Voice

And Now for Some Crises That Are Completely Different

As the Trump administration struggles to keep track of the usual hotspots, major trouble is brewing in forgotten corners of the world.

National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks on a morning television show from the grounds of the White House, on May 9, 2018. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks on a morning television show from the grounds of the White House, on May 9, 2018. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Many Americans are having a hard time keeping up with the torrid pace of events. On Friday, hardly anyone remembers what happened on Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday. Go ahead and try asking someone: You’ll almost see the gears turning furiously inside their minds, running through keywords — Stormy, secondary sanctions, embassy, Kim Jong Un, wall, Mueller, Cohen, Schneiderman, Farrow — grasping for an accurate timeline. It is hard, not to mention exhausting, to be three stories behind the news cycle all the time.

Recently, and for obvious reasons, U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to breach the Iran nuclear deal, the upcoming summit between him and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, which has been coincident with a crisis in Gaza (not to mention the Capitals’ atypical Stanley Cup playoffs success) have gripped Washington. The first three, at least, are consequential stories that for better or worse will affect the United States’ foreign relations for many years to come. Yet for all the potential dangers involved in the U.S. break from the Iran deal, the high-stakes diplomatic maneuvers with North Korea, and the trouble surrounding the embassy move, these are issues that have been front and center in global affairs for a long time. No one would be surprised if violence resulted from any one of them.

That’s in contrast to the trouble brewing in many other parts of the world — places that the policy community either assumes are stable, forgets about, or never actually has thought about before.

Take, for example, the Aegean Sea, where Greek and Turkish warplanes routinely engage each other in a long-running dispute over territory and airspace. The encounters, which include airplanes, helicopters, and drones, have picked up in intensity since 2016, but few bothered to notice until the New York Times wrote about the conflict in late April. The Times was perhaps prompted by the fact that a few weeks before, the Greeks were forced to scramble aircraft 16 times in a single day to challenge Turkey’s intrusions. Soon after, a Greek pilot was killed after his fighter jet crashed while interdicting Turkish aircraft, raising the stakes in what had been a dangerous but bloodless confrontation. What happens if there is an accident or some type of miscalculation and another Greek pilot or two are killed? What if the Turks lose a helicopter? Tensions are so high it isn’t hard to imagine shooting, even if everyone wants to avoid that outcome.

Then there is Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yes, the Balkans are back, and with the same ethno-nationalist chauvinism that tore the region apart a quarter of a century ago. It seems that nationalist Serbs are no longer willing to live with arrangements that brought peace to the region with the 1995 Dayton Accords. Milorad Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska — the Serb part of the country, including the country’s second-largest city, Banja Luka — has been agitating to leave the Bosnian-Serb-Croatian federation, declaring openly that Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot work because the postwar arrangements favor Bosnian Muslims.

In his endeavor to break up the country, Dodik has received political and material support from Serbia, the Serbian Orthodox Church, and Russia. For Belgrade, ethnic solidarity remains important, which is why it has signed security cooperation agreements and sold weapons to Republika Srpska. Dodik has taken up the American near-obsession with “fighting terrorism” as the justification for violating the Dayton Accords’ limitations on weaponry. For the church, a multicultural Bosnia that is part of the European Union means surrendering to Western liberalism and its concomitant norms. Both Belgrade and the bishops have a willing ally in Moscow, which is helping to sow sectarian passions and potentially violence, all in an effort to weaken Europe. It is clear that the Russians did not create the trouble brewing in Bosnia, but President Vladimir Putin clearly understands the opportunity before him. The Croat nationalists are also doing their part to make Bosnia and Herzegovina unworkable, making common cause with the Russians and the Serb allies. Taken together and absent a strong European and U.S. response to these provocations, Sarajevo, Mostar, Brcko, and Tuzla may become part of Washington’s vocabulary again — and not for any good reasons.

If war doesn’t break out in the Aegean or in the Balkans, it might in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa. The Egyptians are at loggerheads with the Ethiopians over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which threatens a 1950s treaty that gives Egypt the bulk of the Nile River’s water. Negotiations have yielded nothing, and in between periodic talks, the parties are often belligerent. This might be bluster, but there are a host of complicating factors that make differences over the dam more dangerous. The Sudanese have sided with the Ethiopians in an apparent effort to secure for themselves more Nile water and to pressure the Egyptians on areas near the Red Sea called Hala’ib and Shalateen that Egypt controls but Sudan claims. Add to the mix Turkey and Qatar, both of which have upgraded security ties with Sudan — unnerving the Egyptians — who are convinced that Ankara and Doha have actively sought to undermine their security. The Turkish and Qatari overtures to Sudan along with Turkey’s control — by agreement with Khartoum — of the Sudanese island Suakin, located at a strategic point in the Red Sea, have added a new dimension to Egyptian concerns. Over the winter, the Egyptian naval presence in the area increased.

Then there is the presence of Emirati forces — Egyptian allies — in Eritrea. The Eritreans have fought two wars with Ethiopia since they formally seceded from it in 1993. Reports earlier this year that Egypt deployed forces to the Emirati base in Eritrea added another destabilizing dimension to the Horn of Africa, where there are three conflicts playing out: Egypt vs. Ethiopia over Nile water, Egypt vs. Sudan over Nile water and territory, and Qatar (with Turkey) vs. Egypt (with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain) over, well, everything. The deterioration of any one of them could trip the other two into violence, wreaking havoc in the area and among countries that can ill afford conflict. It would also impact international trade given that the Red Sea feeds into and out of the Suez Canal.

Not every problem in the world has an American solution, but when it comes to the Aegean, Bosnia, and the Red Sea, the United States might very well have a constructive role to play. There is precedent for U.S. diplomatic intervention to keep the conflict between Greece and Turkey from deteriorating. In 1996, Richard Holbrooke, who was assistant secretary of state for European affairs at the time, worked the phones to find a way for Athens and Ankara to climb down from what surely would have been a disastrous confrontation over a pair of rocks in the Aegean called Imia (or Kardak). The United States, Turkey, and Greece are different now, but Washington is the only party that can de-escalate tension in the Aegean. It remains the big kid on the block and should make it clear to Ankara that there are diplomatic and material consequences of bullying its neighbor. The Turkish government is already confronting an angry Congress that wants to punish it for a variety of transgressions. The State Department, which wants to preserve U.S.-Turkey ties, has an opportunity to let the Turks know that aggression in the Aegean is an obstacle to that goal.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Trump administration does not even need creative diplomacy given that it already exists in the form of the Dayton Accords. You cannot resurrect Holbrooke, who helped broker the 1995 agreement and died in 2010, but it would not take much to breathe new life into the postwar structures that were supposed to oversee the implementation of Dayton. For example, the United States and the EU have allowed the Office of the High Representative to wither. The Russians have exploited this lack of interest to their advantage. Sectarian war in the Balkans would once again be devastating. The United States, the EU, and NATO should revivify the Office of the High Representative, increase security cooperation with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and challenge violations of the Dayton Accords. Milorad Dodik is the target of U.S. sanctions, but that apparently is not enough.

Finally, almost all the parties in the various disputes in the Red Sea are U.S. allies. Washington is thus well positioned to knock some heads together to stabilize the situation. Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who wants to be thought of as a force for stability, needs to be read the riot act about needlessly sticking his finger in Egyptian eyes. The Turkish government also needs to get the message that its adventurism only makes Turkey important for the damage it can do. At the same time, the Emiratis do not need an expeditionary force in Eritrea. Most important, Washington needs to get involved in the negotiations over the Nile waters. The United States has expertise and the attention of every country involved. It seems unlikely that anyone will come to blows so long as the United States is facilitating talks on the way forward.

Given its track record, there is little hope that the Trump administration will take up these smoldering conflicts. Even if it had the interest, it does not have the capacity — even if the new secretary of state vows to bring his department back from the dead — to deal with the Aegean, the Balkans, and the Red Sea. These issues require people with experience, know-how, and a lot of patience, all three of which are desperately in short supply in Trump’s Washington. So no one should be surprised if a war breaks out somewhere in the world, even if it has nothing to do with Iran, North Korea, or Jerusalem.

About the Author

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. @stevenacook

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. @stevenacook
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