Why Unilateral Policies Of America Are Not Likely To Succeed – OpEd

Just a day prior to authorizing military strikes against Syrian targets, US President Donald Trump remarked on April 5, 2017, that the Assad regime had crossed many lines by killing innocent children with a chemical gas.

While the incident is really shocking, the death of innocent people including children in Syria was not happening for the first time. Many shocking pictures were already in circulation as to how many children have lost their lives while trying to cross the Mediterranean. However, the reversal of American policy under Trump from one of insulation to active intervention invokes a sense of unilateralism.

Not many years before, in order to protect the civilian population of Libya, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 authorizing a No-Fly Zone over the country and the mandate did not extend beyond stipulating a humanitarian mission to protect the Libyan civilians. But the NATO officials crossing the limits imposed by the Resolution were actively engaged in regime change operation. The Obama Administration invoked the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine to justify the intervention and ousting Qaddafi from power.

However, there are many reasons why the American way of acting unilaterally may flounder in the face of prevailing complicated international system.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a new era was ushered in. This has led to American foreign policy makers’ belief and practices that in the post-Cold War era, coercive diplomacy could work wonders for the US. Success in Kosovo strengthened the US’ belief in unilateralism. Cases like Iraq and Afghanistan bear testimony to the fact that even force could be used against certain states and legitimacy could be derived from the UN after that.

And this policy could be emulated whenever and wherever America’s national interests demanded such response. Such policies could be afforded so far as America has the military superiority and economic edge over other states. Russia’s dependence on the west for its development and security points to the fact that it cannot veto all the US proposals in the UN as it was doing in the Cold War period. American military superiority and the economic benefits it provides to other states have led regional powers to woo it to side with them to maintain balance against each other and even to the extent of allowing it to interfere in regional affairs.

However, there are many limitations to the US unilateral policies to protect and promote its geopolitical interests and many changes have taken place at the international level in the post-Soviet era, which pose formidable challenges to such interests.

In the post-Cold War period, it is being increasingly acknowledged that wars cannot be won militarily. The Cold War politics was refrained from direct use of force and coercion due to parity of power of the two superpowers. With the end of the Cold War and after the dismantlement of the Warsaw Pact, American foreign policy makers assumed that coercion and use of force if necessary could serve the US foreign policy objectives. However, the post-war situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are difficult to be managed by America alone. And more importantly, they require long-term and socio-economic engagement rather than military operations alone.

The US officials contrary to their beliefs and actions admit that wars cannot be won militarily. For example, former US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates observed that “one of the important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win: economic development, institution-building and the rule of law, promoting internal reconciliation, good governance, providing basic services…along with security, are essential ingredients for success.”

In the absence of these basic requirements, non-state actors like terrorists, warlords and civil war groups move from strength to strength. Realizing that there is no military endgame to Afghan problem, the US has looked for political solutions like talking to the Taliban to stop attacks on the US and NATO forces in return for their reconciliation into Afghan political mainstream.

Military and strategic perspective on security is based on zero-sum game. Gain is ensured by defeating the enemy. The states which fight the enemy have different military-strategic objectives. Where the end objective is military-strategic in nature, the immediate objective of member-states is bound to be military-strategic with the same logic of zero-sum game. For example, the US call for ‘War on Terror’ has been conjoined by many states, but their military strategic objectives substantially differ as they belong to different geopolitical realities.

While Pakistan is more inclined to defend its interests against India, Russia wants to maintain its interests in Central Asia by not allowing Islamic forces into it and ‘War on Terror’ would help Russia to fight in Chechnya but is worried about NATO’s presence in Central Asia and Afghanistan, Iran wants to defend its geopolitical interests in Central Asia and maintain its traditional sphere of influence in western Afghanistan, and Central Asian states apprehend the spread of Islamic fundamentalism to their territory and to get rid of Russian monopoly over the energy politics in the region they invite the US presence in the region.

Additionally, states have entered into deep economic and cultural relationship which is mutually beneficial and any conflict on military and strategic front would cost them more as the states involved in the conflict may have to bear the accumulated cost of disrupting the chain. As economic security has begun to play more important or as important role as military security perspective, some scholars defined the world as militarily unipolar but economically multipolar. The global financial crisis points to the extent to which financial market has been integrated. And to tone down the crisis required joint efforts on the part of major economic players and members of G-20 and on which both developed and developing countries debated to evolve common strategy to deal with the crisis.

Containment of Iran, which has been one of the primary objectives of the American strategy in Afghanistan, may find difficulty in an ever-increasing inter-dependent world. Even after Bush included Iran in his description of “Axis of evil” in his State of the Union address of 29 January 2002, the European Union foreign ministers reached an agreement to open talks with Iran on a trade and cooperation pact in the month of June of the same year. When the Sheer Energy Company of Canada agreed to an US$80 million development project with the National Iranian Oil Company, the US objected to it categorically. Similarly, Moscow has a major investment in Iran’s nuclear program. The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy was closely involved in building Iran’s $1 billion Bushehr nuclear power plant, and the Russian nuclear industry was looking for more such projects.

Neither has the world emerged completely unipolar, nor has any world society become firmly established. In between the two perspectives on the post-Cold War era, there remains a large grey area where states move from the pro-US foreign policy or clear anti-US or restricted foreign policy to a more independent foreign policy.

For example, Iran pursued a cautious foreign policy in the Cold War period due to the presence of the Soviet Union near its border and America’s policy of sanctions after the hostage crisis. After the disintegration of the USSR, Iran has on several occasions expressed its will to play role of a regional power. It is developing nuclear plants with Russian assistance despite American sanctions. The coercive diplomacy of the US against Iran is ineffective so long as Russia does not agree to it. Growing interdependence and availability of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction to large number of state actors have granted such independence to them.

In the case of Afghanistan, regional powers like Iran, Pakistan, India and many Central Asian states can be seen trying to pursue their strategic interests more independently. Central Asia, which till the disintegration of the Soviet Union, came in relation to other countries through Soviet Union’s foreign policy making with clear anti-US thrust, tried to move away from Russian orbit but never liked to replace Russian hegemony with any other power’s hegemony. They preferred independence to any other kind of regional security arrangements centering around a hegemon. Therefore, they played one power against other to secure independence.

Though there is no militarily powerful state or a combination of such states existing to challenge the US’s power position globally, various regional powers can pool their strength to effectively challenge the extra-regional ambitions of the US. The formation of the Sanghai Cooperation Organisation in which both Russia and China cooperate and provide all the Central Asian states including themselves the required leverage against the US points to this. Though both the countries welcomed the US to operate against the terrorists and cooperated with it, they were insistent that the US should exit from the region as soon as the War on Terror was over.

US unilateral policies to take on international terrorism will have difficulties given asymmetric wars cannot be won. Nuclear missile defense technology developed by the US will not be able to detect such operations if planes and buses are used for terrorist operations and people sneak in through fake passports and visas. Like conventional regular army of the opponent, there is no identifiable enemy in such kind of asymmetric warfare. They mingle with civilians and they can even enter into the territory of some other states from where they can wage war.

The difficulties in the counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan revealed that the US Army embraces a big-war paradigm. Difficult terrains, porous boundaries, difficulty in understanding native peoples’ language and cultural dissimilarity impede American fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The most tragic part of the complicated international system is with the rise of non-state actors like the radical religious groups, states need not form alliances on a formal basis and can operate in a surreptitious way as the other group is not a state. Pakistan provides a cogent example to illustrate this. On the one hand it fights the ‘war on terror’ and the other side it provides sanctuary and logistical help to different terrorist groups.


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Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in International Relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. Currently, he is the program coordinator at the School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India and he is also a faculty member of the new School at Ravenshaw. He teaches Theories of International Relations and India’s Foreign Policy to MA and MPhil students.

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