Ukraine, Iraq, And South China Sea Underscore US Setbacks, But Opportunities Abound

Recent months have seen several setbacks to the United States' foreign policy. Firstly, Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine and supported separatist rebels in the eastern region of the country. This resulted in Europe's biggest geopolitical crisis since the collapse of Yugoslavia. Secondly, China once again increased its assertiveness towards Vietnam in their territorial dispute in the South China Sea, raising concerns among several Asian states about Beijing's long-term ambitions for the region. Thirdly, the radical Islamist group Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) seized control of Mosul in northern Iraq, pushing the country close to all-out civil war.

In each case, the US has remained somewhat aloof from events. Military interventions on behalf of Ukraine and Vietnam are virtually inconceivable; neither of them is a treaty ally of the US, and in both cases military action could lead to combat with regional superpowers that could quickly escalate beyond control. There is, however, a growing possibility of limited US airstrikes against ISIS, but deploying grounds troops in Iraq would be a non-starter, given that Americans regard their involvement in that country as a closed chapter.

US President Barack Obama's critics accuse him of being aloof from events, or even weak, but the President's non-interventionist stance is reflective of the public mood. Opinion polls show that the percentage of Americans who do not want their country to intervene abroad is at its highest in many years. Americans are understandably weary after long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq whose costs have been high (in terms of lives lost, and money spent), and whose benefits for Americans have been limited.

Nevertheless, as we argued back in April, US 'isolationism' is somewhat exaggerated. The US remains deeply engaged with virtually all parts of the world. In addition, the various current crises offer opportunities. For example, the US shares with Iran the goal of neutralising ISIS in Iraq, and any cooperation on this front, however limited, would still be positive for improving Washington-Tehran relations, amid a highly tentative rapprochement. In South East Asia, meanwhile, the US still has the opportunity to cultivate a new ally in the form of Myanmar, and boost ties with Vietnam. Furthermore, India under new Prime Minister Narendra Modi could seek to play a bigger role in Asian geopolitics, potentially aligned with the US.

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