John McLaughlin served as the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2000-2004 and Acting Director of the CIA in 2004. He is a distinguished practitioner in residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
OPINION — In the world of intelligence — my former profession — the most difficult thing to detect is the point in global events when barely noticeable incremental changes accumulate like a snowball rolling downhill, achieve critical mass and suddenly produce something unexpected. This usually catches most everyone by surprise. It can be a revolution, a coup, an economic collapse or even a new alliance.
Such things rarely happen overnight and when they do burst into view, many people hasten to label it an “intelligence failure” — the default reaction when something unexpected happens in the world.
A perfect illustration of this was the Arab Spring that exploded in 2011. Pressures for change had been building for years in the Arab world, but it took an obscure Tunisian fruit seller in late 2010 to provide the spark — quite literally. When he set himself on fire to protest treatment by Tunisian authorities, it triggered a chain reaction of upheaval in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria — the latter three turning into still-hot civil wars.
My point is that there is a lot going on in the world right now that is either too complicated, unsettled or obscure to pull our focus away from COVID-19 dangers rightly commanding our attention. Yet, international politics and competition go on — with much less direct involvement or influence from the U.S. than at any time in the last 70 years. This will all leave a legacy that Washington will have to confront at some point.
From a long list of cases, here are just three examples: first a country, then a partnership and then a global trend.
Libya last grabbed America’s imagination in 2011 during its civil war, which led to the death of Muammar Gaddafi. Since then, an internal struggle has been under way for control of the country — a struggle that has turned into a proxy war involving Russia and Turkey, with military, financial or diplomatic support divided among at least seven other countries.
Turkey (heir to the Ottoman Empire that once ruled North Africa) is seeking regional influence and oil and gas concessions by backing a U.N.-endorsed government in Tripoli. Russia wants the same and has backed a challenger, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who – until Turkish intervention had established wide control – came close to overthrowing the Tripoli regime. And there are proxies within proxies, with Turkey deploying some of the fighters it supported in Syria — and Russia throwing in elements of the Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries tied to the Putin government.
Three things are notable about all of this. First, it’s yet another example of U.S. allies (Turkey and Egypt) battling it out with one of our adversaries (Russia), and Washington making only token efforts to affect the outcome. Second, it shows another crack in NATO’s façade as member state Turkey strikes out on its own, with its NATO partners divided over both Turkey’s actions and whom to support in Libya. Third, it fuels continuing instability in North Africa, which remains a hotbed of international terrorism.
Russia and China are drawing closer together. Enemies at one point during the Cold War, they have found increasing points of convergence since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, beginning with China’s desire back then for access to Russian defense industry expertise.
Now, sharing strained relations with the United States, the two are increasingly finding a common cause. This has taken many forms, including joint military exercises in sensitive spots such as the Sea of Japan, the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman (the latter two including Iran).
A conventional view is that China as a rising power may ultimately push Russia aside, but I think this closer alignment will endure so long as both countries are at odds with the U.S. Most notably, Putin last year said that Russia would be helping China build a sophisticated ballistic missile defense, something only Russia and the U.S. currently have. This is particularly important to China as it seeks, according to defense intelligence, to double its nuclear arsenal over the next decade. This will give the two added leverage in any current or future U.S. efforts to engage either or both in arms reduction talks (with the major U.S.-Russian agreement, New Start, set to expire in six months).
A Global Trend
Commitment to democratic norms is faltering widely around the world. In many cases, leaders came to office with that tendency, but many have seized on the COVID-19 emergency as an excuse. This is partly the driver in high-profile countries such as Turkey, Brazil and the Philippines, where leaders are gathering power at the expense of institutions that represent or protect citizens.
But it is also true in parts of the world that Freedom House calls Nations in Transit. In fact, there are now fewer democracies than at any time in the last 25 years. The Polish leadership, for example, has worked to control the judiciary, and in Hungary, the Orban government is gaining control over the media, education and the arts, while passing an emergency law that lets it rule by decree.
A thread tying this to my earlier examples is the growing involvement of both China and Russia — the world’s exemplars of a non-democratic model — in many of these places. Moreover, the trend is further fueled by Washington stepping back from its historic role as a forceful advocate for democracy abroad.
What all of this means is that when the U.S. eventually replaces Trump’s “America First” policy with some kind of multifaceted re-engagement, it will have to take stock of and adjust to a very different set of global dynamics than when it last embraced the role of alliance and global leader.
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