It’s going to be a year of ‘conscious uncoupling’
As 2019 hastens to an end, its defining patterns are clear. The year was marked by two rancorous relationships: between China and the United States and between Turkey and NATO. Then there was United States and the sole superpower’s shape-shifting view of its role in the Middle East and North Africa.
Taken together, the world goes into the 2020s in an extraordinary flux, engaged in something that actress Gwyneth Paltrow and singer Chris Martin once said of the state of their disintegrating marriage: conscious uncoupling.
What might this mean in real terms for the region?
In 2020, the final year of US President Donald Trump’s first term, it’s clear that his promised Deal of the Century is off the immediate agenda. Though the White House said the long-delayed peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complete and had promised its release after Israeli elections in September, that schedule has been disrupted by Israel’s domestic political situation.
Israel’s third election in less than a year looms in March. By then, the US presidential season will be roaring ahead and the focus will narrow to Trump’s re-election campaign through Election Day, November 3. Accordingly, Trump’s much-hyped grand bargain seems destined to remain a ghostly, unseen presence, at least for the remainder of this presidential term.
Trump all but acknowledged this in his address December 7 to the right-leaning Israeli American Council. Seeming to blame the intractable nature of the conflict rather than his administration’s maladroit diplomacy and partisan attitude towards one party to the dispute, Trump said he had been told that achieving peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians would be the hardest deal of all. “If Jared Kushner can’t do it, it can’t be done,” he declared.
In the new year, US policy on Syria is also likely to remain reflexive and short-term. On December 11, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper told a congressional committee that the reduced US contingent in Syria had a circumscribed focus: “The mission remains the enduring defeat of [the Islamic State] ISIS,” he said, adding “We could consider redeploying… when we feel confident that local security and police forces are capable of handling any type of resurgence.”
Two months after Trump’s decision to pull troops out of northern Syria in a tacit go-ahead to Turkey’s subsequent offensive, Esper admitted that the United States “expected turmoil” as Turkey moved Syrian refugees into the area.
Even as he acknowledged concerns that Turkey was “moving out of the NATO orbit” and towards Russia and engaging in actions “to the detriment of the alliance,” Esper laid out six broad objectives for the US military in the region that served to emphasise the narrow prism of America’s perceived interest.
“The stability of the Middle East remains important to our nation’s security,” he said. “As such, we will continue to calibrate all of our actions to deter conflict, to avoid unintended escalation and to enable our partners to defend themselves against regional aggressors. In doing so, we will preserve the hard-won gains of the past and ensure the security of the United States and our vital interests.”
In the circumstances, it’s fair to ask if the new year will see the United States all but washing its hands off the MENA region. If so, what might this mean?
There are parts of the US approach that accord with a theory put forward by Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, whose academic research re-envisions global power dynamics. Mahbubani’s latest book bears a somewhat provocative title, “Has the West lost it?” In it, he argues that the West, which is to say the US-led community of Western countries, must not “lose it” in the impending clash with rising powers. Instead, he argues, the West should adopt a “3M” strategy: minimalist, multilateralist and Machiavellian.
There is something to be said for Mahbubani’s 3M strategy.
Minimalism, which is a call to do less — intervention, fighting unnecessary wars — will not only help regions such as MENA where the West has traditionally meddled to little purpose and great harm but would also prevent the draining of spirits and resources from Western societies.
As for multilateralism, it ties in with a Machiavellian strategy of self-preservation. With most of the world population — 88% — living outside the West, it is wise to prop up global multilateral institutions, Mahbubani argues.
It all makes good sense but the year is closing out with a key multilateral institution — the World Trade Organisation — crippled by the Trump administration. On December 11, the WTO’s trade court became ineffective because Washington has repeatedly blocked judicial appointments since 2017.
All bets are off on what lies ahead in 2020 but it probably won’t be a sober and well-judged 3M strategy on the part of the West.