Tensions on the rise as rudderless US fails to show leadership

The events of this summer show a world in which nations seem notably closer than ever before to turning to force, writes Peter Apps            

Tensions on the rise as rudderless US fails to show leadership

‘NOT this August, nor this September,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in the summer of 1935 as international tensions in Europe and beyond began to simmer. “But the year after that or the year after that, they fight.”

He was writing, of course, about the threat of a coming world war — and although it took several years longer than he thought, he was right.

Something alarmingly similar may be happening now. Tensions between the US and North Korea might be grabbing the headlines, but that isn’t the only crisis that could spark a major war. And where the Trump administration should be engaged in tamping down hostilities, it is either escalating them or missing in action.

Almost everywhere you look, relations between countries — particularly potential adversaries — seem to be deteriorating, often alarmingly sharply. Washington, meanwhile, has rarely been more self-absorbed.

The trend has been a long time coming, predating US President Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House. The chaotic, idiosyncratic nature of the Trump administration, however — most particularly its unpredictability and isolationist, protectionist rhetoric — may well be worsening it.

In most cases, regional acrimony is causing diplomatic difficulties but probably not outright conflict. In the Middle East, the spat between Qatar and its neighbours, principally Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is serious but probably not lethal.

Turkey and Greece may be posturing militarily against each other again, but it’s very unlikely they will fight.

In other cases, however, peace is much less certain. Indeed, even if the world makes it through 2017 without any of these conflicts erupting, the risk may continue to ratchet higher.

On August 15, as America obsessed over the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests and the ongoing machinations within the White House, Indian and Chinese troops were clashing high in the Himalayas.

Exactly what happened in the remote patch of disputed territory between India, China and Bhutan remains unclear. Video footage shows soldiers grappling with each other with hooks and stones, but the confrontation has yet to be officially confirmed by either side.

What does seem clear is that it was one of the most serious incidents between the two nuclear powers in decades.

In the Balkans, Serbia and Macedonia are engaged in a worsening diplomatic spat. Russia is on the brink of its largest military exercise in years, a sign of ever rising tension with Nato.

A handful of threads and constant themes draw these various crises together. A decade into the global financial crisis, leaders in almost every country are facing awkward economic and political realities and there is inevitably nationalist rhetoric to turn anger outward.

The rise of emerging economies in recent decades has inevitably led to a geopolitical rebalancing, and countries are testing their newfound strengths.

Nowhere is that more visible than with China and Russia. The Russian economy might be barely the size of New York City, but Moscow discovered with the Georgia war nine years ago that its military prowess — now much modernised — still gave it clout in its own neighbourhood.

Beijing is making a similar discovery. Earlier this month, it effectively forced Vietnam to back down in a dispute over offshore oil drilling; a development that will inevitably encourage Chinese hawks to push their luck still further.

That also seems the case in other local, smaller conflicts.

Saudi Arabia was seen to have taken considerable heart from Trump’s visit earlier this year, becoming much more aggressive in both its prosecution of war in Yemen and regional efforts to isolate Qatar. It was probably always a mistake to assume that Washington was ever a truly “responsible adult” keeping other nations in check.

Certainly, no one believes it now.

This era was inevitably going to be a strategic nightmare for the US, one in which it would have to make tough choices about where to put resources and draw its red lines.

The US administration of Barack Obama struggled to find the right answers. Under Trump, however, the US faces an even tougher challenge when it comes to maintaining international legitimacy and confidence.

It would be wrong to accuse the current president of having no interest whatsoever in foreign matters. On North Korea, Afghanistan, and other issues, the US president and his national security team have clearly devoted a considerable degree of effort and focus. This presidency, however, is increasingly seen as having little or no grasp of the bigger picture.

A collection of interviews with six senior European officials — all of whom had been in top-level meetings with Trump — published by Buzzfeed earlier this month shows a widespread lack of respect for the US president.

The officials described him as ignorant and unpredictable, and they were particularly concerned over his erratic use of Twitter.

If anything, such worries have been dramatically heightened by events of the last month, which have seen Trump firing multiple members of his administration and making polarising statements about the white nationalist protest that left a counter-protester dead in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When the president responded to last week’s militant attack in Barcelona with a factually inaccurate reference expressing support for rumoured US abuses against Muslims following the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, few were even surprised.

There remains widespread respect for many of those at the top of the administration, particularly the triumvirate of generals who control much foreign policy. But there are also real worries.

Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman described Trump’s America as a “dangerous nation”, worrying openly that the president might strike North Korea, initiating a war to distract from problems at home.

Shortly after, South Korea President Moon Jae-in took the unusual step of stating that any military action on the Korean peninsula would first have to be approved by Seoul, as close as any major political leader has come to suggesting publicly those concerns are much more widely shared.

It’s not too late to turn things around. Few countries are willing to risk outright conflict in an age where it could easily spark nuclear Armageddon. The events of this summer, however, show a world in which nations seem notably closer than before to turning to force.

It’s a bad time for the US to look rudderless and poorly led, but that’s exactly what is happening.

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues.

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