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Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, Lt Gen H.R. McMaster, has inherited a world in which the tectonic plates are perceptibly shifting. Power, long centred in Washington, is radiating eastward toward Moscow, Tehran, New Delhi, and Beijing. Meanwhile, the rules and institutions of the international system that have for 70 years maintained some modicum of order are visibly under stress, as are the states that make up that system. Whether it recognizes it yet or not, the Trump administration will likely be forced to confront the ongoing challenge of how to restore stability.

The unravelling is most apparent in the Middle East. Four states have failed and collapsed into civil war (Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen); others are at peril of the same. In Syria, it is now Russia, not the United States, that is calling the shots, having brazenly inserted its military — together with Iran and its proxies — into the conflict in 2015 to save Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad from defeat. As in the region’s other civil conflicts, the breakdown of order has led to unmitigated chaos: up to a half-million Syrians killed and more than 11m displaced. The militant Islamic State group and Al Qaeda have profited from the mayhem to secure territory and recruits while committing unspeakable atrocities of their own.

But the unravelling is evident in Europe as well. Europe is dealing with a not dissimilar crisis of political legitimacy, most noticeably on its periphery, as weak states such as Greece and Bulgaria struggle to provide their citizens with jobs and services in the face of severe fiscal constraints. Europe also is coping with the consequences of the Middle East’s civil wars in the form of massive refugee flows and terrorist attacks. The fear these consequences have generated has strengthened far-right political parties with anti-immigrant, law-and-order messages, contributing to the Brexit victory in Britain and threatening ultimately to undermine the European Union as a whole.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed his preference for the more multi-polar world that is starting to emerge from these dark centripetal forces of disorder. He appears to want to revert to 19th-century balance-of-power politics, wherein a few large states broker among themselves issues of war and peace and maintain order within their respective spheres of influence, often by aligning with local strongmen.

Some people in the new administration have suggested they would not be interested in arresting the unravelling of global politics in this direction. But they will ultimately find themselves compelled, for the sake of American power and prosperity, to try revitalising for a new era the rules-based international order constructed following World War II. At that time, the United States, eager to prevent Europe’s bloody wars from ever recurring and the scourge of communism from spreading, helped design a web of international and regional institutions to shore up its European allies and encouraged cooperation rather than armed conflict among states.

A somewhat analogous challenge faces the United States today in the Middle East. The region is likely to be the fiery cauldron in which the global order either gets re-forged for a new era or melts down entirely. Syria may provide the first test. The Russians would like the United States to accept Assad’s continued rule of that shattered country, in return for a partnership to fight the IS and Al Qaeda together. But that is not how stability will be achieved in the Middle East. Assad has alienated too many Syrians through his misrule and brutalities to be able to put his country back together. In the absence of a viable and vibrant Syria that offers its citizens some hope for the future, any battlefield gains against the IS and Al Qaeda are likely to be ephemeral.

Instead, the United States should seek to negotiate a resolution to the Syrian conflict that safeguards the interests of all parties and provides broad latitude for local and provincial self-government. The Russians need to be persuaded that the war is unwinnable and that Assad is not capable of stabilising the country. If words alone fail to sway them, then a policy of greater humanitarian protection for civilians trapped in the conflict — combined with a stepped-up US effort against the IS in tandem with regional partners — should provide greater leverage to nudge them toward a negotiated settlement.

For the region more broadly, the agenda needs to be no less ambitious. The measures required to put the Middle East on a more positive trajectory resemble those undertaken in Europe 70 years ago: stop the fighting, negotiate equitable and inclusive political settlements (in this case to the region’s other civil wars), shore up weak states to make them resistant to subversion, encourage political leaders to govern in ways that strengthen their legitimacy and unleash the talents of their people, and develop regional institutions that help mitigate conflict and enhance the prospects for cooperation.

To achieve this, the United States should partner with states in and outside the region that share its interest in a more stable Middle East. It is high time that those in the region took the lead, providing the vision and doing the lion’s share of the work, but the United States, Europe, and potentially Russia and China should help, as a matter of self-interest.

This may seem a tall order, but the benefits could be substantial. A more secure and prosperous Middle East would undercut radical Islam’s ideological appeal, stabilise Europe’s southern border, and open up a market of more than 300 million consumers. Such a project could give new purpose to the transatlantic relationship while reinvigorating and expanding the existing international order for a new era.

As it contemplates how to deal with an increasingly chaotic world, the new administration will ultimately face a choice: do you throw your lot in with strongmen who offer the semblance of order but cannot provide lasting stability, or do you double down on a rules-based international system that has been far from perfect but delivered 70 years of peace and prosperity in an otherwise anarchical world? No other choice could be more consequential.

—By arrangement with Foreign Policy-The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2017

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Comments (23) Closed

Saif zulfiqar Feb 23, 2017 12:10pm

Let the countries of the world choose how to run their countries they want, as long as they do not interfere in other countries.

khanm Feb 23, 2017 12:15pm

Optimism requires confidence,and confidence is built on trust. And trust,as we know,flows in both directions.wonder if the people in middle east have any trust.In order to escape accountability for his crimes,the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense.If secrecy fails,the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim.If he cannot silence them absolutely,he tries to make sure that no one listens.To this end,he marshals an impressive array of arguments,from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization.After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies:it never happened;the victim lies;the victim exaggerates;the victim brought it upon them-self; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on.The more powerful the perpetrator,the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.

Modi FAN Feb 23, 2017 12:55pm

Stop dictating the world, live and let live.

Shaukat Ali Khan Feb 23, 2017 01:57pm

Shame for the Middle East leaders.

Dr. SalariA, Aamir Ahmad Feb 23, 2017 02:23pm

After already making 30 blunders in 33 days, this will be another big blunder of Donald Trump and his cronies. Let's wait and see.

AN observer Feb 23, 2017 02:50pm

@Dr. SalariA, Aamir Ahmad Well said. He is drifting like a boat in the ocean without any policy and direction.

Next 4 years in US will be like this. Now his emissaries are going all over the world trying to fix the things he has been saying for last one year.

Alba Feb 23, 2017 03:07pm

@khanm .... Sorry. As far as the West, Russia and Turkey are concerned Arabs cannot be trusted. 650,000 civilians are trapped and beginning to starve in Western Mosul. ISIS promised to allow them to begin evacuation but went back on their word. The Western powers know better than to believe in any deals made with Arabs. They bully and attack their neighbors when they feel strong and cry to Russia and the United Sates for help when they feel week.

Falcon1 Feb 23, 2017 03:11pm

Yeah sure, Like your Republican predecessor G.W. Bush did with regime change in Iraq and American style democracy - which has created yet another failed stated in the M.E?

Take care of America first. It is 'Afraid Again' before you think about another country. The way things are going for Trump, he may be impeached before he even sets foot anywhere in this area.

Skeptic Feb 23, 2017 03:16pm

Trump just doesn't get it.

The White House is in chaos. The policy pronouncement of someone like Trump, with an eloquence of a 12- year old boy, and intellectual capacity in worse then the doorman at his tower, and rebuke, reversal and defeat in many areas within the first 30 days, indicates his failure to lead, manage and inspire anyone.

His narcissistic and arrogant style may have worked in Real Estate, but in the Real World, where the art of diplomacy is needed to handle delicate and sensitive matters, he is out of his league. He thinks he can do want ever he like as a President. Little does he understand that the US style of government has three unequal branches of power - Executive, Judiciary and Legislature. He is may be looking at impeachment for lying about his Russian connections and conflicts of interest.

He is an embarrassment to his country, a joke to his party, and a threat to the civilized world. The sooner we see the back of him, the better off we will be.

Alba Feb 23, 2017 03:26pm

@Modi FAN .... ... The Third World cannot even feed it's people. The hungry locusts are invading the US and Europe from everywhere. We have to live and let them die. No sense trying to interfere and feed them. Third World governments are pathetic facades asking Europe and America for alms and food handouts.

Rizwan Feb 23, 2017 03:59pm

What a fallacy for this author to think that the U.S. will look at the Middle East the same way it looked at its extended family (cousins) in Europe 70 years ago. Firstly, America's middle east policy is shaped by, and is subject to the veto of, world jewry ( Israel plus American diaspora ). The author's proposals for imparting peace and prosperity to Arab countries will not fly with the Zionists, who find that Israel is in a much better place when surrounded by civil wars and chaos than when its neighbors are not busy killing each other - that's when they start focusing their energies on Israel's occupation of West Bank and Gaza. The second influence on US Mideast policy is that of the oil barons. They couldn't care less about the civilized proposals of the author. As long as the oil flows from Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait etc. everything else is just low level noise for them. So that's that. Middle East will remain in this quagmire until oil and Israel become irrelevant.

Menon Feb 23, 2017 04:18pm

You mean, Steve Bannon, thw Whipe Superamacist psuedo president?

Lt Gen H.R. McMaster, works for Rump.

Lt Gen H.R. McMaster is still in active duty and could not turn down the job. The only way for him to turn down the job is to resign.

Don't know why, three people are going to change a mentally deranged Rump.

Menon Feb 23, 2017 04:22pm


Optimism requires empirical behavioral evidence and in this case none exist as far as Rump is concerned.

haris Feb 23, 2017 04:33pm

Nothing matter most than following 3 steps: 1. Immediately Stop interfering in social, regional and political matters of any country. 2. Let people elect their own representatives to rule instead of impelling your own favorite ones. 3. Stop limitless and blindly support of Israel and accept Palestine as a sovereign state. The root cause of many problems lies in Palestinian-Israeli conflicts.

haris Feb 23, 2017 04:36pm

@ Alba : Nearly 70 years ago, the same was situation in and around Europe. fortunately there were not many at that time who thinks like you. Otherwise, we would have a far different Europe than what we have now.

Bob Wunderlich Feb 23, 2017 10:32pm

At least he didn't sell 20% of the US Uranium to Russia.

Naeem Feb 24, 2017 12:13am

Middle East problems can only be solved by people of Middle Eastern countries. US and Russia should stay away from there. These powers have their own financial interest and peace in that region is not in their interest

Beefeater Feb 24, 2017 01:17am

All the "so called Kings, Sheikes, Emirs etc" must be "toppled" by the Arab public themselves and let the "people decide" until such time Middle-East will remain in chaos" created by the "British, America and Israel"

Houlbelat Feb 24, 2017 01:45am

---with Israel in the driving seat!

Ali Feb 24, 2017 04:20am

Trump said Obama and Hillary started ISIS. Reagan started AQ. George Bush Sr VP helped Saddam. George Bush Jr took him out. Obama and Bush tried to take AQ out. Trump will try to take ISIS out. Same thing in Egypt, Pakistan etc. The problem is that it is hard to understand who (and when) US creates and who US takes them out. Bottom line: US may not have the credibility to do anything in the Middle East. If true then why in the world you'd want US to intervene? Why not Pak, Iran, Saudis, Iraq, Turkey, and Egypt sit together and resolve their issues. That will being an end to ME crisis.

Nasir Hameed Feb 24, 2017 06:01am


Nice!!! You know how to write.

Asif A. Shah Feb 24, 2017 06:47am

Rules based international order is the only hope for a relatively peaceful Middle East. The alliances with strongmen would not work in a world which has become a global village because of the progress in technology and general awareness among the masses.

gary Feb 24, 2017 01:18pm

@Dr. SalariA, Aamir Ahmad He makes rule for his country. If that inconveniences you, that is not his problem. He does not want you people in his country. And he had always spoken in public. No hide and seek game.