The Decline of the US-Led Global Order and Covid-19 Threaten to Worsen Conflict in the Middle East, Africa and Europe

Dnyanesh Kamat

AFP Photo: Adrien Barbier

Inter- and intra-state conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean, Mozambique and Iraq could seriously destabilize Africa, the Middle East and Europe. And the ongoing conflicts in these regions are poised to get much worse.

For this, there are two key reasons. One is the raging Covid-19 pandemic. This has sapped most countries’ strategic efforts toward managing conflicts. The other reason is the decline of the US-led, rules-based global order, precipitated chiefly by Donald Trump’s disdain for and even hostility toward multilateralism and diplomacy. Trump’s preference has been for photo-ops (as with Kim Jong-Un) rather than working toward any long-term sustainable solution. Since taking office, he has removed America from some of the Obama administration’s signature multilateral achievements – the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. His government also has withdrawn the US from the World Health Organization and has constantly undermined Nato solidarity.

It is no surprise, then, that two Nato members, Turkey and Greece, are dangerously close to conflict, with American involvement conspicuous only by its absence. A solution to the Turkey-Greece conflict can only come through multilateral efforts, led by a neutral party. Sadly, the EU is no longer a neutral party, primarily due to the involvement of Italy and France as parties to the conflict in both the Eastern Mediterranean and in the related conflict in Libya. Germany, too, has been found wanting in its ability to calm tensions. Politicians in Berlin, facing elections next year, are wary of provoking Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ire, lest he follows through on his threat to let refugees cross Turkey’s borders into Europe.

As a leading Nato member, the US has a key role to play in the conflict. It could start by ensuring that Turkey becomes a member of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), a group formed to jointly prospect for oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. The EMGF, which comprises Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, pointedly excludes Turkey. Concomitantly, the US must build on the latest ceasefire in Libya between the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and the Tobruk-based government led by Khalifa Haftar. A resolution or power-sharing deal in Libya will take the pressure off other simmering inter-state conflicts in the region.

Unfortunately, as the group with the most to lose by conflict breaking out either in Libya or in the Eastern Mediterranean, the EU has done itself no favors by taking sides so stridently in both conflicts. France and Italy are on opposing sides in the Libyan conflict. For many years, French politicians have adopted a stridently anti-Turkish position – whether on the issue of Turkey’s EU membership, Cyprus or the refugee crisis. France’s deployment of two Rafale jets and a naval frigate to Greece has exacerbated, rather than calmed, the conflict.

In Syria, a multilateral approach could lead to refugee resettlement. This could remove one of the bargaining chips that Erdogan continues to use with Europe and possibly make him more amenable to a compromise over Libya, Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean.

In Mozambique, the growing Islamist insurgency in the country’s northern provinces has seen a militarized response by private security contractors and neighboring states, in addition to the government of Mozambique. Even as the country’s Islamists claim allegiance to ISIS, all available evidence points to the fact that their grievances lie in corruption and political alienation. The “responses” to the conflict thus far have either been security-oriented, with South African, Russian and American private military contractors attempting an intervention, or the French energy company Total’s recent security agreement with the government of Mozambique to secure its energy assets in the country.

In scenes reminiscent of Iraq, in early August the insurgents captured a northern Mozambique town located close to the country’s gas deposits. This is eerily similar to how the ISIS insurgency started in the Middle East. If these insurgents link up with other militants in Africa, they could destabilize almost half the continent. Here too, the American silence is deafening. It is perhaps no surprise. Under Donald Trump, America has cut funding to aid programs in Africa after taking almost a year and a half to name a state department diplomat assigned to the continent.

In Iraq, the Trump administration is prodding the new administration of Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to take on Iran-allied militias. But the US is not providing Al-Kadhimi with the necessary political or diplomatic support to enable him to form a political consensus that removes Iraq from Iran’s orbit. In June, Al-Kadhimi’s government arrested members of an Iran-allied militia, only to release them within three days. If it pushes Al-Kadhimi too far, the US may risk further inflaming political strife in Iraq.

US foreign policy mandarins need to take a holistic view of conflict resolution, mindful of their inter-relatedness, in stark contrast to Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy. For better or worse, we still live in a unipolar world. China and Russia still have yet to provide alternative, workable models of leadership toward conflict resolution and peace. Until that happens, the world must keep expecting America to step up to the plate.

 

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.