American Plans for the Future

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Translated by Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ

21st January, 2016


*An Assessment of the prospects for development of U.S. foreign policy in 2016 — an extract from an annual forecast on “Russia and the world: economy and foreign policy”, issued by the Institute of world economy and international relations named after E. M. Primakov of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO) and the Centre for situation analysis, RAS. Full text of the forecast is available on the website of the IMEMO.*

The fight against international terrorism

Although the focus of the presidential campaign of 2016 will be mostly domestic policy issues, the actions of the American leadership in the field of international relations and security policy will experience a significant influence of the political conjuncture.

National security, primarily due to the threat of international terrorism, will be one of the most important political battles of 2016. Particularly acute, it can take in the form of new terrorist attacks on U.S. territory and against U.S. citizens in various regions of the world. The experience of a terrorist attack in San Bernardino unfolded around him and the political debate have shown that in the case of new attacks in the U.S., the Obama administration could become the object of criticism from Republicans who consider his actions to be insufficient. Moreover, a large-scale terrorist attack on United States territory can become a trigger for the displacement of the main part of the agenda of the presidential campaign from socio-economic perspective towards security issues. This development is capable of influencing the position of the Obama administration on the way forward in the Middle East.

The situation in the Middle East

The Obama administration will take a number of steps aimed at the intensification of the fight against “Islamic State” (IS; a group banned in Russia) on the territory of Iraq, but will not go on a full-fledged military operation on the ground with a large American military contingent. If major terrorist attacks in the United States in 2016 will not happen, it will have a political resonance. Obama would prefer to leave the opportunity to begin a new military campaign in the Middle East to the next President, especially if it becomes clear that the Republican candidate is leading in the election race.

The problem for Washington will be disagreements between members of the anti-ISIS coalition. Although Washington formally supports Iraq in its dispute with Turkey, the United States may go and promote the future of the sovereignty of Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite the demonstration of Washington’s loyalty to the Turkish government, the level of trust plummeted. In 2016 the USA, with the support of the European allies, increased the pressure on Ankara in connection with the necessity to strengthening the control on the Turkish-Syrian border and reduce its “transparency” for the militants. Another terrorist attack in Europe would seriously further exacerbate the problem in U.S-Turkish relations. Despite the fact that Washington managed to convince Ankara of the need to withdraw troops of their army out of Mosul, in 2016 the dismissive attitude of the Turkish leadership to the sovereignty and the borders of Iraq could cause new friction between the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Obama administration.

The US retains a moderately high level of political pressure on the official leadership of Syria, partly recognizing the validity of the actions of the Assad government against ISIS and its status as one of the leading forces in the controlled territories. But Washington would oppose attempts to legitimise the status of Assad through elections. Support of the U.S. and its allies in the region will help preserve the excessive demands of the Syrian opposition in negotiations with Damascus.

The U.S. government will not be at the political level to acknowledge the fact of cooperation with Russia in the fight against ISIS and will continue to publicly criticize its actions. In reality, however, the interaction between the military and the intelligence agencies of the two countries in the Middle East region can become closer. The discontent allies in the coalition, primarily Turkey, but also Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UK may create the limitations of the Russian-American cooperation. In addition, the U.S. will oppose any attempts to consolidate the political strengthening of the Assad government’s military successes, achieved thanks to Russian support of the Syrian army and in solidarity with their forces (primarily Syrian Kurds).

The United States will provide direct and indirect support for the Islamic coalition, created by Saudi Arabia, using it as a structure acting parallel to the coalition led by the United States. The presence of the Islamic coalition allows Washington to absolve themselves of political risk and military burden in the fight against ISIS and to get more support in the Muslim world. The US requires that the coalition is not the only alternative, which was created by Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The development of the results of the adoption of the joint comprehensive plan of action reached with Tehran, in 2016 will be modest. In the case of intended export from Iran of highly enriched nuclear fuel for storage and processing outside of the country, as well as the sale of surplus heavy water, Washington’s position on the issue of lifting the sanctions is to be eased. However, there are a number of disagreements over a wide range of issues, including the situation in Syria, which will slow down the removal of Iran’s U.S. and international sanctions. A significant stimulus for the gradual elimination in 2016 of restrictions on US companies in Iran in the market has already become active via lobbying by American business, trying to give competition to Asian and European competitors. One of the most important political levers against competitors to the US will be the willingness to apply sanctions against non-U.S multinational corporations, who will try to enter the Iranian market prior to the lifting of U.S. and international restrictions.

The Asia-Pacific region

The most important subject for U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific region in 2016 will remain the project of the TRANS-Pacific partnership (TPP). Here much will depend on the political situation — on how Congress is ready to support this initiative until the end of the required period of 90 days from the making of a President bill.

With this, U.S. support will continue implementing TTP in an expanded sense — not only as a free trade zone, but also as a space of uniform standards, the principles of regulation in commercial and financial spheres, as well as in the field of legal mechanisms of protection of copyright and intellectual property. One of the key foreign policy challenges for Washington in 2016 is involving the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the TTP. After Japan’s accession to TPP, the joining of Kazakhstan to the agreement would constitute serious challenges to the Chinese initiative to establish a zone of free trade between China — Japan — The Republic Of Korea. China faces a more difficult situation than the one in October of 2015, when the largest economy in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, decided to join the TPP, creating problems for the development of the free trade zone of China and ASEAN.

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It is unlikely that Washington will devote considerable attention to difficult issues in U.S-China relations, notably the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as well as other contradictions between China and American allies (Japan) and partners in the Asia-Pacific region. However, the dynamics of the implementation programs of the Chinese military build up and further growth of military spending, primarily in the development of the Navy and air force, will serve for Washington to criticize positions and actions of Beijing on key regional issues, as well as accusations of aspirations of power dominance in the region. This development is extremely beneficial on a strategic perspective for the American military-industrial complex and its lobbyists. At the same time the U.S. will continue to sell the line of multi-level involvement of China in a dialogue on the issues of economy and security.

Relations with the EU and NATO

For 2016 the attention of the American leadership will be focused on two crucial topics in the dialogue with the EU and NATO: securing their non-military security and the establishment of the Transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP).

In the case of Islamist terrorist attacks in the countries of the EU, the U.S will be under even greater pressure from European allies and partners. The likelihood of new terrorist attacks in Europe is very high in the EU, so the U.S can receive negative reactions at any moment from allies who are already criticising Washington for their unwillingness to actively participate in ensuring their safety from terrorist threats. This direction can be difficult for America, as it is compounded by differences in positions of the USA and leading EU countries regarding the development of the situation in the Middle East, including what is happening in Syria and Iraq, and Russia.

Despite the fact that the United States will periodically offer reminders about the readiness to ensure the military security of NATO countries, giving special symbolic importance to cooperation with the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic region, joint exercises and other activities, the attention of Washington to the traditional military security of allies in general will not grow. Much will depend on the nature of political relations with Russia and the speed of recovery of the political dialogue between NATO and Russia. Despite the continuing tensions in relations between Russia and Turkey, the U.S. will try to minimize the attempts of Ankara to persuade the Alliance to participate in a confrontation with Moscow and to use their loyalty to Washington to obtain American support. Further political action will demonstrated the nature of the involvement of the USA and NATO in the Russian-Turkish contradictions. The Obama administration can even have a calming effect on the position of the Turkish leadership.

Most of the attention and efforts of European states will be concentrated on the preparations for the signing of the Transatlantic trade and investment partnership. For the Obama administration it is crucial to finalize the deal with the EU until the end of his tenure. Despite the significant challenges faced by the negotiation process in relation to questions about the standards, the chance to do so in 2016 is saved thanks to the residual presence of the administration. However, it is difficult to imagine that an agreement will be held in 2016 even in the case of a conclusion from Congress.

The Obama administration will attempt to force the EU to maintain solidarity in the issue of sanctions against Russia, as long as their in power, but there is a possibility of the growth of contradictions in this matter between the US and its European partners. Loss of European businesses is not comparable with the damage suffered by American companies from imposing sanctions and other restrictions, as well as Russian countermeasures. So the full regime of sectoral sanctions beyond the fall of 2016 could be the basis for growing discontent among European companies, which will have political consequences in the countries of the EU, whose economy is most associated with Russia and also within the EU. This will be reflected on the transatlantic level. However, even if members of the EU do not reached unity on the issue of extending the sanctions regime against Russian companies and banks, the U.S. widely used tactics of extraterritorial restrictive measures in trade and other spheres, as well as the active use of judicial and other means to pressure other countries and non-U.S companies will create significant challenges for European corporations and banks. On the issue of political sanctions, primarily against Russian officials and other persons, the U.S. will be able to count on the support of the EU.

Relations with Russia

Cooperation with Russia will be one of the most controversial areas of American foreign policy. On the one hand, Washington will not abandon harsh rhetoric against the actions and positions of Moscow, and also periodic attacks through the whole list of acute issues on the agenda of Russian-American dialogue. It is also possible Washington will introduce more sanctions and measures that would complement and “upgrade” the existing ones. On the other hand, the Obama administration will gradually reduce the degree of tension in relations with Russia and, increasingly, to start an unofficial cooperation in different spheres, to develop compromise on secondary matters.

Three themes will be of particular importance for the development of cooperation with Russia in 2016:

• Security in Europe, primarily in connection with the terrorist threat.

• The development of events in Syria and Iraq, as well as dynamics of conflict with ISIS and international terrorism.

• Political and economic conditions in Ukraine.

The first two issues are prerequisites for scaling up communication between Russia and USA/NATO, especially if the risks to European security will grow. The situation in Ukraine will not only depend on the positions and actions of Moscow and Washington, but also on the degree of future political and economic crisis in Ukraine, and how strong the military conflict in Donbass will “freeze”. While Russia and the US will find it easier to reach compromises in tactical and functional character rather than strategic breakthroughs in the relationship. No breakthroughs will be possible until the end of the Obama presidency, and probably for 1-2 years after it too.

On the one hand, if the U.S will be interested in closer cooperation with Russia, the success of the Russian operation in Syria will become even more obvious, and the protests of the European business and the political establishment will become even louder. There is a possibility that the Obama administration, until the end of its work, will cancel part of the economic “sectoral” sanctions that were imposed by presidential Executive acts. Obama does not want to leave the next President the possibility of normalizing relations with Russia. The lifting of political sanctions against Russia and Russian companies and citizens in the coming years is unthinkable.

On the other hand, Washington’s actions will be based on an analysis of how effectively the Russian economy will adapt to the pressure of sanctions. If the Russian economy doesn’t show signs of improvement, decreasing trends in the dynamics of prices on the world oil market and the regional gas markets will persist, and the effectiveness of Russian actions in the Middle East will decrease, while the position of the ideologists of increasing pressure on Russia will be strengthened. Under their influence, the Obama administration may retain a full regime of restrictive measures against Russia, including sectoral sanctions, and even go for their expansion. The situation in Ukraine will not have any fundamental importance, though it can act as a trigger.

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