Following his phone call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on October 6, President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of about 1,000 US soldiers from northern Syria and has since precipitated a crisis. His move has been seen as betraying an ally. Now, the Taliban must also be wondering whether they should revive the pursuit of a deal with the US, or wait for Trump to similarly lose patience– especially as American presidential elections draw close – and abandon his ostensible ally, the Afghan government in Kabul.
Around world capitals, there is now considerable anxiety over how reliable a partner the US can be under Trump, and a move to recalibrate strategies have already begun. To ally or not to ally with the US is the question that is worrying many. Trust and predictability are vital for alliance commitments to endure, and for risk-prone joint efforts that are undertaken.
Trump’s policies do not command universal support or widespread acceptance even in the US. Yet, he clearly sees electoral advantage in consolidating support among his base of 30-40 per cent of the electorate, which has felt disadvantaged from globalisation catalysed by the US.
A new US president in 2021 and 2025 will likely walk back on some of the Trumpian sharp edges. But it could be difficult to enthuse the US electorate towards a full reversal to the pre-2008 period of globalisation advocacy and alliance commitments. That order is pretty much in tatters now.
Trump, nevertheless, is signalling a major reversal from the role the US has sought to define for itself post World War II, and particularly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and resulting unipolar phase in international politics.
Trump’s decision was contrary to the briefing notes given to him before his call with Erdoğan, contrary to the recommendations of the US military, and contrary to the position of his stalwart Republican supporters in the US Congress, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsay Graham.
But it was in keeping with the positions he had repeatedly articulated during the election campaign in 2016, and since being elected President on 8 November that year. He has questioned what value the allies and alliances (European, NATO and others) hold for the US, faulted them for not meeting their alliance expenditure commitments, called for US troops to end their active external engagements (in Afghanistan and Syria), and advocated for countries to follow a ‘nationalistic’ course in foreign policy. In December 2018, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis had resigned following another of Trump’s personal decisions, a similar order for the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, although it was subsequently diluted during implementation.
Even though Trump has taken articulation and implementation of the unilateralist impulse in the United States’ foreign policy to an extreme, the blowback to US’ extended military engagement in Afghanistan (since 2001), Iraq (since 2003) and Syria, has been welling up for some time. Trump’s predecessor President Barack Obama too had campaigned in 2008 seeking to end the war in Iraq and bring the one in Afghanistan to a responsible conclusion. While emphasising the value of alliances, and resulting commitments to Japan and the Philippines in the event of an attack, Obama had refused to endorse their respective claims on the Senkaku Islands and over Scarborough shoal in their dispute with China.
Trump’s reversal of US strategies
In his inaugural address in January 1949, President Harry S. Truman had outlined “four major courses of action”: support to the UN and related agencies, world economic recovery, strengthening “freedom-loving nations against the dangers of aggression”, and “making the benefits of … scientific advances and industrial progress available for the growth of underdeveloped areas”.
The unstated premise was that the US would seek to provide “global goods” in terms of security and development, and set international norms even as it pursued its national interests. In the wake of the unipolar moment in the 1990s, some in the US declared “end of history”, that the world would now be made in the image of Western “liberal” societies, and NATO and the European Union would expand eastward to cement the victory in the Cold War.
The US, however, failed to end its military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The 2008 global financial crisis raised questions about the US’ economic governance model. Post 2000, Russia began to assert its interests, as a counterfoil to the West, in Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and now Syria, and in the years after the 2008 recession, the Chinese economic and military accretions became more visible. Europe, meanwhile, was challenged by the fear of Grexit, the reality of Brexit, economic stagnation, and the rise of Right-wing political forces.
Trump is now reversing several of the US’ post-war strategies. He is disavowing multilateralism, including the World Trade Organisation (WTO). He has been reluctant to endorse Article 5 alliance commitments in NATO, and has imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from alliance partners ostensibly on national security grounds. He has challenged any special consideration to developing countries and has withdrawn preferential trade benefits of allowing duty-free entry to Indian products.
America’s allies would now need to chalk up new strategies and partnerships.
France has spoken of normalising relations, while Germany is building another energy pipeline with Russia, even as differences persist over Crimea and Ukraine. Europe will need to consolidate more towards security and foreign policy convergence, an effort that the US, Russia and China will all seek to thwart. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin on a visit, Turkey and Israel have done extensive outreach to Russia, which is now seen as the major power broker in Syria. ASEAN countries do not want to have to choose between the US and China, in the wake of US Indo-Pacific strategy, and would now be even more mindful of Chinese sensitivities. China has emerged as the largest trading partner for Australia, Africa and Latin America.
India’s balancing act
India, too, would have to fashion its policies amid this multi-polar flux. The US remains India’s leading partner in trade, investment, defence, education and people-to-people links, and supportive of its global aspirations. Elements of convergence in the Indo-Pacific, growing trade, investment, and defence cooperation will enable India to keep the US invested in its economic and security success. However, this has to be balanced with the understanding that the US will take decisions in its own interests and will be driven by its own political compulsions.
Continuing efforts to deepen engagement with Russia through energy and defence partnerships and investments in the Russian Far East will provide India with the necessary ballast. With China, India will perhaps now need to “hide and bide”, build up its capacities, and play a long game of seeking convergence, despite obvious differences, as is being done through the informal summit process. Relations with Japan, Europe, Africa, Latin America, ASEAN, West Asia will all need focused attention.
In another era and time, third US President Thomas Jefferson had advocated for “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations…entangling alliances with none”. Given the current unpredictability in the US’ internalisation of its role in “global goods” and norms, a “multi-stakeholder” or “multi-alliance” strategy may best serve the objective of protecting national interests, including from challenges such as terrorism, and adversarial footprints in one’s neighbourhood.
The author is former Ambassador to the US and involved in dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan in the post 9/11 period. Views are personal.