After the US Strikes on Syria - What is going on in the world?

 

The world seems restless right now. Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and Syria, North Korea threatening to develop a nuclear weapon, ISIS and its sympathisers striking out around the world and Syria's President Assad using chemical weapons on his own people prompting President Trump to launch American cruise missiles against a Syrian airbase.

 

So what is really going on?  

I studied international relations at University and have taken a keen interest in the topic ever since. I believe a few basics of international relations theory make the current situation easier to understand. So I'm writing this piece not as a politician but as a student of international relations who is just trying to understand what is going on.

It is my belief that all the events described above are linked. They are all related to America's position in the world and its changing domestic relationship with that position over the past decade.

The world is a pretty lawless place. Without any enforcer of international law or norms, the international system is one of anarchy. Stability of the system as a whole can only be guaranteed if there is an adequate balance of power. This can be achieved by countries allying with each other to deter aggression, which spectacularly failed to prevent the first or second world wars, or by two big power blocks effectively balancing each other out – as happened during the Cold War. Or by one overwhelming power which is capable of enforcing the entire system on its own. Since the end of the Cold war there has been one such power, the United States of America, with a defence budget dwarfing all others, the power to impose itself anywhere in the world and an ability to fight two and a half world wars at the same time. The USA is the global colossus and under its hegemony we have experienced a time of Pax Americana (the American peace). This doesn't mean there haven't been any wars, there have been plenty, which have caused much human misery, but they have been localised, regional affairs. Not once has the whole world threatened to collapse into conflict.

The sheer range and breadth of US power is incredible. There is not a major trouble spot around the world that the Americans aren't deeply involved in and responsible for guaranteeing the peace due to their involvement. The major flashpoints such as China/Taiwan, North Korea/South Korea, China/Japan, Russia and Eastern Europe all don't erupt into outright conflict because the Americans are protecting one side.

us air force

However, in recent years, America's resolve to remain involved in these conflicts has waned. Bloodied and chastened by the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economic crisis, in 2008 the country elected a President promising to get America out of foreign wars and to be far less interventionist. While this was entirely rational given the American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, it meant that America started abdicating the responsibilities inherent in being the world's only superpower and ensuring stability in the international system.

This started before the election of President Obama and the first real sign of a change in the US was when it turned a blind eye when Russia invaded Georgia towards the end of the George W Bush presidency. The subsequent pull out from Iraq under Obama led to a power vacuum and the rise of ISIS, which has been a catastrophe for the Middle East and the wider world. The nadir came when the Syrian government used chemical weapons, flouting a so called US "red line" on the issue, but the US didn't respond.  

This sent the worst symbol that a superpower could ever give. America didn't have the stomach to be the world's policeman any more. This emboldened the West's enemies throughout the world. It meant President Putin could gamble that the US wouldn't respond to an invasion of the Crimea and when they didn't he then focused on Eastern Ukraine. It meant that North Korea could get more brazen in her efforts to develop nuclear weapons, it meant China could start pressing her territorial claims in islands around the South China Sea. It also meant that ISIS and the Syrian government continued fighting without either side being overtly worrying about the Americans being dragged back in. These countries are often portrayed as irrational, but in reality they are acting rationally to the changed situation.  

It appeared that the Pax Americana and the unipolar world was crumbling. People began to question whether America would really go to war to defend the Baltic States or Japan and even whether America was still the world's single superpower. That is absurd, the US is and remains the greatest power on earth with no real rival, but without a credible expectation that the US would use force to defend its interests in faraway places, the dictators around the world started acting to fill the vacuum that American isolationism created.

It highlighted one of the main truisms of international relations. If you want a liberal world, you are going to have to use illiberal methods, including force, to protect it.

In last year's presidential campaign Donald Trump's rhetoric suggested that more of the same would be expected. He railed against getting involved in foreign wars, threatened to pull out of NATO and questioned the security guarantees to Japan. As a result it was a shock when he responded to President Assad's chemical attack with a surgical military strike. However, although the military target was an airfield the real message of the attack was directed to the governments in Moscow, Pyongyang and Beijing. It was a message that America was back and that it would act if it saw things it didn't like.

If you look at his national security team, it is in reality a pretty traditional republican security team that appears to be reverting to a traditional republican security position. In many ways it was Obama who openly sought to break with the traditional Washington foreign policy establishment and it appears, at least at the moment, that Trump is not the radical on foreign policy that many people expected.

And it is squarely in America's interests to ensure that Putin or Kim Jung Un are put back in their box. As a continental nation with both Pacific and Atlantic coastlines the US sees the whole world as its sphere of influence. It has seen what happens to the world when it doesn't act and that eventually a lack of action abroad will lead to security challenges at home. In International Relations, the world is a lot safer when it looks like you politically and for America that is democratic and liberal.

us air craft carrier

So where does this play out from here?

We are in for a time of extreme instability. The US will need to reassert itself to try to wrestle the initiative back yet this will not be as easy. Already Russia is reacting with very hostile rhetoric and it remains to be seen what North Korea's reaction to the appearance of an American naval battle group off its shores will be.  For it is North Korea that is America's biggest challenge. The regime there has advanced quickly to develop nuclear weapons and may soon have the ability to launch nuclear strikes on the US. The US government can never tolerate that level of insecurity, yet it doesn't really want to attack those facilities in North Korea unless it really has to, given the vulnerable strategic position of Seoul. So we return to the traditional game of international politics, a great game of chicken so to speak.

The North Korean regime doesn't want to provoke total war with the US, nor does Russia or China or anyone. The result would be the certain end of the regime in those countries, for none can win a war against the US. So they will push it as far as they can without provoking total war mindful of the fact that the US doesn't want total war either. North Korea may not yet be able to hit the US but it could devastate South Korea and Japan. Russia and China could destroy much of the US & Europe, even while losing a war.  So the question is how far will these countries go (particularly North Korea) to resist the US returning to its position of hegemony in their own backyards, as the perception is that it is a zero sum game, any gain in influence (even if it is just regaining lost influence) for the US is seen as a loss of influence for North Korea, Russia and China.

So therein lies the dilemma the world currently faces. The US is trying to regain its lost influence over the last eight years, but this can easily be misinterpreted and lead to a wider conflict. In order to stop North Korea gaining nukes capable of hitting the US, the US will have to show it is serious. The Syria strikes were all part of that. But will it be enough? Will the US have to use more force and if they do, how will the North Koreans react, will they misinterpret it as an attempt to overthrow the regime and decide that overwhelming force against South Korea is their only hope of survival? Will an isolated skirmish lead to a wider war? Or will it, more likely, lead to the negotiating table and the US using the traditional offering of aid and money to temporarily delay the North Korean nuclear programme?

All these are unknowns, but the known is that the US under Donald Trump will not be as isolationist as it was under Barack Obama. This is good for the liberal global order but it will involve inevitable instability as those countries which were able to make hay under the old administration will have to decide whether they accept the re-emerging of the traditional American role. Any misunderstanding along the way could easily slip us into war.

The irony is that Donald Trump, elected as the great outsider, is actually reaffirming America's traditional role in the world. However the world today is more volatile than it's been for many years and he will face many foreign policy challenges over the next few years, all with the potential to spiral out of control. We have to hope that cool heads prevail on all sides.