competitive edge to Russia and China is accepted. The document is a striking and ruthless assessment of the loss of American power on the world stage. Until recently any such acknowledgment was a taboo within the American establishment.
However, it seems the that document is more a statement of frustration for the loss of power rather than an assessment of where things have gone wrong after the US became the sole super-power after the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and fall of Berlin Wall in 1989. Nearly three decades of unrivalled military superiority has suddenly given way to a stark realisation of hopelessness in shaping the new world.
We think the efficacy of the new defense strategy in meeting its objectives, even in the absence of public announcement to this effect, would depend entirely on a soul-searching exercise that would sincerely identify the causes behind the loss of power. To this effect, we reckon that the US leadership would do well to accept the following reasons as part of the things that have gone wrong in its quest for making a new world order after the demise of Soviet Union.
First, its invasion of Afghanistan and transforming it as the longest war in American history. The goals in Afghanistan have changed like fashions. The fact that the US has the ability to keep doing so without fear of any check is the most fundamental reason why it is losing in Afghanistan without achieving its stated goals. Use of coercive force devoid of law and reason breeds resentment that accumulates, slowly but surely, with devastating consequences.
Second, its invasion of Iraq without international legitimacy and causing endless chain-reactions that have set on fire the greater part of the Middle East with no end in sight.
Third, and amusingly, the defense strategy warns against ‘increased global disorder, characterised by decline in the long-standing, rules-based international order’ but the US does not have an exemplary record of supporting multilateralism and rule-based world order. The most recent display of American hubris in this area is the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a land that it has occupied since 1967 and in violation of international law.
Fourth, the loss of its standing in the Islamic world in such wholesale manner that with the exception of a small alliance of Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia, there is no influence or goodwill that the US enjoys.
Fifth, the soft power of America has nearly vanished with increasing push back on immigration, and other places rising in Europe and East Asia as favoured destinations for education, immigration and tourism.
As the new defense strategy is put into operation, America will have to consider a major redeployment of resources to new challenges. Thus, the war and terror should release resources (trillions of dollars have been consumed by those wars) to be deployed on meeting the new challenges. Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria should all benefit from the reset in priorities.
It would be naïve to think that the cold war days would be returning. The world has completely transformed since 1989. First, it would not be a binary world of Russia vs the USA, as has been recognised by the addition of China as competitive force. Russia is an old foe and its ways are familiar. It is China that has gained ascendency in a manner that has no parallel in history. It has no expansionist designs as fashioned by cold war warriors. Paradoxically, despite its socialist credentials, China has emerged as the champion of liberal world order, espousing precious liberal values of free trade and climate change.
The pre-eminence China has earned owes to its overwhelming capacity to offer win-win trade and investment opportunities without any overt or covert agendas for regime change, nation-building or imposing an alien political or philosophical agenda. The defense strategy has explicitly recognised that America would avoid all such things in forging alliances with friends. That would indeed be a welcome change and must start from key theatres where it had gone for these very reasons.
But it is important the US must learn from lessons of history. In a recent article for Antiwar.com, Nicolas Davies has quoted a passage from Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, describing them as “a prescient analysis of the US position in the world”. Kennedy said: “In all of the discussions about the erosion of American leadership, it needs to be repeated again and again that the decline referred to is relative not absolute, and is therefore perfectly natural; and that the only serious threat to the real interests of the United States can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order.”
Downgrading the war on terror