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April 11, 2019

The great retreat


April 11, 2019

Consider. The formidable Anglo-American alliance that was forged a hundred years ago, and went on to dominate the world for decades, is finally on the wane.

The space thus created is likely to be filled by China, the EU, Russia and India. Two major signs of this tectonic shift are: Trump’s desire to pull out of unending foreign wars especially Afghanistan and Syria, and the British decision to leave the European Union with minimum economic impact. Both appear to be uphill – though not impossible – tasks at this stage.

Meanwhile, some aspects of Anglo-American military leadership endure as Nato celebrates its 70 years. Whereas the Warsaw Pact withered away after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nato kept growing and admitted several East European countries as new members. It was only when the Russian bear jumped at the idea of including Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, that Nato’s expansion took a pause.

The Anglo-American tandem took charge of global geopolitics as the main victors of WWII. The onset of the cold war saw the emergence of the Warsaw Pact and Nato. The French were lukewarm to the Anglo-American hegemony that would lead to the transfer of Nato headquarters from Paris to Brussels, which also became the seat of the European Economic Communities, baptized later as the European Union.

Fast forward to 2016, which became a watershed on account of Trump’s slogan of ‘America First’ and the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Once elected, Trump began implementing his muscular agenda of challenging the Chinese on tariffs, finding a way out of America’s $1 trillion war in Afghanistan while asking the Europeans to pay more for their defence.

Two years on, some analysts are pointing to a possible repeat of the US withdrawal from Vietnam, this time in Afghanistan. That directly threatens the uneasy Ghani-Abdullah government in Kabul. Yet, Trump is pushing for an early denouement of the 17-year old conflict. He would rather use the funds saved by disengaging from wars to build infrastructure, notably a wall on the border with Mexico.

Trump called upon a veteran Afghan-American diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad, to meet the Afghan Taliban’s demand of negotiating with the Americans and not with the beleaguered Kabul regime to find a negotiated solution before the 2020 presidential election. As expected, the US-Taliban talks have hit an obstacle as the Taliban leaders have been ruling out talks with the Kabul setup which they consider mere puppets.

Khalilzad is once more visiting Kabul, Islamabad and some other capitals like Doha, Brussels and London for further discussions. According to the State Department, the visit is for “consulting the Afghan government and other stakeholders about the status of Washington’s talks with the Taliban…to facilitate a peace process that brings all Afghan parties together in inclusive intra-Afghan negotiations”.

The US appreciates Pakistan’s constructive role in moving towards winding up the war by facilitating talks with the Taliban. The US embassy in Islamabad, headed by Ambassador Paul Jones, a former deputy representative on Af-Pak has come with a primary mandate to help in this huge task. The embassy’s statement following Khalilzad’s latest visit to Pakistan, pointed out that: “Both sides discussed how peace in Afghanistan will also benefit Pakistan and can unlock opportunities for regional economic integration and development. The United States looks to Pakistan to continue playing a positive role in supporting the peace process”.

Prime Minister Khan has repeatedly called for a dialogue among the Afghans to plan a post-US transition. But there are limits to Pakistan’s influence with the Taliban, never mind the folklore portraying them as Pakistan’s creation.

Hasty comparisons are being drawn with the US withdrawal from Vietnam, leading to the immediate collapse of the pro-US regime in Saigon. A similar quick end of the Kabul government is foreseen if the American troops withdraw fully. It is widely believed that America is willing to do that on the Taliban’s promise not to let the country be used by foreign extremists. That would enable Trump to bring the troops home before the presidential election.

This plan is not to the liking of Pentagon which has been against hasty withdrawal from costly foreign campaigns and would rather slog on with the superpower’s burden of maintaining its global dominance. If Trump remains unconvinced and Khalilzad is able to reach an accord to the president’s satisfaction, the Pentagon may just have to comply. That will be a paradigm shift and set in an early decline of the global US hegemony.

As for the British retreat from Europe, being an island nation, the British were always sceptical of the EU’s growing power and recoiled at ideas like a common visa regime and a single currency. The UK therefore stayed out of the Euro Zone and the Schengen visa system. The ‘Leave’ lobby started a campaign to put an end to British membership of the EU in the wake of large-scale arrival of workers from the new EU members, once part of the Soviet bloc.

The then prime minister David Cameron, boosted by a referendum in Scotland, opting to stay in the United Kingdom, ended up calling a referendum on the EU – which he lost. A dejected Cameron had to resign as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, to be succeeded by Theresa May, who has been battling unsuccessfully to get parliamentary approval of her successive Brexit packages. The Commons have voted to let her ask for a delay in Brexit and renegotiate its terms.

Whatever the outcome, Brexit will be remembered as a great turning point in the UK’s history, leading perhaps to its unravelling. Here is a situation where neither London nor Brussels will have the last laugh.

A new world order sans Anglo-American leadership is about to be born.

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