Just about four days after US President DonaldTrump shocked the world with his December 18 national security speech, his Vice President Mike Pence during a surprise visit to Afghanistan interpreted a part of the policy statement for Islamabad saying that now Pakistan has been put on notice, clearly alluding to the US perception that this country was still providing safe havens to terrorists.
This is, indeed, so far the harshest US warning to Pakistan since the beginning of the Afghan war more than 16 years ago and follows several recent statements, indicating US indignation with Islamabad.
In the speech North Korea, Iran and terrorism (Islamic State/al Qaeda) have been mentioned as critical immediate concerns, but the real emphasis seems to be on the so-called strategic “gap” with the Chinese and Russians.
Most likely, attempts to narrow this gap would bring the US in direct conflict with Pakistan as Washington seems all set to focus on China, Russia and their partners and friends.
According to the assertions of a part of US media that the actions of the current administration go against the national security establishment or against the foreign policy establishment is said to miss the reality that neither of these “establishments” has a singular voice, nor have they historically. There are always dissenting voices, counterarguments and challenges to the accepted methods to address policy challenges.
This assessment is said to be neither a critique of nor an argument in favor of the current administration’s assessments of priorities or ways to deal with them. Rather it is a call, the assessment asserted for sober reflection and for recognizing that the way things were done for the past eight years, or 20 years, or 50 years are not necessarily the only way to do things. Presidents and administrations, it said, are often seeking to change things, to differentiate themselves, to refocus the priorities of the nation.
It is therefore, claimed that the trick is not to criticize because things are different but to step back and assess policies for what they are, for their risks and opportunities and for their implications at home and abroad. Modern U.S. history reveals that change is the norm and that the policies of today may create the problems of tomorrow. Really what is happening in the US needs to be seen in the context that countries have core interests and imperatives, and that their relative importance can shift with time and circumstances. Geopolitics does not dictate the response. This is where politics and policy assert themselves and where personalities become important.
A part of the US media does not see any significant difference between the perception of Obama and Trump when it comes to identifying the risks to American interests and security posed by North Korea, Iran, the Islamic State or even China. This is not to say that there are no differences, but rather that it’s often less about identifying what represents a challenge to U.S. strategic interests than about how to deal with them. In this, the difference between the two administrations appears rather stark.
Obama entered office with the intent to rehabilitate what he and others saw as a damaged U.S. image abroad. They believed that U.S. influence and thus power had been undermined by the Iraq War and by the general impression that the United States was an unrestrained cowboy nation. They saw that United States had lost the cushion of global sympathy that followed the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The Obama administration pursued a foreign policy framed in terms of international cooperation and collaboration. It was a policy that the current administration argues led to weaknesses in the overall U.S. strategic position abroad and at home. The Trump administration is calling for a revival of American power, economically and militarily, under a mantra of America First.
According to this section of US media the approaches are rather different, though perhaps not quite the polar opposites some would argue. Nor is this, it believes, a unique situation in American history. While not a perfect parallel, it is instructive to look back a few decades to the 1970s, when U.S. power was seen to be waning due to the failure in Vietnam, domestic social instability and the political crisis of Watergate and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Under the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the United States pursued a policy of detente with the Soviet Union and sought to rehabilitate the international U.S. image through a reduction of military forces abroad. Cooperation and collaboration were seen by the administration as the best policies to preserve American influence and international security, particularly given the social and economic problems at home.
But detente was certainly not universally accepted in the US as the “right” path. Both within and on the fringes of the “establishment,” there were rising voices warning that detente, that the reduction of U.S. military forces and that arms control agreements with the Soviets were not securing peace, but were weakening U.S. power and giving the Soviets time and space to outpace the United States. Washington was being duped into giving up its military strength, for little reward. This counter to detente was voiced strongly by many of those from the neoconservative movement, driven by the so-called neocons seeking to revitalize America’s military, economic and political might, and to reclaim a place for U.S. primacy in the world system.
According to this section of US media it was Ronald Reagan who capitalized on this, characterizing Carter as weak, calling for a revival of American greatness and urging a more robust military and stronger nuclear deterrent and ballistic missile defense. The Iran crisis was seen as proof that America had grown weak, that there was little respect for American military might and thus that overall U.S. security was now at risk abroad because others were more willing to challenge and directly confront the United States. Inside the U.S. intelligence community, another contrary line was also said to be underway, and assessments of Soviet missile and nuclear capabilities were radically revised, setting off alarm bells about the pace and scale of Soviet advancements.
There certainly were counterarguments and warnings (in some cases, ultimately proved correct) that these new assessments were far more dire on paper than in reality and that there was a major overestimation of Soviet strength and American weakness. But Reagan and the neo-conservative camp won out, and the response was a fairly significant shift in U.S. international policy, in defense budgets, in trade policies and in Soviet relations. The transition from Carter to Reagan was stark. Rather than offer them detente to ease nuclear tensions, Reagan labeled the Soviets the “evil empire.” Rather than further reduce military forces abroad, the United States increased defense spending and attention to nuclear and missile programs. Rather than be a cooperative power, the United States reasserted its own interests, challenged institutions such as the United Nations and set an agenda based on ‘realist’ views of U.S. national security.
And the Carter-Reagan transition, with its significant shift in national security focus and in defining the ways to deal with key issues, was said to be in some ways a repeat of a similar dynamic after the discovery of the so-called missile gap with the Soviets two decades earlier. In that case, John F. Kennedy claimed that it was Dwight D. Eisenhower (a general, of all people) who was weak on defense and who had let American power slip. Kennedy came in seeking to shake things up and to invigorate America, launching into the space race as a way to avoid falling further behind the Soviets. It’s a recurring pattern in American history, where leaders blame their predecessors for policies that ultimately led to weakening U.S. power and influence. Obama argued that America was less respected because of the perceived unilateralism of the administration of President George W. Bush. Trump has argued — and did so again Dec. 18 in his national security speech — that America is less respected because of the perceived capitulation of the Obama administration to other country’s interests and desires.
The Carter-Reagan analogy holds, at least superficially, with the tradition when moving from Obama to Trump. And Trump has, not coincidentally, drawn on many of the same slogans, the same imagery and the same concepts as did Reagan. There is attention to American manufacturing, to tax reform, to the Make America Great Again slogans, to calls for updated and expanded nuclear arms, to questions of the viability of arms control treaties with Russia, to a push for increased military spending and to challenges to global institutions and agreements that appear to disadvantage the United States. Trump has surrounded himself with the new version of the neocons, has taken a more assertive stance toward North Korea and Iran, and has targeted trade agreements that he and his advisers see as constraining U.S. interests.
What, however, this section of US media has missed to take into account is that the ‘strategic gap’ that Trump is said to have perceived emerging between the US and China/Russia is not ideological and/or military as was the situation in Reagan’s time between the US and the Soviet Union.
This perceived ‘ strategic gap’ actually represents markets—China/Russia market is expanding while that of the US is shrinking. Therefore, the US economy itself is becoming increasingly dependent on the ‘strategic gap’. And any weakening of the US economy is certainly going to adversely impact on the military prowess of the US.
What is more likely, in due course of time, perhaps even before Trump’s first term is over, is a realization that is likely to dawn on the US administration that it would be in its own geo-economic interest to cooperate with China/Russia and their friends and partners like Pakistan rather than wasting time, resources and energy trying to narrow the so called ‘strategic gap’.