Regional conflicts and American leadership in the world 

Brian M Downing 

America assumed the role of world leader after 1945, when European countries were in ruins and no longer able to maintain their empires. The US has held onto that position despite failed wars in Asia and the 2008 economic collapse. American elites, think tanks, and much of the public want the US to continue its role.

The position is beginning to erode. Conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and the Korean peninsula present challenges to the American belief that its diplomacy and might can solve problems around the world. Partisan voices will blame the present administration but erosion began years ago. Previous administrations have made missteps in unpromising regions and other states, independently or in concert, simply have more influence in many parts of the world.


The US initially stayed out of the Syrian civil war. No vital US interest was apparent and the rebels seemed destined to prevail in time. Better to keep out and work on diplomacy and look to a post-Assad Syria. The war dragged on, though. Fears of ISIL, humanitarian concerns, and pressure from Sunni states led to US training missions and arms deliveries.

One US-trained band dissolved soon after crossing into Syria. Its weapons wound up with an al Qaeda affiliate. Another, the Free Syrian Army, shifted allegiance to Turkey. A third, the Syrian Defense Forces, a patchwork of Kurdish and Arab bands that holds portions of northern and eastern Syria, remains aligned with the US. Kurdish elements, however, may accept Damascus’s offer of autonomy and Russia’s offer of protection.

Russia, Iran, and Turkey have more assets in the contest and will use them to shape a settlement. They are determined to assert their control of the situation and make plain America’s lack thereof. Washington can strengthen its hand only by reinforcing the Syrian Defense Forces, though as noted, they may be on the verge of losing their Kurdish contingents.


The US responded quickly and boldly to the 9/11 attacks. Unfortunately, it acted on poor intelligence regarding the political complexities of Afghanistan and the strategic priorities of Pakistan. The result has been sixteen years of insurgency with no end in sight.

Negotiations have come and gone, complicated by increasing involvement of foreign powers. Pakistan has not reduced its support to the Taliban and Islamist groups aligned with them. Russia and Iran are clandestinely supporting the Taliban, because they are inevitable winners at least in the south and they are bleeding the US. Meanwhile, China has been acquiring control of the country’s natural resources and gaining influence with national and local powerholders, which adds to the problems of corruption.

Combined, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and China have far more influence over Afghanistan’s future than the US does. They will press for a negotiated settlement at a time of their choosing. It will not benefit the US. In the meantime, they watch as the US squanders lives, money, and prestige.

The Korean Peninsula 

The two Koreas have had an uneasy truce since 1953, interrupted by occasional clashes on both land and sea. More recently, the region is on edge owing to the North’s tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, both of which show significant advancements suggestive of foreign help.

The US and China are pressuring the North to rein in its belligerence – the US with threats of military action, China with subtler forms. Thus far, China has declined to be as forceful with sanctions as it could be and US intelligence has photographed Chinese tankers transferring oil to N Korean ships in violation of international agreements. A ploy is on.

China is benefitting from the situation, tense and potentially destructive as it is. America’s powerlessness against the North is increasingly clear, as is its disconcerting preference for military action. Beijing will benefit all the more by brokering talks between the North and South – without appreciable US participation.

Preliminary talks began at Panmunjom this week and though China’s role is unclear, there is almost certainly an important one behind the scenes. If talks are successful, countries in the region will see, if only reluctantly, that the US is no longer the chief guarantor of security.

Copyright 2018 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.