Managing Volatility In An Uncertain World

Aug 31st, 2019 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

Despite everything that has occurred over the last five years, the United States remains the only major world power.  The events leading up to World War I and World War II proved that isolationism is not a viable foreign policy. After World War II, the US put together a series of alliances and economic entities to move the world towards relative peace and economic prosperity.  Through the decades of the Cold War, those systems have worked.  But today, the US position is being challenged by China and, to a lesser extent, Russia.  China’s growing military and economic power pose a genuine threat to the national security of the US.  Time will tell whether the trade strategies President Trump is pursuing will work.  But there are two areas where the US can learn from both history and common sense—Russia under Vladimir Putin and Afghanistan.

First, some thoughts about Putin and Russia.  Russia under Vladimir Putin is essentially a nation that is economically similar to a third-world nation.  Its gross domestic product is smaller than Italy’s.  It is severely declining in its population growth and has an antiquated, deficient infrastructure.  It government is arguably one of the most corrupt on the planet and it depends on fossil-fuel exports for 60% of its budget.  So, despite all of these immensely important disadvantages, Putin seeks to make Russia a major power once again.  He is an increasingly authoritarian president who has admitted that he is a “hooligan” who “credits judo with teaching him discipline and a specific outlook on life.”  Angela Stent, director of Georgetown’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, takes Putin at his word and shows how in world affairs Putin plays judo, not chess: “In judo, a seemingly weaker practitioner can rely on inner strength and force of will to defeat a larger, stronger foe.  One basic technique involves putting an opponent off balance and taking advantage of his temporary disorientation to strike a winning blow.”  This much is quite clear about Putin: Putin “has a plan to restore Russia as a great power . . . the US has had no comparable strategy in the post-Cold War era, and Russia has taken advantage against its much stronger competitor.”  What are the evidences that Putin’s strategy is working?

  • The Middle East: Russia is now a key player for the first time in decades.  Russia is now the major military and diplomatic player in the Syrian civil war, having saved the Assad regime.  When President Obama refused to respond militarily to Assad crossing the “red line” by using chemical weapons in 2013, Putin pounced.  He has enjoyed remarkable success in making Russia once again a major power in this region.
  • He has exacerbated tension within NATO by befriending Turkey’s President Erdogan, who is angry at the US for many reasons. Most significant is that Turkey has taken delivery of its first Russian-made S-400 air-defense system, in defiance of NATO’s explicit prohibition on doing so.
  • Putin has cultivated a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, involving oil, investment and diplomatic coordination. King Salman of Saudi Arabia made an elaborate visit to Russia in 2017.
  • Because of Trump’s escalating trade war with China, Putin has expanded the burgeoning Sino-Russian partnership, “making Moscow more indispensable to Beijing by strengthening military cooperation. Last September Chinese troops for the first time participated in joint maneuvers in the Russian Far East.  This July came the first-ever joint Russian-Chinese long-range nuclear-capable bomber patrol over the Sea of Japan. . . .”  Like-minded authoritarians are challenging the US in Asia.
  • Putin is playing on the weak points of the European Union by befriending Hungary’s Viktor Orban and the right-wing government of Italy. Both governments have criticized EU sanctions against Russia.

The second area of concern is Afghanistan.  Some kind of peace agreement seems imminent between the Taliban of Afghanistan and the Trump administration.  From the vantage point of the US, America will apparently agree to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan.  Would it be a wise policy decision for the US to withdraw from Afghanistan?  Retired US Army general David Petraeus and Vance Serchuk of the Center for a New American Security argue that “a complete military exit from Afghanistan today would be even more ill-advised and risky than the Obama administration’s disengagement from Iraq in 2011 . . . In Afghanistan, by contrast [with Iraq] the Taliban are far from defeated, while some 20 foreign terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS retain a presence in the region.  It is unlikely that any will join a peace deal.”  What are the chief concerns if the US completely pulls out of Afghanistan?

  • First, “the idea that the US can leave if the Taliban promises to combat rather than conspire with these groups is also wrongheaded. Until the Taliban demonstrate they have both the determination and the capability to work with the Afghan government against international terrorists—and there is ample reason to doubt this—common sense dictates the US must retina its own means to pressure extremist networks plotting against the American homeland and US allies.”
  • Second, if the Trump administration pulls out of Afghanistan, the result will be “a full-blown civil war and the reestablishment of a terrorist sanctuary as existed when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.”
  • Third, the Taliban leaders have made clear that once the US leaves, they will seek to topple the present Afghan government and re-establish the medieval Islamic rule they fostered before 9/11 in Afghanistan. Such a development would likely “reinvigorate the flagging fortunes of Islamist extremists worldwide and the global terrorist threat—which, despite the destruction of Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria, is by no means defeated.”  History has shown that when Obama abandoned Iraq in 2011, this opened the door to the development and growth of ISIS.  “If the US abandons Afghanistan to chaos, this pattern is likely to repeat itself and the resulting crisis will once again dominate Washington’s foreign-policy bandwidth, to the detriment of its ability to manage other challenges, including China” and Russia.  The kind of US withdrawal “that was inadvisable in Iraq eight years ago would be indefensible for Afghanistan today.”

May God give our current leaders wisdom and discernment in managing these two volatile areas of our world today.  This we know: Vladimir Putin is not our friend!  The lessons of Iraq should inform our decisions about Afghanistan!

See Angela Stent in the Wall Street Journal (9 August 2019) and David Petraeus and Vance Serchuk in the Wall Street Journal (10-11 August 2019).

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