Since 9/11, the search for American stability has seen many forms: preventing terrorism, fixing failed and fragile states and more recently challenging geopolitical rivals China and Russia through grey zone conflict. Long ago security surpassed development and diplomacy as America’s main objective abroad.
In examining the US security first agenda over the past 20 years, we see that even when the US engages multilaterally alongside European allies, its actions reflect a strong desire to gain the most economically and politically often at the expense of those very countries it is supposed to be working with. Indeed, the Trump administration believes its market is so large and important that few countries would retaliate against this strategy. This belief, based on US exceptionalism, is now being tested as America’s claims to leadership on the COVID19 crisis are cast in doubt.
America’s Exceptional Foreign Policy
Even though American exceptionalism has gained significant attention since 9/11, its roots can be traced to the founding of the nation. George Washington, on September 19, 1796, warned in his farewell address, that the US should be averse to “entangling alliances” that would prevent the nation from achieving its foreign policy goals. The intent of his message was to ensure that America reject the rules dictated by overseas powers and promote an independent foreign policy. This worldview has been an unshakable pillar in US foreign policy across history.
American exceptionalism is often misinterpreted. Simply put, as primus inter pares (first among equals) the US decides on the exception, meaning that an American leader can defy the law to serve the greater good. This preoccupation with defining the greater good even when the US can defy it has, since 9/11, pushed the US to unilateral action at an increasing frequency.
Today, the exceptionalism that permeates American foreign policy, reflects the country’s obsession with relative gains vis-à-vis allies and adversaries. Washington’s preoccupation with unilateral action in pursuit of relative gains goes beyond confrontations with Iran, Russia and China. In today’s multi-polar world, intense geopolitical rivalries have led America’s leaders to focus on less powerful states including allies and even failed states. For example, for those less powerful countries that are America’s traditional security and trading partners there is increased economic and military pressure to align with the US. The goal is to prevent the defection of these countries as their economic and security priorities shift towards China and Russia. Even large powers such as Germany and France have increased economic cooperation with Washington’s adversaries.
For these countries, America’s pressure tactics have proved to be a double edge sword. On the one hand, America’s traditional allies are now forced to more clearly articulate their own national interests. That is, they must choose what is most important to them to advance their long term economic and political wellbeing. For example, Canada would benefit from greater investment from China, but debates over 5G and Huawei investment stand in the way. Indeed, the USMCA makes it difficult for America’s partner countries to pursue free trade discussions with “non-market countries,” i.e. China.
On the other hand, intense great power rivalry offers an opportunity for smaller states to play off one great power against another. From Washington’s perspective, such gaming is akin to defection. The implication is that even a hint of cooperation with China or Russia, will create an imbalance in gains to the detriment of the US From this perspective, as allies are increasingly inclined to pursue their own agendas, the US foregoes forming durable and effective long term alliances. This means the fight against allied defection is critical to the maintenance of American leadership. But as we now know such behavior has proven to be both counterproductive and corrosive.
Lessons from Intervention – Post 9/11
In the contemporary international grey zone conflict environment, there are a myriad of coercive and soft tools and tactics that America has used to maintain a competitive edge against adversaries and allies. Much of this jockeying for position has occurred against the back drop of weak and fragile states as the main arena for competition.
Afghanistan is the benchmark against which America’s Security First agenda can be judged because it did not change much under Bush, Obama or Trump. A Security First agenda might have been good for the US 20 years ago. But since then, it has proved to be the fatal flaw for America’s NATO allies who place far less emphasis on security (as defined by the US) than development and political stability. In Afghanistan, each ally had a different understanding of the resources and capabilities necessary for Afghanistan’s long term stability and development . Increasing frustration with policy incoherence and infectiveness led to their withdrawal even before these goals were met.
As a result, Afghanistan remains a country trapped in fragility and is likely to remain among the worst performers in the foreseeable future. The Taliban, has control across much of the country, Iranian influence is increasing and the situation is sufficiently unstable that President Ashraf Ghani’s government is unlikely to survive without US support.
Despite the injection of billions of dollars, Afghanistan was performing at a better level in 2002 than it is today. While the situation improved immediately after the 2001 intervention, it quickly deteriorated a few years later, such that the country was more fragile by the time Canadian troops left in 2014. Widespread mistrust among Afghan civilians persisted. Many projects collapsed after foreign troops left an area. Accusations of war crimes committed by all sides remain unanswered.
A scathing assessment by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) detailed the trillions of US dollars squandered on fixing Afghanistan. Like many fragile states which the West was supposed to be helping, the country is now a vector for the transmission of COVID19.
In examining the conflict in Syria, we see how America’s pursuit of maximum relative gains through hybrid warfare operations against adversaries weakened Syrian government forces and diluted the regional influence of Russia and Iran. However, in the long-term, the increased intensity of operations further destabilized the political environment and provided a ripe setting for the emergence and mobilization of various extremist groups. Consider that in the early years of the intervention a coalition of countries provided significant numbers of ground troops and air support for the selected rebel groups, with the US investing the most war materiel and personnel.
Some 9,000 troops came from a coalition of 23 countries. In 2017 the Pentagon revealed that nearly a quarter of all coalition troops, or 2,000 American troops, were on the ground in Syria. This is on top of undisclosed personnel involved in covert and targeted operations. Thus American deployment was nearly 2.5 times higher than the second largest contributor – the UK with approximately 850 personnel deployed.
The involvement of the US in Syria becomes even more disproportionate relative to all other coalition partners when examining air operations. As of June 2016, the US engaged in 2,967 air operations compared to 182 strikes by all other members combined. Since then, the disparity between US and coalition allies’ involvement continued to increase. By June 2017, the US conducted 20 times more air operations in Syria than all other allies combined.
In February 2016, US allies, like Canada, largely withdrew their tactical and material support. For example, Canada conducted air strikes in Syria and Iraq until 15 February 2016 and Dutch aircraft withdrew from the operations on 28 June 2016. However, the successful efforts of Russia and Iran to keep the Assad regime in power, convinced the US under the Obama administration that it could not follow its allies. From this perspective, withdrawal meant relinquishing power and influence to its adversaries.
In Ukraine, multilateral efforts by the US, EU and Canada to support Kiev with weapons and training have increased Ukraine’s military capacity to counter Russia. Such efforts have proved ineffective in defeating the separatists or preventing Russia’s continued intervention. Kiev has migrated from a vassal status in Moscow’s political camp under Yanukovych, to a subordinate and dependent to another political and economic bloc. This change has not moved the conflict any closer to resolution.
Indeed, American aid for arms and training to the Ukrainian National Guard translated into support for right-wing militias such as the Azov battalion. This has not only galvanized the Russian populations’ support for Moscow’s actions to ‘rescue compatriots’, but further eroded Ukraine’s internal cohesion across ethnic lines. Moreover, US support for Ukraine has strengthened Russia’s low-intensity hybrid operations and undermined Ukraine’s sovereign capacity to resolve its own internal issues.
America’s obsession with relative gains against Russia has spilled over to targeting allies. For example, starting in January 2018 competitive behavior by the US against the EU escalated over Ukraine as leaders in Washington saw an opportunity to further tie Kiev to American interests. With the approval of the Nord Stream pipeline construction from Russia to Western Europe, EU nations’ relations with Russia entered a phase of détente.
The US concluded that the warming of European-Russian relations meant that Moscow could use this as an opportunity to put further political and economic pressure on Ukraine. Moreover, European aid to Ukraine was cut in half between 2017 and 2018. Washington saw the Europeans’ disengagement as a chance to increase its political, economic and war material aid to further solidify Kiev’s dependence on Washington at the expense of its allies.
At the same time, Washington’s leadership perceived the détente in relations between EU nations and Moscow as a signal that its European allies are attempting to profit from cooperation with US adversaries. Washington believed that, on one hand, the EU would continue to benefit from the military-political alliance with the US. On the other hand, through renewed energy cooperation with Russia over the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the EU would obtain exclusive economic benefits.
In response, the US imposed unilateral sanctions through the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on European companies that have a role in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. From Washington’s perspective, this action was necessary to discipline allies as well as undermine adversaries like Russia. Such measures have long-term consequences. The Act is ineffective in stopping the pipeline’s completion. The greater concern is that Washington’s diplomatic relations with major European allies have suffered.
Whether it is Afghanistan Syria or Iraq, the US finds itself increasingly facing asymmetric, but capable adversaries, without the support of its closest European allies. For example, Iran’s involvement in Syria following the re-imposition of US sanctions increased significantly. This escalation led to the exchange of fire between Israeli and Iranian forces on May 10, 2018. The situation became even more complex as Iranian forces and Teheran-backed non-state groups increased their presence and control in Iraq.
The assassination of Iranian General Soleimani, by the US, was meant to weaken Teheran’s tactical capabilities. It also was intended to create a political-economic rift between Iran and America’s European allies. Unfortunately, based on statements from US President Donald Trump we now know that in targeting Soleimani the US was primarily interested in saving American lives. The US was obligated to inform its allies that their soldiers’ lives would be at risk, as a result of the assassination but failed to do so.
In another unilateral act on May 8, 2018, the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Washington imposed sanctions on all companies which continued to operate in, or in collaboration with, Iran. This shift was met with condemnation from European allies who wanted to keep the deal. Alongside Washington’s geopolitical adversaries like Russia and China, the UK, France and Germany continued their commitment to the deal. In May 2018, the European Commission declared the sanctions imposed by the US against Iran as illegal and told European companies they need not comply with their provisions.
From Washington’s position, such defection by allies is unacceptable. Washington has found it increasingly necessary to “yank their chain.” Following Soleimani’s assassination, for example, European nations had to pick sides. At least partially, the US was able to compel allies such as the UK and Germany to pledge their allegiance to the US and sever some of the goodwill established vis-à-vis Teheran.
But that allegiance has proved to be short lived. With escalation between Iran and the US underway, lines have been drawn in ways that America’s allies most likely did not anticipate in agreeing to join a training mission in Iraq. The allied presence in Iraq, for example, was intended to train and equip the Iraq and Kurdish security forces to withstand the resurgence of the Islamic State. But Soleimani’s killing quadrupled the numbers of enemies America’s allies now face. The US is not only in conflict with Iran, but its proxies operating in neighbouring states, as well as ISIS and various militias within Iraq. Insurgents continue to attack allied bases. Most allies have now withdrawn completely from Iraq.
Security in a Post-COVID19 World
Looking ahead, trust among close allies is eroding and in future circumstances that necessitate cooperation, such as the COVID19 global pandemic, the first instinct among potential partners has been mutual suspicion, skepticism. and withdrawal. Supporters of America’ security-first doctrine, and by implication those preoccupied with relative gains, should now see the negative side effects of this worldview in times of a global health crisis.
It is not clear they do. Indeed, even at the height of the pandemic the pursuit of relative gains has been the first instinct of key policymakers in Washington. For this group, COVID19 is mostly a distraction from their foreign policy priorities. The sooner it is dealt with, the sooner the US can get back to its Security First agenda. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo continues with his daily briefings in support of sanctions and regime change in Venezuela and Iran. Blame for the pandemic is assigned to China. The G7 ministers’ meeting in March could not draft a consensus statement on responding to the pandemic because Pompeo insisted on calling COVID19 the Wuhan virus.
More recently, the US contemplated a ban on the export of face masks to Canada through wartime legal provisions. In another case, Donald Trump considered stationing troops on the Canada-US border to guarantee the security of its northern border from foreign influence. This has been a common refrain from the US since 9/11. Senator Hillary Clinton once claimed that Canada was the main source for terrorists coming into the country. In 2016, American senators expressed concern over embedded terrorists among Syrian refugees entering the US via Canada. Both the ban and the troop question have eroded bilateral goodwill between Ottawa and Washington. The suggestion that Canada and the US still have a “special relationship” and that we are in this fight together now seems unsophisticated.
Looking ahead, America’s unilateralism in pursuit of relative gains may, at first glance, resemble a logical response to remedy its own domestic crises. However, history has shown that only through genuine multilateralism and cooperation, can global crises be managed. Essentially, the COVID19 pandemic is the start of a major shift in global priorities, in which America could play a pivotal role if it ends its Security First agenda. This shift will be driven partly by the recognition that confrontation is counterproductive and partly by the need to move resources from defence and security to health and societal well-being.
As states are forced to prioritise their domestic economic situation, a rejection of the US Security First agenda will probably happen. That shift will partly be a function of the extent to which COVID19 damages America’s social fabric and undermines the legitimacy of America’s leaders. It will also depend on how China behaves and whether it asserts its authority in response to US pressure or helps build and support institutions to manage the pandemic and rebuild the global economy.
The wild card in this mix are the allies of the US who will come out of this pandemic relatively intact, economically and politically. Increasingly agitated by US bullying, their actions over the next year will determine whether a return to status quo ante is likely. It is not clear how much more US exceptionalism, at their expense, they can tolerate.
For Canada, there is a reckoning of sorts. First, returning to status quo ante is problematic. A world order in which Canada’s main trading partner believes it cannot be disciplined for acting outside the rule of law, is a world in which Canada cannot survive. As a trading nation, Canada depends on a predictable, rules-based system. Far from being the “indispensable nation,” the United States in the Trump era has become a country that is not only unpredictable and unreliable but damaging to Canadian interests.
To succeed Canada will need to deliver its very best diplomacy in support of evidence-based policy making on a global scale. If America reverts back to its old ways Canada will need to find new allies to fight the global pandemic and rebuild the global economy afterward.
David Carment is a Professor at Carleton University and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He publishes on risk analysis and fragile states.
Dani Belo is a doctoral student at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.