Deconfliction. Is it the equivalent of a new age détente? Has the U.S been developing channels of communication to assert our interests and stabilize tensions with Russia, Syria, Iran, and now North Korea? Not quite so. Henry Kissinger’s policy of détente may have had the long-term success of breaking apart the Soviet Union and China, but came with many short-term failings such as the Communists’ victory in Vietnam and Cambodia. During the period of the Cold War the policy of détente (the easing of relations) between the U.S and Soviet was structured around building practical tools for containing the escalation of military risk in areas of conflicting interest between the two superpowers. Détente can be considered more so as an end effect of calculated diplomatic moves to invest in national security objectives. This involved weakening our competition by giving them the perception of equal footing while attempting to write the rules of procedure on our terms and in our favor.
Deconfliction shows no such promise. It is essentially policy slang for “the deliberate process for avoiding collision of objects in space.” As of today, U.S policy toward Russia consists of a hotline to make sure we do not shoot each other’s fighter jets in places like Syria. When media heads herald deconfliction talks with Russia as a measure of success in cooperation, they are trying to foster an image of a robust national security architecture. Make no mistake, deconfliction is no strategic objective, nor is it a tactic in a grand policy scheme. It is a gesture between two countries in order to accommodate opposing war plans.
With the onslaught of heightened American military activity around the globe (notably Syria and North Korea), that gesture of goodwill is now questionable. Relations between Moscow and Washington have been reset to a dangerous new low with the lingering contestation over who orchestrated the April 4 chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria. The Trump Administration officially declared war on the Assad regime (and hence Russia and Iran) by firing missiles at the airbase believed to have been the launch pad for the delivery of chemical agents. Moscow has claimed that it cut off the deconfliction hotline after the U.S attack on the airbases around al-Shayrat. Yesterday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson concluded his first public visit to Moscow under the umbrella of retaliation by both Damascus and Pyongyang. Reports have emerged that Tillerson will work with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to ease the buildup of pressure between the two countries. It seems more a shifting of terms rather than a negotiated accord that would help set the stage for resolving competing military objectives in both Europe and the Middle East.
Donald Trump may have campaigned on “America First” with the promise to put jobs and economy as primary objectives, but he will have to govern in the reality of a chaotic world order. It seems as though Trump’s America First policy is not so much about isolating America from its allies, but to provoke fluid coalitions for area-specific issues. It is about doing more of what America does best (military might) and doing that with less administrative bureaucracy. Having a cabinet full of former military generals can only aid in such a venture. Trump has successfully sold his proposal of less foreign policy activism in areas where we don’t “win” while simultaneously advertising more engagement in areas where America can retain its image as a global superpower while sharing the burden of cost.
Where has this led us as of today? Having an ad-hoc policy to countries like Russia and North Korea is an incredibly dangerous gamble. The recent missile launch against the Syrian regime was conducted as Trump was having his first diplomatic meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This may have been no accident. Declaring war on Syria while sitting next to the Chinese president gave the world the perception that Trump has the upper hand his relationship with Xi. But it is likely the Chinese know better than to be bullied by the threat of the use of force by the Trump Administration. China knows how important America’s Asian allies (Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea) are to its hegemony in the region and will likely seek to cast America as too unreliable and unsafe to have as a partner.
As of a few days ago, Trump ordered a naval buildup near the Korean Peninsula after a missile launch by North Korea that landed in the Sea of Japan. At the moment, U.S strategy entails the looming threat of full force in the hope that a military entanglement with America’s superior fighting capabilities will deter smaller powers.
The cards Trump is playing with are quite clear to both the Chinese and Russians. On the Korean Peninsula, Trump has put a spotlight on America’s powerful naval forces in the face of China’s perceived mismanagement of the North Korean regime. China is under no illusion of America’s naval capabilities and is capable of engineering advantages where military force can be used against the United States. China will look to attack a competing power’s strategies and alliance system in order to gain leverage. With the U.S unable to pronounce and project a grand strategy for the Asian region, it will become easier for China to upset a time-tested and logical projection of military capabilities (despite the perceived unpredictability) especially when it is used as a strategy of containment. China understands the language of U.S military force, but does the U.S understand Chinese decision-making when cornered on its home terrain?
As for Russia, Trump decided to show a display of force in Syria while painting the Russians as culpable in the chemical attack against Syrian civilians. Moscow is seeking to limit the options for U.S operations in Syria and distract the U.S with problems that are not critical for ending the war. Trump and Putin are currently engaged in a war of attrition that is pumped up on make-as-you-go foreign policy. There will be no winner of this war and its lessening will depend on who losses the battle of tactics. That will only happen when tactical air and ground fighting can no longer cover for a lack of long-term goals. Putin has been trying to play it safe in Syria while attempting to make America look weak in its efforts to stabilize Syria. By doing this, Putin has been forcing his way to be on equal footing with the United States. The U.S missile attack on the al-Shayrat airbase was Trump calling Putin’s bluff. Trump has essentially upped the odds of conventional war with Russia while forcing Putin to act on equal footing with U.S military might. The war fighting will change composition when both players continue to project threats beyond their capabilities and are unable to hold onto enough leverage to protect operational gains. Only then can deconfliction begin.