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Ethnic conflict: A glaring omission in Trump’s national security strategy


President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy paints a picture of a “competitive world” where America looks out for itself first and foremost from behind our trade and territorial barricades. It’s tone is defensively realist, and stingy on the issue of helping other peoples and countries, insisting “We aid others judiciously.”

But most of what it contains is fairly standard fare, highlighting threats and priorities also delineated in previous National Security Strategies. What is most significant and different is what’s not in it.

It doesn’t include a resounding reminder that America’s strength and its interests are undergirded by our values – our belief in liberal democracy and the rights of individuals. It fails to express a determination to uphold the international order, which rests upon these values. Traditional realist and international institutionalist presidents alike — from Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan to Carter, Clinton, Obama — have understood that the post-World War II international order serves U.S. interests by establishing rules to make war less likely and to safeguard prosperity. First and foremost among these rules is the inviolability of borders.

{mosads}On Russia and China much is left unstated. In an effort to force the two countries into the same bucket, the strategy underplays the threat posed by Russia and overplays China’s current ambitions. It fails to include the threat posed by climate change, even though the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018, signed by the president this week included a provision declaring “climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States.”

Finally, and most significantly, the strategy does not address the biggest threat to the United States and international peace and security: revanchist nationalism. Indeed, this last omission is linked to the failure to characterize Russian and Chinese objectives and actions properly.

The NSS introduction asserts “China and Russia challenge American power, influence and interests…” While this is true, only Russia has blatantly challenged the international order and its the fundamental rules and norms.

Russia invaded two of its neighbors — the Republic of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. With the illegal annexation of Crimea in Eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin attempted to alter borders through the use of military force — for the first time since World War II. Russia has also violated several conventional arms control agreements and the Treaty on Intermediate Nuclear Forces. Russia is responsible for violating the Geneva Conventions in Ukraine.

In Syria, laws of war and human rights have been violated by the Russian air force with its bombing of a UN humanitarian convoy in 2016 and deliberate targeting of hospitals and civilians. Russia has also aided and abetted a political cleansing by Assad of the population opposed to him. And yes, the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

China has violated international law with its seizure and military build up of disputed islands in the South China Sea, along with a blatant disregard for an international tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines on an arbitration case pertaining to the Spratley Islands. Chinese civilian “little green boats” also attempt to intimidate Japanese vessels in the East China Sea. But thus far, the Chinese government has not demonstrated a willingness to use force to change borders, to occupy the territory of neighboring states, to violate bilateral and international agreements to which it is a signatory.

Beijing and President Xi Jinping understand — at least for now — that the international order serves China’s interests. China remains, by and large, a status quo power. President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is defiantly facing down the international order, railing against rules he believes no longer serve his government. Russia has adopted a revanchist revisionist foreign policy.

In the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine, President Putin articulated a nationalist agenda, claiming his intention to establish “Novo Russia,” or New Russia in south and east Ukraine and to protect the “Russkiy Mir” the Russian World defined according to Russia’s ethnic, linguistic and cultural sphere of influence.

This prompted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to sympathetically raise the issue of Hungarian minorities spread across the five states bordering Hungary, a legacy of the World Wars. More recently, on Dec. 18 the newly elected nationalist government in Austria declared on its first day in office that it would be issuing passports to Italian citizens of Austrian heritage living in a northern Italian province, once part of Austria-Hungary.

Such seemingly minor actions can easily snowball into destabilizing challenges to the existing order in Europe, which rests upon the acceptance of post-World War II borders. We cannot forget it was the excuse of protecting German minorities in Central Europe which Adolf Hitler used to fuel his expansionism in the 1930s and ‘40s.

This desire to rewrite state boundaries to include ethnic brethren in neighboring states also caused the Hungarian government, among others, to support Nazi Germany. In today’s Western and Eastern Europe, NATO and the European Union emphasize collective security and economic prosperity. In this way they are the institutional bulwarks against political fragmentation and ethnic conflict.

Over the last seven decades ethnic nationalism has been tempered by respect for state borders and softened by transnational institutions, trade and minority rights. The international order depends on a vigilant leader of the free world to guarantee this dynamic. This is why the most egregious omission from the Trump National Security Strategy is radical revisionist nationalism.

Evelyn N. Farkas is a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense and executive director of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism and currently serves as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @EvelynNFarkas.

Tags Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation Cold War II Donald Trump Europe International relations Nationalism Politics Post-Soviet conflicts Russia Russian irredentism Russian military intervention in Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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