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Pandemic Pressure: The Coronavirus Is Antagonizing America’s Relationships

Hall Gardner

The coronavirus pandemic is beginning to press the Trump administration to reconsider some defense options and military deployments, but the crisis has not yet begun to fundamentally transform Donald Trump’s Peace through Strength doctrine which promises “strategic predictability, operational unpredictability.”

I.                Peace through Strength?

The primary focus of Trump’s so-called Peace through Strength doctrine is to counter and deter the military capabilities of what the Pentagon calls “revisionist powers,” such Russia and China, and “rogue states,” such as Iran and North Korea, in its 2018 National Defense Strategy. The irony, however, is that Trump’s doctrine is failing miserably in that it is pushing China, Russia and Iran, if not North Korea, even closer together in the formation of a “Eurasian axis”—so that the mutual interests of these states outweigh their differences. Now, Russia and China are even closer to forging a formal defense alliance.

Although their actions do not appear to be coordinated at this time, China, Russia, Iran, as well as North Korea, have all hoped to counter U.S. military pressures and economic sanctions in an effort to overstretch U.S. political-military and financial capabilities across the world through both symmetrical and asymmetrical military measures and actions. It is crucial to seek out new diplomatic options—in an effort to prevent a new arms race, if not a major-power war.

II. Iran

Perhaps the most immediate strategic impact of the pandemic was on Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy toward Iran—after the March–April 2020 USS Theodore Roosevelt affair. In speaking truth to power, Captain Brett Crozier’s demands (the US was “not at war. Sailors do not need to die”) to move most of his crew onshore to Guam in order to save them from the spread of the coronavirus nevertheless forced the U.S. Navy to redeploy a second aircraft carrier, the USS Harry Truman, out of the Arabo-Persian Gulf region and toward the Pacific at a moment of heightened US-Iran tensions.

At that time, Trump threatened to attack Iranian ships that have been harassing U.S. naval forces. In a tit for tat, Iran then threatened to target U.S. naval forces. Such threats and counter-threats illustrate the need for a “hotline” to de-escalate the conflict. Yet such a U.S.-Iran “hotline” may not be sufficient to prevent war—given the fact that Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran has failed to bring about diplomatic compromise.

U.S.-Iran tensions have continued to mount after the Trump administration dumped the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal that had been negotiated by the UN, the European Union, and the Obama administration. Tehran has continued to press ahead on its nuclear enrichment program and it tested a new military satellite with limited military and reconnaissance capabilities in late April. The satellite launch represented a political statement designed to show Iranian resolve in the face of U.S. pressures, yet it nevertheless raised American fears that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards might eventually be able to mount nuclear warheads on intercontinental missiles in the future.

Concurrently, the Trump administration has hoped to augment international pressures on the Iranian regime and prevent it from importing small conventional arms at a time when Russia, China, India and Turkey—which have all been impacted by U.S. sanctions on Iran—have not been playing along. In particular, China and Iran have expanded their military partnership and energy deals potentially worth $400 billion—but with conditions that could lead Iran to become a “colony” of China. In the effort to obtain international support for new sanctions on Iran, the Trump administration has ironically wanted to claim that the US still belongs to the JCPOA nuclear deal after dumping it with great fanfare in 2018.

If the Trump administration is eventually successful in bringing back UN sanctions on Iran, then the JCPOA  nuclear deal is very likely to collapse—which could trigger a new nuclear crisis.

III. China

Ironically, the USS Theodore Roosevelt affair may have provided the Trump administration with a way to shift its strategic focus toward China while still seeking to pressure Iran in other ways besides the deployment of vulnerable aircraft carriers.

In a sign of ongoing U.S.-China tensions, the U.S. Navy conducted yet another “freedom of navigation operation” in late April by sending the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill to assert “navigational rights and freedoms” in the Spratly Islands. This was just after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of exploiting the media attention raised by the coronavirus pandemic in order to “bully” its neighbors in the South China Sea.  

Here, the Trump administration has threatened stronger sanctions and tariffs on China’s exports to the United States by pointing its finger at the Chinese Communist Party as being responsible for the pandemic and affirming that Washington does not blame the Chinese people. This threat of “punishment” nevertheless helps to fuel Chinese nationalism and has raised Chinese Communist Party fears of stronger US support for the democracy movement in Hong Kong and for regime change.

As stated by Army Gen. Joseph Votel in a House Armed Services Committee meeting in February 2018, the Trump administration has feared that Tehran’s eventual membership in the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) would boost Iran’s power and influence. In effect, from the Trump administration perspective, Iranian SCO membership would represent the “keystone” that would help solidify a Russia-China axis in Eurasia and in the wider Middle East as a potential “threat” to Israeli, Saudi, and US global interests.

Trump administration “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran is consequently intended to disrupt China’s Belt and Road Initiative and to break a burgeoning Sino-Russian Eurasian alliance that is attempting to draw states such as Iran, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela, Pakistan, and possibly the Philippines, even closer to Russia and China. Beijing is concurrently attempting to attract and influence Central and Eastern European States in the 16+1 forum. For its part, Berlin has hoped to sustain the China market for its exports but is beginning to debate China’s investments in Germany’s strategic industries and other issues that provide Beijing with strategic leverage over German foreign and economic policy.

In addition to expanding its Belt and Road Initiative throughout the world, Beijing has hoped to establish a Chinese version of the US Monroe Doctrine in the East and South China seas in its regional rivalry with ASEAN members, while concurrently threatening to unify with Taiwan by force if necessary—as President-for-life Xi Jinping threatened in January 2019.

Moreover, while U.S.-China political-military tensions have augmented during the pandemic, with each side propagandizing against the other, Beijing has attempted to capitalize on Trump’s anti-European Union protectionism by providing medical assistance to Germany, France, Italy and Serbia to help these countries fight the coronavirus pandemic—while hoping to turn a divided Europe away from American influence. Italy—now the sick man of Europe—signed a memorandum becoming a member of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in March 2019.

IV. Russia

With respect to Russia, the United States and NATO have been engaging in a renewed military confrontation in eastern Europe at least since Moscow’s preclusive annexation of Crimea and political-military interference in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The United States and Russia have been engaging in nuclear and conventional weapons build-ups in the regions of Kaliningrad/ Baltic Sea, Crimea/ Black Sea, and Syria/ eastern Mediterranean.

Moscow’s preclusive expansion toward Ukraine and Syria has been coupled with efforts to play its energy card in an effort to attract Central and Eastern European states, Turkey and even Germany (Nord Stream 2) closer to Russian interests and away from the United States and EU-backed Three Seas Initiative, for example. 

While the pandemic appears to be further antagonizing the United States and China, it appears to be pushing Moscow and Beijing even closer together. Moscow is planning a new gas pipeline to China and a new railway that would connect the ports of the Arctic and India Oceans as part of their burgeoning Eurasian alliance.  For its part, China has boosted oil purchases from Russia, thereby helping to keep Russian energy corporations solvent.

 In response to alleged Russian violations of the 1987 INF treaty, the United States has dropped out that treaty, and could soon drop out of New START—a possible option that has been rationalized, at least in part, by the claim that China is not part of the New START treaty. The United States had previously dropped out of the 1972 ABM treaty in order to deploy missile defense systems in Europe and Asia that are seen as potential threats to both Russia and China, as well as Iran and North Korea through what I have called the “insecurity-security dialectic” and the new “Butter Battle” arms rivalry that additionally threatens to tear apart the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act.

The United States, Russia, China, and now Japan, are all engaging in a new arms race to develop hypersonic weaponry while concurrently deploying low yield nuclear weapons on both tactical and long-range missile systems. The deployment of low yield nuclear weapons appears to signal a move to develop an actual nuclear warfighting capability. And the United States threat to deploy intermediate-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific region could provoke a formal Sino-Russian military alliance.

V. U.S. Allies

 In addition to Trump’s threats not to support NATO and other Allies who did not spend a sufficient amount of their GDP on defense (as determined by Trump), the Trump administration’s Peace through Strength doctrine is concurrently working to unsettle U.S. allies who cannot be absolutely certain if the United States will come to their defense.

Here, for example, the Trump administration has pulled heavy B52 bombers, plus B-1s and B-2 stealth bombers, from Guam in order to reduce potential targets for China’s “Guam killer” missile, the DF-26, and North Korea’s Hwason-12, while deploying these long-range bombers, armed with long-range strike missiles and supported by aerial refueling tankers, much more randomly. Pentagon spokespersons have argued that these heavy bombers can reach the Pacific in less than a day from their mainland bases in places like North Dakota and Louisiana.

But here, Louisiana is one area hit by the coronavirus. And these bomber deployments will still delay reaction times in the new world of hypersonic warfare—thereby raising Allied concerns and potentially sparking regional arms races if American Allies continue to fear that the United States will not back their security. Given projections that the total U.S. national debt could possibly reach the $40 trillion range somewhere in the years 2026–27, Allied fears are also bound to augment significantly if there are massive cuts in U.S. defense expenditure in an effort to reduce U.S. national debts. But this scenario will prevail only if Washington cannot soon reduce tensions through engaged diplomacy with China, Russia and Iran, as well as North Korea, among other states.

VI. Engaged Diplomacy: Iran, China, Russia

What is needed is a new U.S. and European diplomatic strategy intended to split the burgeoning alliance between Russia, China, and Iran, and that draws Russia closer to the United States and European Union, while concurrently seeking a concerted U.S.-EU-Russian strategy that seeks to channel China’s rise to hegemonic status—in the process of reducing global tensions and demilitarizing an increasingly dangerous world.

With respect to Iran, an alternative diplomatic approach is to return to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal and then negotiate a follow-on nuclear agreement that builds upon that deal. In working with the Europeans, as well as with Russia and China, such an approach would additionally seek to implement a Missile Technology Control regime for missile programs throughout the entire Middle East and to try to prevent all destabilizing arms transfers to the countries in that region. Such an approach would accordingly encourage Iran-Saudi negotiations to put an end to their proxy wars in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Here, all states in the region (and in the world) could pledge a no-first-use of any kind of weapon of mass destruction.

The increasing risk is that even if the United States and/or Israel do not go to war with Iran over its nuclear enrichment and missile programs, Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy and tough sanctions—coupled with the recent collapse of world oil prices—risk the dangerous destabilization of Iran, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, among other weak states.

As illustrated by the U.S. drone assassination of the Iranian Quds force leader Major General Qassem Soliemani, along with pro-Iranian Iraqi militia leaders, Iraq—which has increasingly been rocked by pro- and anti-Iranian protest—is becoming a new battlefield for the United States and Iran, along with Syria. Contrary to Trump administration assurances, this regional crisis is opening the door for the return of Daesh (Islamic State)—which has recently augmented ambushes, IED attacks, and assassinations in Diyala, Kirkuk, Anbar, Dijah, and Salahuddin, Iraq. Other militant groups of differing ideologies could also come to the forefront throughout the region.

With respect to China, Washington, Beijing, and Taipei need to forge a new arrangement that builds upon the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act before the latter accord is discarded. This new arrangement can be accomplished by the implementation of joint United States, China and international security guarantees for Taiwan. Such an approach would seek to implement U.S.-Chinese security cooperation and joint regional state development projects in the South and East China seas. Likewise, a cooperative U.S.-China policy toward North Korea—in effort to reduce both the conventional and nuclear weapons build-up between Seoul and Pyongyang through confidence measures and investments in North Korea to boost wages and employment—can help stimulate the United States and China to additionally cooperate in the East and South China seas.

With respect to Russia, the United States should extend the New START treaty before it expires in February 2021, but then concurrently work toward a new multilateral arms reduction agreement that includes China’s intermediate-range missile systems if possible. The United States should also participate directly in a trilateral diplomacy involving France, Germany, Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. NATO and Russia likewise need to work out a rapprochement that leads to a significant reduction of their respective military build-ups in eastern Europe through the implementation of confidence and security-building measures, while seeking compromise over the Russian annexation of Crimea. This approach could be based on the formal recognition of a neutral Ukraine and on a U.S.-NATO-EU-Russia cooperative security approach toward the Baltic, Caucasus, and Black Sea regions.

In this regard, the 2015–2020 European Deterrence Initiative has tended to augment U.S. defense spending for an American forward presence that seeks to counter Moscow, but that also contains Germany/Europe under a U.S.-led NATO aegis. Instead, Washington should be seeking ways to boost all-European contributions for military spending—but in the process of creating a more equitable sharing of U.S.-EU defense and security burdens and responsibilities—so as to eventually establish a U.S.-European-Ukrainian-Russian entente.

To re-emphasize, there will be no long-lasting peace until the United States and EU begin to reach out for a general entente with Russia that will seek to channel Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions—while concurrently seeking joint security and economic accords with China.

Hall Gardner is a professor and former chair (1993–2019) of the International and Comparative Politics of the American University of Paris. His recent books include: IR Theory, Historical Analogy and Major Power War (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2019); World War Trump: The Risks of America’s New Nationalism (New York: Prometheus Books, 2018); Crimea, Global Rivalry and the Vengeance of History (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2015); NATO Expansion and the U.S. Strategy in Asia: Surmounting the Global Crisis (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan 2013); Averting Global War (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan 2007). Website: www.hallgardner.com.

Image: Reuters

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