While much of the world’s attention was focused last week on the G20 meeting in Hamburg, and Donald Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin, a historic decision took place at the United Nations (UN) in New York.
This new treaty sets the international norm that nuclear weapons are no longer morally acceptable. This is the first step along the road to their eventual elimination from our planet, although the issue of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions remains unresolved.
Earlier this year, thousands of scientists including 30 Nobel Prize winners signed an open letter calling for nuclear weapons to be banned. I was one of the signees, and am pleased to see an outcome linked to this call so swiftly and resolutely answered.
More broadly, the nuclear weapon treaty offers hope for formal negotiations about lethal autonomous weapons (otherwise known as killer robots) due to start in the UN in November. Nineteen countries have already called for a pre-emptive ban on such weapons, fearing they will be the next weapon of mass destruction that man will invent.
An arms race is underway to develop autonomous weapons, in every theatre of war. In the air, for instance, BAE Systems is prototyping their Taranis drone. On the sea, the US Navy has launched their first autonomnous ship, the Sea Hunter. And under the sea, Boeing has a working version of a 15 metre long Echo Voyager autonomous submarine.
New treaty, new hope
The nuclear weapons treaty is an important step towards delegitimising nuclear weapons, and puts strong moral pressure on the nuclear states like the US, the UK and Russia to reduce and eventually to eliminate such weapons from their arsenals. The treaty also obliges states to support victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons, and to address environmental damage caused by nuclear weapons.
It has to be noted that the talks at the UN and subsequent vote on the treaty were boycotted by all the nuclear states, as well as by a number of other countries. Australia has played a leading role in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and other disarmament talks. Disappointingly Australia was one of these countries boycotting last week’s talks. In contrast, New Zealand played a leading role with their ambassador being one of the Vice-Presidents of the talks.
Whilst 122 countries voted for the treaty, one country (the Netherlands) voted against, and one (Singapore) abstained from the vote.
The treaty will open for signature by states at the United Nations in New York on September 20, 2017. It will then come into force once 50 states have signed.
Even though major states have boycotted previous disarmament treaties, this has not prevented the treaties having effect. The US, for instance, has never signed the 1999 accord on anti-personnel landmines, wishing to support South Korea’s use of such mines in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with North Korea. Nevertheless, the US follows the accord outside of the DMZ.
Given that 122 countries voted for the nuclear prohibition treaty, it is likely that 50 states will sign the treaty in short order, and that it will then come into force. And, as seen with the landmine accord, this will increase pressure on nuclear states like the US and Russia to reduce and perhaps even eliminate their nuclear stockpiles.
The vote also raises hope on the issue of killer robots. Two years ago, I and thousands of my colleagues signed an open letter calling for a ban on killer robots. This pushed the issue up the agenda at the UN and helped get 123 nations to vote last December at the UN in Geneva for the commencement of formal talks.
The idea the world is sleepwalking to war, much like Europe did in the early years of the 20th century, deserves to be taken seriously. One of us (Chris Barrie) set the hares running recently when he said that, as in 1914, political leaders today are doing just that.
But the problem with history is that it is always easy to gainsay such parallels. History doesn’t repeat itself – at least not in an exact way. The parallels that exist are usually at such a high level of abstraction that small shifts in local circumstances can render them useless.
History’s problem is the problem of the dynamics of all complex systems. Their futures are not determined, yet nor are they random. At any given point in time, the next step for any complex system exists as many possibilities – some of which are much more likely to occur than others.
How complex systems thinking can help
Complex systems thinking offers another approach to examine the parallels between today and the early 20th century. We can look forward with a complex systems perspective to seek the many possible futures, and then ask the question: which is the most likely?
We can do this through simulation. In this case, we need a model of the strategic interactions between countries that is sufficiently general that both the model and the real world are similar complex systems. And we need a model that is sufficiently realistic that its behaviours are easily recognisable in the real world of strategic interaction.
Until about 20 or 30 years ago, simulations of complex systems were pretty clunky and unrealistic. With advances in complex systems science, we can now build models that meet both criteria – generality and realism.
In this vein, we (Roger and Dmitry) have been building a general simulation framework that models the strategic interactions between countries. In discussion with Chris, we created a model within that framework that explores the essence of the sleepwalking hypothesis.
What we found broadly confirmed the hypothesis – but added some surprising wrinkles of its own.
What we found
The model stripped the problem to its essentials – a set of countries that interact with each other through competition (at its extreme, war) and co-operation (at its extreme, peace).
Countries can grow in wealth and power through these interactions. But there are costs imposed (especially by war) even on winners, so countries can also decline in wealth and power. Countries choose how to interact with a strategy they develop from their past experience and from observing what works for their neighbours.
For the sleepwalking hypothesis, we focused on two parameters that are part of a country’s strategy – hawkishness and risk aversion.
There is evidence of hawkishness in the rise in nationalism within countries as they adopt more aggressive postures in their international relations. In recent years, hawkishness has been growing in China, Russia, North Korea and the US.
An aggressive posture is one thing – but doing something about it is another, as countries factor in the costs and risks of aggression. So, we see risk aversion as a parameter distinct from hawkishness.
Saudi Arabia has demonstrated less risk aversion combined with high hawkishness in its Yemen excursions – as have Turkey and Iran in their Syrian adventure. But they also can be decoupled – North and South Korea are both pretty hawkish, but South Korea’s subtly calibrated risk aversion in the face of outrageous North Korean aggression has kept the two countries from war.
For instance, in 2010, a North Korean submarine, in an unprovoked attack, sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan. South Korea kept its response to the diplomatic domain.
We hypothesised that the world sleepwalks to war when hawkishness rises to high levels and risk aversion falls to low levels across the ensemble of states.
The interactive below shows the evolution of countries’ strategies when they believe war is not costly (whether it is or not), and when they have a tendency to copy other countries’ successful strategies.
We see that hawkishness grows very quickly and risk aversion declines very quickly across the whole ensemble. We also see that these strategies are very stable once achieved. When successful, the willingness of countries to resort to war to resolve their strategic dilemmas increases, the threshold for such a resort decreases, and this willingness is resistant to change once it is in place.
The model clearly confirms the hypothesis.
Is there a way out?
But is a de-escalation path available once the ensemble of countries is locked into high hawkishness and low risk aversion, and just waiting for a trigger for a major conflict?
Because of the in-step nature of “sleepwalking to war”, we wondered if explicit policy action by individual countries could carve out a de-escalation path. So, we drilled down into the behaviour of pairs of countries to see if we could visualise paths from war to peace.
Here we modelled, for a pair of countries, the most likely regions of war, peace and stand-off in their interactions for different degrees of hawkishness for each. We added the idea of a stand-off to our model to account for the “not-peace, not-war” phenomenon observed, for example, during the Cold War.
We then tracked the evolution of that landscape as risk aversion increased, as shown below.
We can see clearly that increased hawkishness alone will not lead to war unless risk aversion is also low. When risk aversion is high, there is plenty of peaceful space available even in the highly hawkish parts of the landscape.
In the Cold War, even though both sides mirrored each other in highly hawkish ways, their mutual risk aversion actually created a long, if tense, peace – a stand-off. And statesmanship on both sides continually steered the strategies towards the more peaceful parts of the landscape.
But we can also see that the peaceful domain in the landscape shrinks rapidly as risk aversion decreases, such that, at low risk aversion, even low levels of hawkishness can drive countries to war.
What does all this mean?
Taking both sets of results together, we think that, in walking countries away from war, statesmanship might find much more purchase on risk aversion than on hawkishness.
It seems hawkishness is more about values (as seen, for example, in emotional calls to nationalism and populism). Risk aversion, by contrast, seems more about the rational balance of war’s costs and benefits.
With hawkishness strongly influenced by the behaviours of other countries, it is easier to talk it up than down. And, with high emotional content, it’s likely to be resistant to statesmanship – that is, policy actions that go against the grain of the moment.
But risk aversion, as a rational action, depends to a significant degree on a country’s internal policy environment – how its citizens feel about the costs of war – and so may be more amenable to change.
In an increasingly hawkish world, this may be our best bet for maintaining peace.
Retired United States general David Petraeus was a commander of international forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later he headed the CIA, before resigning amid a scandal involving his affair with his biographer.
At a Liberal Party gala dinner in Sydney on Friday, Petraeus was interviewed by Brendan Nicholson from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Petraeus argued there was more continuity than change in American foreign policy under the Trump presidency; warned the “generational” fight against Islamist terrorism would last far beyond its defeat on the military battleground; and declared China’s activities in the South China Sea should be dealt with firmly.
Below is an edited transcript of their discussion.
David Petraeus: I am here, frankly, because of the fondness, the affection, the admiration that I have for, first and foremost those who have worn your uniform – especially in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan where I was privileged to command diggers and developed extraordinary respect for them – but also for the time I have spent with your diplomats, with your development workers, with your intelligence officers.
There are lifetime friendships there that are founded on periods of real adversity. When I most needed help I knew that I could call, for example, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston and [get it] even more rapidly than I could get forces from my own country.
Although we have vast forces and they would respond after you submitted the request for forces and it went through the chain of command, the services fought over who would do it and it went to the secretary of defence the one day a week that he signed these things if he was there and then they gave him an order to deploy and then they had to prepare for deployment, Angus Houston had 60 Aussies in Baghdad within a week of my calling him.
And it was that kind of relationship that we enjoyed and [with] many, many other individuals over the years.
You heard [tonight] from one of my wartime prime ministers, for whom I had enormous respect and still do, [former] prime minister Howard.
I should note that it was a prime minister of the other party, Julia Gillard, who made the first commitment of any national leader to extend the mandate of the international security force in Afghanistan and that really opened the floodgate to something that was enormously important, which is making sure the mandate literally did not run out and it was affirmed at the summit in Lisbon that year, and her leadership was also very, very important in that.
So, this is an extraordinary relationship between our two countries.
By the way, could I offer one quick anecdote? One of the times I was here, I remember [I] was hosted for lunch by your then minister of communications at his lovely place overlooking the water outside Sydney. And we had a great conversation and at a certain point I said, now minister – you ask these things when you’re trying to make conversation – so I said: where do you see yourself five or ten years from now?
This is a little less than two years ago and he said, well let me put it into military terms for you, and he looked and he got quite serious and he said, I may be approaching the up or out moment of my career.
He flew back to Canberra that night and was prime minister two or three days later.
Brendan Nicholson: You obviously gave him some good advice.
DP: Only in Australia.
BN: General Petraeus, as many of you would know, is an example of a class of very highly educated soldier scholars with a deep knowledge of history in an understanding of the role and responsibility of the military in a democratic society.
In 1987 while he was studying at Princeton University, he produced a thesis on the American military and the lessons of the Vietnam, a study of military influence and the use of force in the post-Vietnam era.
One of your conclusions was that the Vietnam experience … had led to a pattern of caution in the US military leadership when it came to advising the government of the day whether it should use armed force to deal with situations abroad.
The second concern you raised was a lack of focus on counterinsurgency training, which you went on to rectify.
But you’ve had four decades, an extremely crowded military career – much of that time in command in both Iraq and Afghanistan. If you had the chance, how would you mark that thesis now and would you have written it differently with all the experience you’ve had since?
DP: It’s a wonderful question. Another one of the conclusions was that in crisis decision-making … what tends to weigh on you most heavily are experiences you had personally and particularly those that were most visceral.
And I think I would actually use recent events to really affirm that further, because I think what’s happened in the United States and arguably in other, particularly democratic, countries in the world is that after a frustrating, tough, difficult experience like more recently Iraq or Afghanistan, there’s an understandable aversion to this and there’s a tendency to swing and [the] pendulum goes back and forth.
Arguably after 9/11, one could say we got perhaps a bit more, I don’t know if the term would be adventurous, but more willing to intervene and then it swung with the next administration I’d argue a bit too far the other way and it has come back somewhat to what I think is actually a reasonable balance.
I’ll tick off five lessons that I think we should have learnt from the past 15 years, particularly in the Middle East, but elsewhere as well.
The first is that ungoverned or even inadequately governed spaces in the Islamic world will be exploited by extremists. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when and how big will it be.
The second is that unfortunately Las Vegas rules do not apply in these areas: what happens there does not stay there.
Rather, they tend to spew violence, instability, extremism and a tsunami of refugees, not just into neighbouring countries, but in the case of Syria, a geopolitical Chernobyl meltdown of a country that has actually spewed them into Europe causing the biggest challenges domestically for our allies there.
The third is, by the way, you have to do something. You can’t do what we tried to do in Washington. I’m sure it would never be done in Canberra, but that is to admire a problem until it goes away. These problems aren’t going away. So you have to do something.
And the third is, that in doing something in most cases, not all, but in most cases the US is going to have to lead – and that is because [of] the way that we’ve learned how to do this now, where we are enabling others, they’re doing the fighting on the frontlines.
That’s hugely significant because of when I get to the fifth lesson – that these have to be sustainable.
The US has more of those enablers, more of the intelligent surveillance reconnaissance assets, the unmanned aerial vehicles and other systems, the precision strike, and the industrial strength ability to fuse intelligence. If you total up all of the drones in these platforms, of all the other possible allies and partners and multiply times six, you might get to what the US can bring to the fight and these are all integrated and connected with a global satellite communication system.
So, the US is going to have to do this but we’ve got to have a coalition. Coalitions do matter. I’ve long believed in the validity of what Churchill observed that the only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them.
And allies like Australia – particularly important countries that punch way above their weight class and shoulder far more of the burdens of ensuring freedom, prosperity and this rules-based international order than others.
We also, by the way, need Muslim partners. This is more of a struggle within the Islamic world – within the Muslim civilisation. It’s an existential threat to them, so more of that than it is actually a clash between civilisations – to harken back to Sam Huntington and his book.
The fourth is that in responding you have to have a comprehensive approach. You cannot counter terrorist forces like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda with just counter terrorist force operations. You’re not going to just drone strike or Delta Force raid your way out of this problem. You’re going to have to have armed forces on the ground. You’re going to have all of the elements of the civil military campaign plan that we had, frankly, in Iraq, but we don’t want to be doing all of them and we’re able now to do that in places like Iraq and in Syria and some others.
The reason that we don’t want to do that is because again it has to be sustainable – lesson number five is we are engaged in a generational struggle. And I know the leaders in here recognise that and it’s really important that that be communicated to populations, but they understand that we can carry out this generational struggle in a manner that is sustainable and sustainability is measured in the expenditure of blood and treasure.
So, you have to have a sustainable, sustained commitment. That is not easy, but we’re showing how that can be done now in these places that I’ve listed and also in others. Now there will be some, like in the Philippines, let’s say, where Australia will either lead or play a very significant role; Mali, where the French took the lead. But you will still even there find very substantial contributions from the United States.
So, those five lessons I think provide the intellectual foundation on which you will build policies and again if you come back to this, I think we’ve shifted back and forth arguably too much because of the influence of these very visceral experiences.
Vietnam weighed on that generation of officers inordinately. And I think you can be overly cautious, actually, and miss an opportunity when you should have intervened and then you have to come in later when it’s a much worse situation. But that’s the challenge and that’s the challenge that a wartime prime minister like Prime Minister [Malcolm] Turnbull bears and has to grapple with.
BN: From halfway around the world we watched with some astonishment for the best part of two years, while Americans fought this incredibly ferocious election campaign. There was dire warnings in Australia about the possible consequences, the possible return of a sense of isolationism in the United States and then the election of Mr Trump appeared to herald a more isolationist US policy.
With the benefits of several months of hindsight, do you believe that its allies in Europe and in this region can rely on America?
DP: I do. Look, I think what you have to do is jettison the campaign rhetoric or at the very least contrast it very considerably with what has actually taken place.
In some cases, it is taking a little while to get to a certain location like the presidential declaration of the Article 5 commitment in the NATO alliance that an attack on one is an attack on all. And ironically that opportunity to do that was not taken at the NATO Summit …
And then if you follow the money and follow the troops, don’t follow the tweets, follow what’s going on the ground, you’ll see the NATO forces are moving into the Baltic states and into eastern Poland.
There’s more resources from United States being provided to a European support initiative that will restore actually some of the capabilities that we took down after the Cold War now that there is a resurgence of an aggressive, adventurous Russia led by President [Vladimir] Putin.
If you look at China – most important relationship in the world – lots of accusations about China. A lot of trepidation. A phone call from the Taiwanese president was accepted without some sense of perhaps the historic nature of this and then a tweet followed that added a little bit of insult to injury.
Ultimately, there is a phone call between the president and President Xi [Jinping]. Then there’s the Mar-a-Lago summit. There’s the embrace of the One China policy and just this week, the first of four different groups that were charted by the Mar-a-Lago summit met.
This was between the secretaries of state and defence of the United States and their counterparts from China to start grappling with the really serious issues – the most prominent of which is North Korea and the desire to see China do more to squeeze, if you will, crimp down on this umbilical cord that basically keeps the lights on in Pyongyang.
You can work your way through a whole host of these different issues. The Iran nuclear deal that was going to be torn up on day one, we’re not walking away from. And it’s very pragmatic.
Unless there is really sufficient cause and a violation of that agreement, abrogating it would isolate us more than it would isolate Iran. We will counter malign Iranian influence more sufficiently and I applaud that. The America First does not turn out at all to have been America alone.
Frankly, I think the overall way to characterise American foreign policy that’s emerging is that there is more continuity than change and that even a lot of that continuity I see is improving. You see a commander-in-chief devolving authority down to the Pentagon or the battlefield commanders for decisions that I think should appropriately be made at those levels.
Now don’t get me wrong and by the way, again I remind you I’m non-partisan. I don’t vote. I don’t register. I don’t endorse. I don’t contribute. There was an op-ed that did appear in the Daily Arizonan that talked about saluting an American patriot – senator John McCain – two weeks before his election. But you know, you have to do these kinds of things for truly extraordinary people every now and then.
But so to show that, there are three areas that I do have concerns about and then one major issue that a lot of you have touched on.
Those would be climate … we’re again pledging to come out of the Paris Accord in 2020. Look, the US is going to meet its obligations anyway because of market forces, states, corporations and municipalities, but it does have enormous symbolic value and it is not something that I would have welcomed or advised.
Immigration policy – we’ve still got to work our way through that. You don’t see the wall going up yet between Mexico and I think there will be some wall.
I was asked actually when I had my audition, I guess you’d call it – my reality-TV show moment – with President-elect Trump to discuss the secretary of state job and he asked me, should we build a wall General?
And I said: sure we should build a wall, Mr President where we don’t already have a wall – you know, we’ve got hundreds of miles of wall – where it would actually do some good and in the context of a comprehensive approach that would include a variety of other elements that would actually improve security on our southern border, noting that the flow of people between Mexico and the United States has actually been from the United States to Mexico slightly, rather than the other way around in each of the last three years.
I did not note that perhaps therefore Mexico should demand that we pay for the wall. I thought that might be a bit untoward.
And then the other issue is trade and this is a very serious issue. This affects you very much. TPP, now it’s the TPP 11 – Trans-Pacific Partnership – because the 12th, the US has pulled out.
We’re going to have to see how that can go forward. We obviously have bilateral trade agreements with many of the countries … but this would be hugely significant for Vietnam and for some others. It would be enormous advantageous. Our labour movement should want to see labour treated better in some of these different countries, as would have been required.
And then the last issue is one that I think that is a still very much a legitimate issue for discussion and that is the occasional ambivalence of the United States to continue to lead the rules-based international order. I truly believe in it.
That was established in the wake of the worst 50 years of world history imaginable: two horrible world wars and the great economic depression. And it has stood the world in quite good stead since. The institutions, the financial structures, the norms, the principles, again, have really done well, but as your great foreign minister observed, [at] no time certainly since the end of the Cold War has there been as much strain, as many stresses, as many challenges to this.
And at such a time I do believe the United States has to continue to exercise its leadership and actually I think that it will.
I think first of all that you have a pragmatic president. He’s somebody who’s showed that he would do what was necessary to get elected and I think he will do what he needs to do to be successful and he will come to define that if he doesn’t already in part in that way.
Beyond that, I think the national security team that has been established is arguably the finest in recent memory: a terrific national security advisor [H. R. McMaster]. He and his deputy both had many tours together on battlefields, battlefields on the Potomac as well. [Defence Secretary] General Mattis, long-time combat comrade, buddy, boss, at one time he replaced me when I went down to Afghanistan; stayed close even after government.
The secretary of state I think is very good, superb. You just have to understand he’s an engineer. He takes things apart painstakingly. He wants to understand how they operate then he puts them back together and he doesn’t necessarily love the press. He’s not, you know, a retired four-star, you know. Never stand between an retired four-star and an open mic. You can do that with Rex Tillerson and not fear for your life.
Our US ambassador to the United Nations, former governor Haley, has proven to be superb. She’s the one who has in the early weeks been the one to go out and clarify what came out of the White House in a previous day, such as when the president said with Bibi Netanyahu there, you know, one state, two state for the Palestinian issue … and she came out the next day and announced that the US policy has been and continues to be support for the two-state solution.
So, again, I think this is a very good team and I think American foreign policy has been reassuringly impressive, actually, in the ways that it has evolved with those caveats that I mentioned.
BN: So, I’ve got ask you what sort of people are crossing the American border into Mexico?
DP: Mexicans going home.
Mexico has a manufacturing miracle underway. Monterrey is the hub of this. Anybody who hasn’t seen Monterrey, you should. This is Detroit on, you know, steroids and anything else you could possibly inject into it. They’ve done extraordinarily well. I think they’re already now the fourth-largest car exporter in the world and obviously, they have ground access to the largest economy in the world.
Now, I should note the problem with that border is that’s where Central American country refugees come through and Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have sent various substantial numbers because of the violence, the instability and the lack of rule of law in those countries at various points.
BN: General, some years ago the Berlin Wall came down. The Cold War ended. I think we all thought we were in for decades of peace and harmony and prosperity.
Relatively recently, some smart people have warned that we might be fighting Islamist terrorism for a century, which is a pretty daunting idea. Do you agree that the threat is likely to be that prolonged and what sort of impact is it going to have on our democracies?
DP: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I think this is at least a generational struggle and the impact therefore is that you are going to have to have a sustained commitment against it, but in a way that is sustainable.
I’d offer as an example: I’ve never doubted that Iraqi forces once reconstituted and supported by the US, Australians and the other coalition members would be able to defeat Islamic State.
I think, literally, within weeks if not days the final old city part of Mosul in which they barricaded themselves and [have been] fighting to the death will be cleared and essentially Islamic State by and large will have been cleared at least in its army form.
There would still be terrorist organisations that are carrying out bombings, but that will have been completed. We’ll put a stake through the heart of [Abū Bakr al-] Baghdadi [the leader of Islamic State] at some point in time and they’ll be defeated in Syria.
But there is still even after the ground caliphate is taken in those two countries, they’ll still be pockets of them in a number of others – North Africa, East Africa, now the southern Philippines, some other places out in the far east, Afghanistan.
They have an affinity for eastern Afghanistan where the 9/11 attacks were planned. Let’s not forget that the reason we went to Afghanistan and the reason we have stayed is because that’s where the 9/11 attacks were planned.
That’s where the initial training of the attackers was conducted and we don’t want to ever allow that to be a sanctuary for transnational extremists again so that they can do what al-Qaeda did.
So, this is going to be a long fight and the difficult area in particular is the so-called virtual caliphate. You could eliminate all of the ground vestiges of this and there’s still going to be on the internet this extremist propagation that recruits, that shares lessons on how to make explosives, on tactics, that proselytises, that tries to encourage. One [message] now is to conduct attacks in the United States.
There’s going to be a very small number of a very large population that will unfortunately be attracted by this and carry out what are termed lone-wolf attacks, but typically it turns out the lone wolf got inspiration from the internet or from some other form.
And so I think we do have to get used to this in a sense, while doing everything we can, obviously, to eliminate the risk of this, to mitigate the risk of when it does happen and so forth, but we are going to be seized with this problem for a very long time I fear.
And again, that implies a lot about how it is that we’re going to have to take this on and again it is always going to take a comprehensive approach. There’s no silver bullet that you can shoot that will make this go away.
BN: The citizens of both our countries would be deeply concerned if they felt that their personal information and transactions online – your banking information and everything else – wasn’t fully and effectively encrypted, but at the same time that would be in conflict, would it not, with the need for various agencies to have access to information right across the internet?
How do you deal with that conflict and are those two ideas heading for collision?
DP: They do collide and so my view has been that on the one hand – CIA, NSA and others – I mean, look, we get paid to steal secrets, to recruit sources, to chase bad guys. That’s what our governments pay us to do and you should expect us to do that.
And I think we ought to have the ability to crack anything, anywhere, anytime when the legal circumstances obtain. And I generally think we shouldn’t talk about it too, which is a little more difficult.
The second ,though, is that I don’t believe we should be able to compel Apple or other producers, manufacturers of devices to have a back door, for the simple reason that the criminals will find this very, very quickly.
It’s actually criminals that are finding the so-called zero-day defects and exploiting them before the firms themselves find them. There’s a whole industry of this now and you can go to the dark web and find this kind of stuff.
So, I do think this a bit in conflict. I should also note that the Snowden revelations were enormously damaging to the relationship that we had between the intelligence community and the internet service providers, the social media platforms, the CEOs and all the rest of it.
It used to be that you could go to them quietly and they would help us and we would help them occasionally, that broke down because these revelations cost tens of billions of dollars just for say Google alone. And we’ve got to rebuild that trust and confidence and that’s going to be very important in the way going forward.
There’s also a very significantly debate that has to be had I think, and I’ll be interested in the prime minister’s view on this, and that is on what [British] Prime Minister [Theresa] May has raised: enough is enough, how far will people be allowed to go in the internet? Where does free speech end and incitement to extremist violence begin? And I think that you will see a pendulum moving on this.
The key, of course, is to get it to move far enough, but not too far because then it will, you know, come back the other way. But I think there is going to be a very significant debate on this in the UK in the wake of the attacks that they’ve suffered, which have been linked back to activity on the internet.
And I think that will be instructive for all of us, and you and we and the UK all share not just a common language, but common values, common heritage and a shared future. And I think that debate is going to be one to watch and I assume that there is going to be something like that here in Australia as well.
BN: Australia is in this sort of paradoxical situation that affects many countries in the region of finding itself in a region that is the subject of some aggression from the main trading partner of most of the countries in that region.
What do you think of China’s activities in creating artificial islands, militarising them, the muscular use of its fishing fleet?
DP: Yep, which have the most sophisticated communications we have ever seen on any fishing fleet.
BN: Well, how do we deal with this? And how important are things like freedom-of-navigation exercises?
DP: Hugely important and I think we have to be firm. You know, let’s get the big idea right – better be firm.
And I would acknowledge that I think there have been times in recent years where the rhetoric at the Shangri-La Dialogue … several years ago when I heard for example, [then] secretary of defence Ash Carter, and his inaugural speech there literally pound the podium and say we will sail anywhere and fly anywhere – and it took us eight months to sail through the South China Sea. That’s not firmness.
Teddy Roosevelt did, I think, have it right on this. You know, speak softly and carry a big stick.
We should just state it, we should just do it and frankly there were opportunities when those islands were first being constructed where we could have said, OK fine, you know, and we’ll help the Philippines build there and we’ll help Vietnam here and if Malaysia wants to get into the act. Every single country that has a maritime border with China has a dispute with it.
And the Nine-Dash Line is an outrageous assertion that is completely without foundation in international law, as we found when the Philippines took their case to the World Court if you will and the case was decided in their favour.
But you know as Thucydides or someone or the Melian Dialogue said, the strong do what they will and the weak submit. I think the weak don’t have to submit, we have to collectively be firm in response.
I do think that Australia has done quite an admirable job in acknowledging this curious duality where their number-one trading partner is also, arguably the number one security cause for concern and the number-one security partner is the United States, which again has China as its now number-one trading partner, but also our number-one strategic competitor.
This relationship between the US and China is absolutely crucial. There’s a wonderful new book out again by the professor up at the Belfer Center at Harvard, Graham Allison. It’s titled Destined for War – there’s no question mark.
You know, it’s about can China and the United States avoid the so-called Thucydides Trap, and it’s called that because Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War – Sparta is the established power, Athens is a rising power and Thucydides writes they inevitably went to war.
And so, of course, we don’t want that in this case. He then reviews a number of cases that go back about five centuries – 75% of the time there was war in that situation – and we need to obviously avoid that this time.
So, I think is where the strategic dialogue with China is crucially important and this is where again I think you see heartening development in the relationship between the president of the United States and the president of China, and now these relationships at the levels below and I think that’s very important.
By the way, I’m the one that believes we should have a strategic dialogue with Russia as well. Yes, we have many conflicting interests. Yes, they have been extraordinarily over-aggressive against Georgia, in Crimea, south-eastern Ukraine, flights that come very near to our aircraft, a variety of other actions. But in Syria, the ultimate resolution is going to require Russia to be at that table.
By the way, I think the ultimate resolution is not going to be what is sought through diplomacy, which is a democratically elected multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian government in Damascus for all of Syria.
I think it’s going to be something that basically just tries to stop the bloodshed with a series of local ceasefires around the periphery of a rump Syria. Some will be guaranteed by Turkey, some by the United States, some by Jordan and the US, and so forth. But Russia is going to have to at least tacitly, if not formally accept that.
BN: Do you think countries like Australia should carry out freedom-of-navigation operations within the 12-mile perceived boundaries round those artificial islands?
DP: Look, I do, but these are tough calls for national leaders. The fact is that the islands have been constructed.
I talked to Ash Carter about this. I said don’t use the term “reclamation”. They’re not reclaiming anything. They’re building islands. These are on rocks that were below the level of the sea at high tide, which gives you no justification for anything if you actually had a claim to use them in the first place, which they don’t.
And so, yeah, absolutely, I think that should be the case and again quietly done. We don’t have to have brass bands and fanfare, but it should be done and I think countries of the world should indeed do that, and I again if it can be done as a coalition I think it obviously says much more.
BN: Again on a subject you touched on: the recapture of Mosul and the capture of Raqqa, which appears to be likely, will clearly, significantly reduce the power of the Islamic State terror group in terms of major military operations, but what comes next?
DP: I’ve actually written about this, that the battle that matters most is the battle after the battle.
There’s been no doubt again that we would enable our Iraqi counterparts to defeat the Islamic State on the ground. The question is: after that can the Iraqis achieve governance that is sufficiently representative of all the different groups? And by the way Nineveh Province, of which Mosul’s the capital, is where I spent the first year of the war after the fight to Baghdad and it is the most complex human terrain of all of Iraq.
Can you get adequate representation of all, reasonable responsiveness to all those groups within means and most importantly guarantee minority rights, not just majority rule? That’s a tall order and it will not be easy. But if you don’t get that right, there will be once again fertile fields for the planting of the seeds of extremism and the rise of ISIS 3.0.
BN: You worked closely with Kurdish fighters in your time in Iraq. Now those Kurdish groups are playing a major role in the campaigns to recapture significant parts of Iraq.
They’ve recaptured significant parts of Iraq all by themselves with help from the United States and allies, but also they’re playing a major role in Syria. Is that likely to lead to the creation of a Kurdish state?
DP: No, and that’s a great point. One of the strategic revelations of what’s happened is recognition that the Syrian Kurds do not want to be part of a greater Kurdistan – that is, part of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government.
In fact, the Iraqi Kurdish regional government has significant political disputes ongoing right now. They will have a referendum on independence. Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish regional government, has pledged this.
But I literally don’t think they can afford to be independent. We calculated at one point – the CIA – that they needed to export about 800,000 barrels of oil at US$105 per barrel. They are only producing 800,000 barrels on a really good day and exporting a subset of that now in the forties per barrel. So, they still need some of what they get from Baghdad.
Keep in mind that Iraq for all of the centrifugal forces pulling it apart has a huge centripetal force and that is the central government’s distribution of the oil revenue. That is absolutely crucial and that is keeping that country together.
The Sunni Arabs, for all of the differences they have with Shia-led government in Baghdad have no alternative, but to getting that. So maybe you get a new deal with Baghdad, gets greater devolution of power to the provinces, the Sunni provinces, as they have and some of the others. But I think they stay part of Iraq and I think that the Kurds will stay part of Iraq for some time longer as well.
I think, ultimately, they probably do have a right to an independent state and an independent people, but again they’re going to have to get a good deal. This has to be an amicable divorce with Iraq and a good deal with Turkey before they can risk that.
BN: You were able, I think, in Iraq to negotiate with diverse and opposing tribal factions. Do you believe that after all the violence and bloodshed that we’ve seen in Iraq and Syria that that sort of rehabilitation is possible again?
DP: I do. And look, by the way, when I was negotiating that I had a great position. I was the sheikh of the strongest tribe in Iraq. Having 165,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and then tens of thousands of additional coalition forces and others, was hugely helpful.
But I do actually think the prime minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, knows that there has to be inclusive governance and I think that he is determined to that and I see break-off factions within the Shia, who I think will enable that as well.
By 431 BCE, under the leadership of Pericles, Athens had become a formidable maritime power whose empire extended across the eastern Mediterranean region. Its challenge to the supremacy of Sparta, the warrior nation of the Peloponnesian peninsula, was obvious. According to historian and general Thucydides:
Growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made [the Peloponnesian] war inevitable.
Graham Allison’s new book, Destined for War, suggests a modern parallel in a rising power (Athens/China) causing fear in an established power (Sparta/the US) in which the necessary trust in one another is lost, and war becomes inevitable.
But the analogy has its limits. All too often the who, when and how of the next war have been confidently predicted. Very rarely has anyone got it right.
Athens and Sparta exercised power very differently from their analogous contemporaries. Over the four decades before the war, Athens had become the regional muscle, rather more like the US than China, extracting payment for providing security. The Athenians were primarily traders, providing a maritime security envelope while also securing resources for themselves.
Like the Chinese, the Spartans were focused more on maintaining territorial security. Most of the Peloponnesian peninsula was under Spartan control. Their strength came with the land and their exercise of a military regime depended on an often rebellious population of slaves known as Helots.
Athens had transformed its prosperity into a tightly controlled corporate empire. Similarly, today, the US has exerted considerable influence over strategic hotspots. Countries like Australia have effectively outsourced their security risks.
Sparta maintained a looser confederacy of alliances of which less was demanded, and less given. China too has used soft power, offering aid and investment across the Pacific and Africa, buying influence rather than extracting power.
We might see a certain aggressiveness about the US that reminds us of the image of Sparta as a warring nation. But, in fact, Sparta was somewhat insular and inward-looking. China’s expansion might remind us of the growth of the Athenian empire, but Athens had little land and few prospects – it depended on an empire to secure resources, very different from the Chinese situation.
Allison is acutely aware that his analogy to the fifth-century war is a provocation. With his colleagues at the Belfer Center at Harvard, Allison’s Thucydides’s Trap Project has studied 16 significant conflicts from the last five centuries. Twelve of those led to war. The others only avoided war through significant adjustments in the attitudes and postures of both sides.
There is no doubt that China is rising. The GDP of China surpassed the GDP of the US (on purchasing power parity terms) in 2014. By 2019, it will be 20% larger. While the US can only manage a growth rate of 2.1%, China continues to grow by at least 6.5%.
As former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd once observed, China is experiencing “the English Industrial Revolution and the global information revolution combusting simultaneously and compressed into not 300 years, but 30”.
The fearful West is apt to ignore the considerable internal tensions that China faces. The Chinese Communist Party has a social contract with its citizens: the price of authoritarian rule is to provide economic opportunities for all.
While the vast majority has prospered under its regime, inequality has risen exponentially between China’s urbanised east coast and the rural hinterland. Balancing the forces for social liberalisation on the coast and economic prosperity inland requires withering complexities.
Ironically, as part of the “One Belt One Road” initiative, the Chinese bought the port of Piraeus, the Athenian port that was the axis around which the Athenian empire once turned.
But this highlights China’s distinctly bifurcated view, between a maritime expansion of influence and a new Silk Road, designed to compete with Russia for economic and political dominance in Central Asia. China is a speeding juggernaut, precariously balanced between its international and domestic aspirations.
President Xi Jinping wants to make China great again. Allison’s prescient analysis shows that, despite Xi’s nuanced understanding of China-US relations compared with US President Donald Trump’s infantile floundering on the world stage, the aspirations each has for his country are remarkably similar.
But, unlike the bipolar world of the Ancient Greeks, the international system since the Cold War has been characterised by multipolarity: China, the US, the European Union, Japan, Russia and India each has an opportunity to exercise power more independently, or perhaps interdependently.
Allison’s book makes a fascinating and worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the nature of power as a function of the nation-state.
Through his analysis of the four case studies in which war was avoided, Allison gives us “twelve clues for peace”, including practical examples of how Thucydides’s Trap was avoided. These include insights into the nature of leadership, how power is enacted, the opportunities and entrapments of alliances, and much more.
Thucydides spoke of the motivations of war being fear, honour and interest, and it’s the same today. These motivations come largely from within – they are not imposed by other countries from outside.
Ultimately, countries go to war when their respective grand strategies – the exercise of power in the world for national interest – become misaligned with the expectations of their respective domestic audiences. That is, the trap for both the US and China is to manage domestic expectations, and to harmonise those expectations with the exercise of international influence.
A week has passed since US President Donald Trump rained 59 Cruise missiles down on Al Shayrat airfield north of Damascus, in retaliation for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. But we are not much closer to answering the question: what next?
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow late this week hardly answered that question, with the two sides agreeing to disagree – but not necessarily agreeably – on Syria’s responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks.
“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson told reporters after meetings with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister and with President Vladimir Putin.
This might be regarded as an understatement.
Tillerson also re-stated what had been the position of the Obama administration: a resolution of the Syrian crisis could not involve President Bashar al-Assad.
Where all this leaves Australian policy on Syria is unclear beyond a hardening of Canberra’s position on Assad continuing to hold power.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for the Syrian leader to go, and indeed face war crimes charges.
Turnbull’s liberal interventionist line posed some problems for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has been on the record for several years insisting that Assad should be part of any transition arrangement.
Now Bishop says Australia’s position on Assad is “hardening”, thus indicating a shift.
If nothing else, she is displaying characteristic nimbleness in bringing herself into line not only with her leader’s position, but that of an evolving American attitude. During Trump’s first 100 days, his administration has been more antagonistic towards the Damascus regime.
At last the penny seems to have dropped with the Canberra foreign policy establishment – conspicuously light on for Middle East expertise – that Assad cannot be part of any solution that hopes to bring order to his civil war-ravaged country.
In any case, the Syrian pieces may well have moved far beyond being put back together again and we will be looking at best at a sort of Dayton Accords Bosnian solution in which the country becomes cantonised.
But all that is far off, as warring factions continue to tear each other and the country apart. Assad has demonstrated there are almost no limits beyond which he will go to defend his regime.
From Canberra’s perspective, these are testing moments in a broader chess game as Australian policymakers seek to make sense of a Trump foreign policy not only towards Syria and the wider Middle East, but in a confrontational US stance towards North Korea.
It is much too soon to begin talking about a Trump Doctrine, but whatever was said on the campaign trail by an “America First” candidate intent on avoiding foreign entanglements that position now seems to be fungible.
Based on Trump’s actions in Syria and his threats against Pyongyang, backed up by the deployment of an American battle group, what is emerging is an apparent willingness to use force, or at least employ the threat of force overtly to advance US foreign policy interests.
How then should an Australian government respond to what is shaping as a significant departure from business as usual under a restrained Barack Obama administration, whose preferred approach was to use drone strikes and other such methods to assert American foreign policy interests more subtly?
Australian policymakers would be advised to proceed with extreme caution. Turnbull and his advisers should be especially wary of any moves that would involve Australia more deeply in Middle East conflict.
Australian military forces are in the region to help the Iraqi government stabilise Iraq, not become enmeshed in a vicious civil war in Syria beyond limited air strikes against Islamic State strongholds in central and eastern Syria.
Turnbull and his national security team need to be mindful of the risks involved in any sort of deeper engagement, including especially the commitment of ground troops.
Syria is a mess, and a treacherous one.
What remain unclear is whether the Trump missile attack was a one-off strike aimed at sending a message to Assad not to resort to chemical weapons again, or whether it will be followed by other such actions.
At this stage, it seems to be of a piece with missile strikes that Bill Clinton launched against Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan when those countries crossed a line, in Washington’s view. But you can’t be sure.
What is the case is that Trump’s warning shot has got Moscow’s attention.
As things stood, Vladimir Putin more or less had his way in Syria in a loose alliance with Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, in support of the toxic Assad regime.
Now, Moscow has been put on notice. There are limits to Western tolerance of Assad’s war against his own people, in which more than 400,000 have died and half the country’s population of 22 million displaced.
This brutal campaign has involved the widespread use of barrel bombs and other such cluster devices that inflict carnage on those in the vicinity. These devices have been used mercilessly, and have drawn the condemnation of governments and human rights organisations under various Geneva conventions.
Putin may be willing to put pressure on Assad to forego the use of chemical weapons again, but it is hardly likely he would abandon him, or his regime.
Russia has too much invested in Syria, including an agreement on Mediterranean berthing rights for its navy, use of airstrips and other such facilities, and perhaps most important the message Russian involvement delivers to the rest of the Middle East.
Russia is back four decades after it was bundled out of Egypt by President Anwar Sadat, and is not about to withdraw.
What vastly complicates Western policy in Syria is how to sanction Assad on one hand and deal with Islamic State on the other, without the country unravelling completely, thus enabling a jihadist takeover.
Western policymakers tell us the aim is to “defeat’’ IS, but what does this mean?
IS might be pushed out of Mosul in northern Iraq and its stronghold in Raqqa, but it will not be “defeated’’ in any formal sense. There will be no armistice agreement in which both sides negotiate a truce.
Whether we like it or not IS, or whatever its mutations, will remain a threat to regional peace and stability, and further afield a continuing terrorist menace across the globe.
What we have on our hands is a generational struggle. This is all the more reason to hasten slowly in Syria outside an internationally-backed settlement involving the US and Russia that would end the bloodshed.
This would represent the best case outcome, but how to fashion such an arrangement given Moscow’s resolute support for Assad is the question.
A bloodstained Assad or his immediate henchmen should not be part of these transitional arrangements. Their place is before a war crimes tribunal at The Hague.
_This column has been corrected. The paragraph beginning “Australian military forces are in the region …” went on to read “air strikes against Islamic State strongholds in central and western Syria”. It has since been corrected to central and eastern Syria.“ _
The devastating gas attack in Syria, attributed to the Assad regime, and the swift US missile response is a game-changer for all parties involved in the Syrian conflict. This is a complex war, but it helps to look at the key players in three interlocking layers.
In the first layer are the local players within Syria. Since the 2011 Arab spring uprisings, all local players wanted to get rid of the 17-year-old regime of Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad. He desperately tried to cling to power and proved surprisingly resilient under immense political and military pressure.
Assad’s strength comes from Russian, Chinese and Iranian support – as well as support from the large portion of secular Arab Syrians and religious minorities (Alawites, Assyrian Christians and Druze).
Initially, there were three main insurgent groups opposing Assad. The first was the moderate Islamic coalition made up of Sunni Syrian elite who established the Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up of officers who had defected from the Assad forces. The FSA’s initial promise soon gave way to pessimism, as it could not deliver a decisive blow against Assad.
Second, Kurds in northern Syria organised themselves as the YPG (a militia group whose name translates to “People’s Protection Units”) and established the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They received widespread acclaim and support, particularly from the US and other Western nations, for their strong defence against Islamic State (IS) forces.
Third are the Salafist jihadist groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which changed their name to the Front for the Conquest of the Levant, and claimed independence from al-Qaeda. It was these jihadist groups that led the chief military opposition to the Assad regime for the last six years, including in Aleppo until its fall in 2016.
IS emerged as a key political and military force in Syria in 2014. Unlike other insurgent groups, it did not fight Assad. Rather, it opportunistically claimed large swathes of uncontrolled land and declared an independent caliphate state, becoming the chief source of radicalism threatening Western societies.
The second layer in the Syrian conflict is occupied by regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran has been a longstanding ally of the Assad regime because of its sectarian, political and economic interests. Assad and his entourage are Alawites, an off-shoot of Shia Islam.
Syria is an important corridor for Iran to press its influence over Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah and provide access to the Mediterranean. Iran’s regional ambitions require the continuation of the Assad regime.
Worried about Iran’s growing influence in the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Salafist insurgent groups. Fearing the spread of IS ideology and popularity in its realm, the Saudi government has supported US-led air strikes on IS since 2014.
Turkey has been the most active regional player in the Syrian conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has supported all Sunni insurgent groups with weapons, training and logistics since the beginning of the conflict, with the exception of the Kurdish YPG.
Turkey fears that an independent Kurdish region in Syria (combined with Kurdish northern Iraq) would encourage its Kurdish population to also seek separation.
The third layer of the Syrian conflict is occupied by Russia and the US. They are major geopolitical players whose conflicting interests over Syria are the source of the current impasse, and the reason why removing Assad has become exceedingly difficult.
Unhappy with the increasing US and Western influence in the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity to expand his economic and military interests in the Syrian conflict, and staged a challenge to the geopolitical world order.
In the course of the Syrian civil war, Putin has become the custodian of the Shi’ite alliance between Iran, Syria and Shi’ite political forces in Iraq and Lebanon. Deep down, Russia fears a destabilised Syria falling under IS control would mobilise radical Muslim groups within its borders.
Under the Obama administration, the US consistently stayed out of direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. Busy with the Iraq exit, Barack Obama missed the window of diplomatic opportunity in the crucial early months of the Syrian uprising. When violence started, Obama elected to provide limited military support to YPG and FSA, hoping they could muster enough opposition to dismantle Assad.
This is why it was bizarre that Assad would launch a gas attack at this crucial juncture. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Assad vehemently denied the use of chemical weapons, while Russia claimed the Syrian air strike hit a rebel chemical munition depot.
The reason is now irrelevant, as the swift US missile attack has sealed the issue. US President Donald Trump served notice not only to Assad and Russia, but all the players in the conflict.
However, this is not likely anytime soon. Western powers suffer from a dissidence – they would like Assad to go, but cannot see a viable alternative. With his secular outlook and promise of protecting religious minorities, Assad still wields much support.
Trump’s impulsive nature is the US’s greatest weakness in world diplomacy, but counter-intuitively, is its greatest strength in a conflict like Syria.
The impulsive courage of Trump, coupled with the military prudence of the Pentagon, gives the US the best advantage in the region and disturbs the Assad, Iran and Russian alliance. They can no longer act with impunity, knowing Trump would have no qualms about hitting Syrian regime targets, which were untouched by the Obama administration.
Trump has tasted the rush of being commander-in-chief. He is likely to follow with other bold military steps, and insist on the demise of the Assad regime.
Assad’s future lies with Putin’s obstinacy and ability to withstand US pressure. As the FBI investigation into the Trump election campaign’s Russian links deepens, Trump is likely to use Assad card to deflect attention and prove his disassociation with Russia.
Betting all his money on Assad, Putin will use the Syrian leader as a bargaining chip to press Trump to accept a place for Assad in the post-IS Syria, at least in the Western part of the wrecked country. This could save Assad’s skin, but at the expense of Syria remaining a divided country.
The YPG will emerge as the main winner securing an autonomous polity in northern Syria in exchange for its help in the US-led Raqqa military offensive, driving another wedge toward the eventual division of Syria. It will follow the trajectory of the northern Iraq Kurdish region, with the prospect of future independence.
Sunni insurgent groups are likely to be the biggest losers. They may have to contend with the remaining remote regions while Syria harbours the propensity to be another Iraq and a breeding ground for IS-inspired radicalism threatening societies the world over.
Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University
The United States’ unilateral missile strikes against a Syrian airforce base are a dramatic escalation of its participation in that country’s civil war. The US government has attacked a Syrian government asset for the first time.
The attack also marks Donald Trump’s first major foreign policy test as US president. It represents a 180-degree shift from his previous position of opposing intervention in Syria. And the sudden about-face sends a worrying signal for how his administration may handle future crises in international relations.
On Thursday, the US unilaterally launched strikes against the al-Shayrat airforce base in Homs. This base primarily houses Mig-23 and SU-22 strike craft and Mig-25 interceptors.
The attack consisted of 59 sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, which targeted airframes and supporting infrastructure. It reportedly led to casualties among Syrian military personnel.
The attack has been justified as a punitive response to the Syrian military’s likely use of sarin chemical nerve agents against civilians in Idlib province. This led to at least 70 deaths and drew worldwide condemnation.
The Idlib incident was a much smaller repeat of a major sarin deployment in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013. That attack led to hundreds of civilian deaths – many of them children.
The Ghouta atrocity led the US to the brink of war with Syria; the Syrian government was alleged to have crossed Obama’s infamous “red line”. Ultimately, however, diplomatic manoeuvring by senior US, Russian and Syrian officials de-escalated the situation. They were able to negotiate the apparent dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Recent events, however, suggest this dismantling was not as extensive as previously thought.
Trump’s humanitarian intervention?
What’s concerning is how the strikes have been rationalised. Trump has described the strikes as aimed at protecting a “vital national security interest”. However, this appears to contradict one of the fundamental themes that buoyed Trump’s rise to power.
The then-presidential candidate was criticised for appearing to be open to accommodating the anti-human-rights predilections of authoritarian rulers provided they served US economic and security interests.
Trump condemned the Obama administration’s response to the Ghouta attacks when strikes were under consideration. He explicitly and repeatedly indicated that, as president, he would adopt a non-interventionist position in Syria in spite of the humanitarian crisis.
However, the strikes clearly contradict this position. Trump now claims intervention was a matter of “vital national security interest”.
Given the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons threatened no US citizens – nor allies – one is left to conclude that preventing further use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians is now seen as vital to US national security.
A point of concern for some has been Trump’s inability to fully grasp the consequences of his actions and his general reflexiveness to the conditions he confronts. Aswithmany of his domestic policy promises on the campaign trail, Trump’s Syria stance appears to be a flip-flop.
Shifts in domestic and foreign policy are generally to be expected and afforded some latitude as a candidate transitions to the presidency. But the degree and speed of Trump’s foreign policy switches are of serious concern.
Unpredictability in international relations has particularly high stakes. It can lead to rapid escalations, collapse of long-term relationships and partnerships, and even war.
This is of particular concern in Syria, given the close proximity of Russian forces actively fighting to defend the Assad regime.
The US apparently ultimately alerted (telling, not asking) Russia to the strikes against the Syrian regime. Yet the speed with which such an operation was organised, along with its unilateral and non-consultative nature, does little to dispel the fears of foreign policy realists about the Trump administration’s inconsistent and chaotic approach to world affairs.
The US military’s strikes only intensify that debate. Will the system ultimately force Trump to fall in line with a more consistent and predictable approach to foreign relations? Or will the policy bedlam ultimately prove sustainable, and make unpredictability the new norm in the international system?