2016-06-29 By Garth McLennan
Ever since its emergence as a global military, economic, and cultural superpower after the Second World War, the United States has sought to service its geopolitical imperatives by building an international order for the world that is structured around defined rules and norms.
Nowhere has this been symbolized more than on the world’s oceans, where the United States Navy (USN) effectively guarantees the principles of freedom-of-navigation for use of the global commons.
But maintaining such an order is never easy, and while examples like the natural openness of the world’s oceans certainly stand out, different geographic areas where the national interests of major powers diverge are in no short supply either.
From the creaking structures of the European Union (EU), which Great Britain recently frayed further with a momentous decision to leave the bloc, to finding balance with China in the South China Sea (SCS) to the future geopolitical battlegrounds of the Arctic and outer space, Washington’s preferred method for dealing with the world has come under strain.
The United States, facing populist-driven backlash at both ends of the political spectrum at home after grinding wars in the Middle East and a global financial crisis whose recovery has dragged on at an anaemic pace, will be less prepared and equipped to reinforce these institutions than it once was.
The precedents set by Washington and its allies today, and in the near future, in answering the challenges to the systems they have built will go far in determining how the world orients itself around the difficulties of tomorrow.
The pressures on the transnational union in Europe has complicated partner options for the United States in its efforts to uphold rules-based formats for the world’s hot spots. The integrationist ideals that have woven together the fabric of the EU have been strained to their breaking points by a long running sovereign debt crisis that has raised a litany of doubts regarding the viability of future financial cohesion across the continent and the equally devastating immigration crisis emanating from the wreckage of the Middle East.
Taken together, these interwoven and long running dynamics, which have converged in the public mindsets of much of Europe, have served not only to sharpen the rhetorical focuses of Eurosceptic political parties, but also to highlight the geopolitical stressors built into the structure of the union itself.
Great Britain, for instance, voted to leave the EU, despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s success in prying concessions out of Brussels designed to slow the pace of tighter continental integration. Despite the almost universal opinion of economists that London would suffer financially with a decision to depart, a sense that British sovereignty had been ceded to the EU permeated before the June 23 vote.
The concerns raised by the “leave” camp echoed many of those raised by other member states staring down the restive, anti-EU sentiment swirling throughout their own populations, namely that the sacrifice of even some autonomy to a supernatural body in Brussels is greatly compromised when the weaknesses of union are thrust to the forefront.
These are issues of central importance to the future of the EU as it is presently constituted, but regardless of how they develop, they superimpose those geographic fault lines that divide the continent back onto the European map, and geopolitical cohesion with the United States is weakened. Should Europe continue to devolve into varying constituent parts, it will do so at different speeds, and for different reasons.
For Washington, this means the turmoil roiling the EU complicates the erection of a united front in the face of Russian aggression. A devolved or outright divided European bloc could reasonably see the continuation of an economic core built around Germany, France, and the nations of Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands between them with other blocs organizing around trade, to the southeast, and solidarity toward Moscow, in Poland and eastward to the Baltics.
The future of open borders within the EU, a signature achievement of the bloc that is formalized as the Schengen Agreement, has been called repeatedly into question as well; reports surfacing out of the Netherlands late last year indicated Dutch officials were contemplating options for a so-called “mini-Schengen”, comprised only of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany, and Austria, which would limit immigration from the rest of Europe.
The uncertainty that came with the Brexit vote emphasized these fault lines across the continent, and threatens to widen them even further now as Britain negotiates its future realationship with the European Union. A precedent has now been set whereby concessions can be extracted from Brussels to allay fears of reduced national sovereignty.
London has traditionally played a stabilizing role in the EU between the bloc’s cores in Paris and Berlin. Existing tensions will only be exacerbated with British voters’ decision to leave the union, along both north-south and east-west lines, and Moscow will emerge as a strategic victor.
Sanctions on Russian products originating from Crimea or Sevastopol, along with EU investment in those areas, were extended for a full year on June 17, while the broader sanctions levied by the continental bloc against Moscow are expected to be renewed for an additional six months when EU officials meet on June 24.
Still, maintaining such penalties, designed to force Russian compliance with the Minsk ceasefire agreement in Ukraine, is more complex than it once was; the extension of sanctions, which requires unanimity among the EU’s 27-strong membership, faces pushback from elements in Italy, Greece, and Hungary, while Germany would like to find an eventual way back to normalization as well.
For Berlin in particular, the contradictions between wanting to stand strong with Washington against Russian aggression in Ukraine and the growing desire to mitigate the instability engendered by that very aggression, through initiatives like the Nord Stream II pipeline, are becoming harder to reconcile.
Nord Stream II would pipe Russian natural gas directly to Germany through the Baltic Sea and therefore bypass Ukrainian fields, which, in turn, is raising tensions with some states, like Italy, who will be bypassed by Nord Stream II and don’t prioritize Moscow’s adventurism highly. We see here a convergence of tensions here as the strategic stresses of a loosening union are overlain across the economic gulfs between northern Europe and the Mediterranean south.
Taken together, this teeming body of diplomatic and geopolitical complexity makes the machinery of America’s sought after international order far more difficult to run and operate smoothly. And raises questions about a significant need for re-orienting and reforming the US approach to the global situation and global order, more generally.
The far-reaching effects of the immigration crisis are a case in point; millions of fleeing refugees and migrants have rocked the European project and hastened the rise of populist, national-centric political parties in virtually every member of the EU that are calling the loudest for wholesale changes to the way the continental bloc functions, and for what purposes. Desperate European leaders facing upcoming national elections, including the powerhouses in France and Germany, have sought solutions wherever they can be found, including in more unsavoury quarters.
Russia forced its way into a leading role in the immigration crisis’ single biggest driver, the civil war in Syria, to the point where today it has become virtually impossible to see a resolution to that disaster arising without a substantial Russian role in the proceedings. As such Moscow will seek to leverage that sway into concessions on Ukraine and sanctions. Washington will undoubtedly attempt to head such attempts off, but the inability to fully delineate the two will present a challenge to a broader international system of checks and balances.
Likewise, Brussels has also sought to more widely engage Turkey in addressing the waves of refugee-seekers. The EU and Ankara several months ago came to terms on a tenuous deal that has seen Turkey limit the number of migrants reaching Europe in exchange for billions of dollars in compensation, promises of visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens, and a relaxing of human rights standards that makes such a scenario possible.
If the difficulties threatening the cohesion of the western-led order in Europe are multifaceted and diffuse, those confronting Washington’s efforts to establish such a system in Southeast Asia are clear, but no less challenging.
Here the geopolitical forces are swirling their fastest.
China and its neighbors bitterly dispute one another’s territorial claims over the delineation of the South China Sea; Beijing’s famed “nine-dashed-line” that encompasses virtually the entirety of the SCS has been challenged by a raft of regional states, and will be officially adjudicated in the halls of The Hague in the Netherlands, under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), later this month.
The Philippines challenged China’s claims in international court back in January, 2013, and while Beijing has already stated unequivocally that it will not recognize any decision rendered by the forthcoming arbitration process, the lawsuit remains an important milestone that could serve as precedent around which future claims and disputes will be shaped and framed.
China’s refusal, despite being a signatory to the UNCLOS, to adhere to the court’s ruling, which is expected to favor Manila, puts into focus the inherent difficulty international structures like the U.N. face in enforcing their edicts when such resolutions stand at odds with a major power unwilling to abide by them.
Despite Beijing’s intransigence toward the tribunal, China has nonetheless fiercely contested the legal arguments put forth by the Philippines, which has resulted in much spirited debate surrounding the granular details of rocks, reefs, shoals and the exclusive economic zones that go along with them.
This indicates that while China will not recognize a ruling contradictory to their interests (or, indeed, of any kind), it does not plan to exit the treaty unilaterally either, which could leave China in a more difficult position should it need to shape the treaty’s governing mechanisms in the future.
A policy of such selective interpretation, however, could lead China to withdraw from the treaty at some point should Beijing come to see adherence to its parameters as more restrictive than pulling out of it entirely.
The SCS is believed to hold vast, untapped hydrocarbon and mineral resources beneath its waves, and the increasingly depleted stocks of fish that swim within it are an incredibly important food source for every nation that rims the SCS, especially China (indeed, Beijing has been involved in numerous skirmishes involving fishing rights; Chinese fishermen were recently engaged in a dispute with Indonesian officials).
As such, China has undertaken ambitious efforts to create facts on the ground (or in the water) by artificially raising “islands” and militarizing them, a process that has frustrated the United States and called into question Washington’s longstanding commitment to free and unfettered access to any body of water in the world.
The USN has conducted several freedom-of-navigation patrols through the South China Sea in response, but Beijing’s dominance over the disputed Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Island chain is firmly in place, and will not be dislodged by a ruling from The Hague.
Beijing has shown clearly it does not envision a future for itself where questions of Chinese territory can be litigated in a far-away courtroom by an international body. In 2013 it issued surprise notification that the skies over the East China Sea would be covered by a Chinese air defense identification zone (ADIZ), and fear exists in some quarters that a ruling against Beijing in the Netherlands would lead to a similar situation occurring in the SCS.
Such a development would ratchet up U.S.-China tensions, and run the risk of future miscommunications and unwanted incidents. The United States is on the surface keen to not takes sides in the dispute, though this is largely perfunctory; Washington has already released its own analysis on the situation that runs contrary to the Chinese position and has called for universal respect of the U.N. ruling.
The United States prizes stability and predictability; it has consistently sought to get partner and allied nations in the region on the same page in presenting, as with Europe and Russia, a united front that can act as a counterweight to a rising China.
It has attempted to do so through bodies like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but that outfit has failed thus far to even produce a satisfactory statement admonishing Chinese land-reclamation in the SCS.
While reliable partners, like Japan, do exist, the fear of a much geographically closer China has hindered truly robust cooperation and coordination with many.
The Arctic, meanwhile, is witnessing the beginnings of its own legal structure coming into greater focus, and once more, the combination of Russian military and diplomatic pressure is already becoming a feature.
Washington’s ultimate goal for an orderly administration of the Arctic involves a greater institutional presence in the region built around a shared conceptual framework that serves as an interpretive mechanism for crisis resolution in a remote part of the world that nonetheless features a broad cross-section diverse national interests for states with a territorial link to it, and for some without one.
Currently, the Arctic Council comprised of the eight Arctic nations and several observer countries, acts as the primary intergovernmental body through which Arctic affairs are addressed. The Council is not principally concerned with military or geopolitical issues, however; its typical functions, especially since Washington assumed the organization’s rotating chairmanship for a two-year term last April, focus intensely on climate change, the betterment of regional living conditions and economic opportunity, and maritime safety.
Moscow, on the other hand, has shown signs that it will play a disruptive and confrontational role in the future of the Arctic, even as the estimated value of the region’s own massive oil and gas reserves has plummeted amid tanking oil markets. The cost of accessing and developing the region has risen dramatically as well with western sanctions thus far preventing Russian companies from pushing new projects.
The Kremlin nonetheless identified the Arctic as a major strategic interest last year with eyebrow raising revisions to its naval doctrine that, in the words of Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dimitri Rogozin, would lead to Moscow effectively militarizing the polar region. Russian President Vladimir Putin had declared in no uncertain terms that the Arctic is under the undisputable sovereignty of Russia; the Kremlin even planted a Russian flag on the North Pole’s ocean floor in 2007.
Similar in a sense to the tangled web of territorial claims in the South China Sea, members of the Arctic club also find themselves waiting for a U.N.-led process to sort out who owns what at the top of the world. Until that happens however, the Arctic is likely to experience a gradually increasing presence of activity among a number of states, Russia foremost among them, looking to establish firm and defined positions. Moscow has already started building military bases on Kotelny and Alexandra Islands, though this has been largely preliminary so far.
Jurisdiction for Arctic territorial claims, the most contentious of which concern delineation of the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range, falls under the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which is itself a component of the UNCLOS. Russia, Canada, and Denmark have all filed competing claims asserting what they believe to be their rights to the ridge, while Norway has considered its own as well.
Ottawa in particular has gone to lengths in answering aggressive Russian claims to Arctic sovereignty, with the competition to lay advanced spy infrastructure in tandem with the United States over the region before Moscow can emerging as one of the most interesting dynamics to watch in the Arctic.
With global warming slowly but surely opening up the Northern Sea Route and other Arctic passages to greater commercial and civilian shipping for longer and longer parts of the year, shaving the time needed for goods to reach the eastern seaboard of the U.S. for countries like China, these trends will only accelerate, and competition will grow. Russia has staked out claims to sizable portions of the Arctic, and the Kremlin’s rhetoric, along with its general disinterest in forums like the Arctic Council, raises questions as to how Russia would respond should it lose a U.N. directed arbitration process.
While low oil prices have put such questions on the backburner for now, they will not remain there. The United States may be too late to the party for itself, having not ratified the UNCLOS, but its leadership will be an important factor nonetheless as its Arctic allies assume prominent roles in adjudicating the region’s future.
Geography and interest will always ensure that America’s proclivity for building international institutions that provide forums for non-violent dispute resolution while simultaneously maximizing Washington’s inherent advantages with other countries will always be challenged. Just as the world will go through a trial-and-error process to sort out rules for the Arctic, so to will it when nations begin to more regularly break into space.
The legal architecture governing the conduct of nations in outer space is, for the most part, antiquated, a Cold War-era remnant that was conceptualized when few countries, even the most advanced, had much practical capacity to safely and successfully operate in space.
The Earth’s orbit is internationalized, but the United States (and other countries, to a lesser extent) maintains a vast satellite infrastructure that acts as the bedrock for its formidable command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) network, the one that gives Washington global expeditionary and force projection capabilities.
The sheer scale of importance attached to this setup, which is largely unprotected from attack or disruption in both a physical and legal sense, ensures that outer space will in effect eventually become another area where nations will not just compete, but fight to construct the framework that will one day be used to hash what conduct is acceptable there. China has now conducted three anti-satellite missile tests that could theoretically target American systems, including two that reached a High Earth Orbit of at least 35,700 km.
As Washington is currently encountering problems in setting the parameters for a structure that works in the Arctic, it will also encounter issues as it begins to update and expand the laws of space. Despite the burgeoning space programs of China, Russia, Israel, and several other countries, the United States is at present without peer in terms of the size, capacity, and technological development of its C4ISR assets. While at first this would appear to grant Washington an advantage in leading the discussion for how space law will be framed, disadvantages are presented as well as less space-dependent actors have less incentive to follow the American line.
The primary structure outlining the regulations for national action in space, the Outer Space Treaty, was negotiated in 1967 and as such bears signature imprints of the geopolitics of its time. The treaty for the most part addresses nuclear weapons and prohibits their staging or deployment in space or on the moon. It does not cover conventional weapons; it was not crafted in a time of exoatmospheric kill vehicles or anti-satellite weapons, nor does it address the possibility of resource extraction.
While these are not hot topics today, they very well may be one day. When these barriers are knocked down, and they will be, a more robust weaponization of space will begin in earnest. The bursting nature of the private sector, which is already on the cusp of breaking into space exploration, is another major consideration. The United States will do everything in its power to ensure that a secure, international framework is in place when these things become a reality.
Maintaining a structured, rules-based international order that emphasizes a shared political culture between competing states will only grow more difficult and complex for Washington in the years and decades to come.
Now is the time for the United States to prove definitively that such an order remains both viable and durable, and that institutional ideals like trust and transparency must be preserved.
Washington should take a significant step toward these objectives by making the ratification of the UNCLOS a priority of the next administration, and thereby acting to remove one of the chief hurdles in getting countries like China and Russia at least somewhat on board with a better defined institutional framework.
Without ratification, the U.S. has created a glaring policy contradiction by advocating for an order it does not officially belong to. This certainly would not solve every problem, ratification would in all likelihood come far too late for Washington to stake out claims for itself in the Arctic, but it would send a powerful signal all the same.
The precedents set today and in the years to come across a fragile Europe, on the South China Sea, in the Arctic, and one day into space will form the template for future dispute-resolution processes in the geopolitical landscapes to come.
Those processes will in turn shape the conduct of how the world works within them.
America has proven time and again that both it and the world are better off when a system exists to delineate the rules and order of the international community, to provide states with another path beyond zero-sum calculations of territory and national interest, no matter where that community happens to be.
Garth McLennan graduated from Arizona State University in 2015, with degrees in Political Science and Criminal Justice. He is based out of Vancouver, where his writing focuses primarily on American foreign policy.
Editor’s Note: This article raises fundamental questions about the next round of American policies in meeting its interests.
Applying rules inherited from the post-Cold War order to the next decade will prove difficult at best, and most likely will be impossible.
The aperture is open and the reshaping the rules of global engagement are clearly in play.
This is not just about foreign policy, but the leveraged use of force.
As Sherlock Holmes would say to Watson: “The game is afoot.”
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