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A distracted America endangers us all

The ensuing vacuum gives China and Russia further scope to destabilise the world

The assault on the Iraqi city of Mosul that began this week underlines the fact that the next three months will be a perilous period in international politics. Fighting is intensifying in the Middle East. Tensions are rising between Russia and the West. And relations between China and its Asian neighbours are getting edgier. All this is happening while the United States is diverted by the Trump-Clinton melodrama and the transition to a new president.

For Russia and China - two countries that are openly unhappy with the US-dominated world order - a distracted America will look like an opportunity. Both Moscow and Beijing regard Mrs Hillary Clinton with suspicion and believe that her probable arrival in the Oval Office would herald a more hawkish US foreign policy. They may be tempted to act swiftly, before she has a chance to settle into the White House.

A temporarily preoccupied America might not matter much in normal times. But big and dangerous decisions are looming. In the Middle East, the bombardment of Aleppo by Russian and Syrian government forces has led to a near-breakdown in relations between Moscow and the West. Without a common diplomatic project to hold them together, the two sides may slide into outright confrontation in Syria. Further sanctions on Russia are in the offing and the West's military options are also being reviewed.

President Vladimir Putin may calculate that a US administration that has refused to take military action against the Assad regime since 2011 is unlikely to reverse course in President Barack Obama's last few months in office. But if the Russians push too hard, they could miscalculate and provoke an American reaction. That is particularly because the Obama administration is angered by Russian cyber warfare aimed at influencing the US presidential election. Vice-President Joe Biden has already signalled that America intends to retaliate in cyber space.

Even without a worsening of the situation in Syria, fighting in the Middle East will intensify in the coming weeks. The Iraqi government, backed by the air power of a US-led coalition, has begun a major push to retake Mosul from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). With one eye on his legacy and another on the presidential election, Mr Obama would be delighted to notch up a significant victory against ISIS.

Going on the offensive in Iraq, rather than Syria, is also more attractive for America because there is less chance of an accidental clash with the Russians. A successful US-backed assault on Mosul could also counteract the impression of American weakness in the Middle East. But the comparisons between Mosul and Aleppo are also a warning. There are more than one million civilians living in and around Mosul who could be caught up in the fighting. The battle for the city could also lead to a clash between the Turkish and Iraqi governments, both nominally American allies.

People inspecting an air strike's aftermath in the Syrian rebel-held village of Owaijel on Monday. In addition to military operations in the Middle East, the US must direct foreign policy in the middle of a markedly bitter election.
People inspecting an air strike's aftermath in the Syrian rebel-held village of Owaijel on Monday. In addition to military operations in the Middle East, the US must direct foreign policy in the middle of a markedly bitter election. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Russians may also feel that the next few months offer an opportunity in eastern Europe and Ukraine, with the European Union distracted by Brexit and the run-up to the French presidential election. Moscow had hoped that, by now, the EU would have eased the economic sanctions that were imposed in the aftermath of Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. Instead, the West has collectively strengthened its stance by moving more Nato troops into the Baltic states that border Russia. In response, the Russians have moved nuclear-capable missiles into Kaliningrad, a Russian territorial enclave that lies between Lithuania and Poland. Russia's nuclear posturing is clearly intended to unnerve but it is dangerous for all that.

A temporarily preoccupied America might not matter much in normal times. But big and dangerous decisions are looming. In the Middle East, the bombardment of Aleppo by Russian and Syrian government forces has led to a near-breakdown in relations between Moscow and the West.

The Chinese government is more controlled and ambiguous in its belligerence than Moscow. Nevertheless, Beijing's actions in recent months have set the nerves of its neighbours on edge. The Chinese were enraged by an international tribunal's ruling in July that Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea are largely specious. Since then, the official media in Beijing has become ever more ferocious, berating and threatening otherwise-friendly countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Australia for following America's line on security issues. The Japanese say that they have seen a recent increase in Chinese activity in the disputed waters of the East China Sea.

Meanwhile, nations in South-east Asia are watching nervously to see if China follows up its island-building in the South China Sea with further actions. However, the fact that the Philippines - which brought the legal action against China - is now tilting towards Beijing under Mr Rodrigo Duterte, its new, anti-American president, may reduce China's incentives to take military chances in the Pacific. Why risk confrontation when politics and diplomacy are handing such a big prize to Beijing?

As Mr Obama prepares to pack his bags in the White House, he may look back wryly at the foreign policy goals that he set eight years ago.

There was to be a "reset" that would lead to better relations with Russia. There would also be a new and closer working relationship with China. And there would be an end to war in the Middle East. None of those policies has come to fruition. Instead, Mr Obama will be fortunate if he can negotiate his last three months in office without presiding over a major international crisis.

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2016, with the headline 'A distracted America endangers us all'. Print Edition | Subscribe