Trump’s Curious Multilateralism

His administration may end up besting its predecessors’ records in bringing partners together in the Persian Gulf.

U.S. Navy Vice Adm. James Malloy speaks during the International Maritime Security Construct opening ceremony in Manama, Bahrain, on Nov. 7, 2019.
U.S. Navy Vice Adm. James Malloy speaks during the International Maritime Security Construct opening ceremony in Manama, Bahrain, on Nov. 7, 2019. Washington's three-week International Maritime Exercise (IMX), which started on October 21, came after a number of commercial vessels were attacked in the Gulf from May, ratcheting up regional tensions. (Photo by Mazen Mahdi / AFP) (Photo by MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images) Mazen Mahdi/AFP/Getty Images

For all of U.S. President Donald Trump’s disparagement of NATO and apathy toward multilateralism, his administration may be doing a far better job than many of its predecessors in working together with global allies and regional partners to secure an area most critical to the world economy: the waters of the Persian Gulf.

For the past two decades, the United States has pushed various allies whose national economies depend on the stability of the Gulf to play more active roles in protecting the energy-rich region from Iran’s hegemonic aspirations, terrorism, and international piracy. The outcome, however, has been less than satisfactory, with both sides sharing the blame.

But U.S. efforts under the Trump administration to involve friendly powers in Gulf maritime security activities have intensified in recent years, suggesting that Washington is getting more serious about adopting a more inclusive approach. The political and material challenges are many and will take months if not years to address, but with the United States seemingly changing its outlook toward and relaxing its grip over that part of the world, the opportunity for a multilateral security architecture in the Gulf, at least at sea, is now possible.

Operation Sentinel, the latest U.S. initiative to police the Gulf waters, was initiated in July 2019. That this new International Maritime Security Construct, as Washington calls it, was launched shortly after a string of attacks in the Gulf sponsored or perpetrated by Iran should not obscure the fact that various other collective maritime security processes in the region, led by the United States, had been developing for months if not years before.

Stationed in Bahrain, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (Navcent) manages the U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces (CMF)—the latter created in 2002—in ensuring the free flow of legitimate commerce and freedom of movement at sea of U.S. and allied forces. CMF comprises personnel from 33 like-minded countries. It is meant to foster familiarity and improve coordination on core maritime tasks—counterterrorism, counterpiracy, and maritime interdiction operations—but it has no sea control or power projection mandates. Each country participates in CMF voluntarily and within the constraints of its own national strategies.

This has been a net positive for the U.S. goal of internationalizing Gulf security.

The United States has assumed leadership of this coalition since its creation in 2002, but its contributions have demonstrably decreased over the years. Australia, Japan, France, Pakistan, and several Gulf partners, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, have stepped up recently and played key command roles. This has been a net positive for the U.S. goal of internationalizing Gulf security and specifically Trump’s strong desire to more effectively address the problem of free riding in regional security.

Another venue for cooperation is the Maritime Security Working Group, created out of the Trump administration’s Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) initiative. This group has a narrower membership than CMF—all Gulf Cooperation Council states plus Jordan and Egypt—but a broader mandate. The working group seeks to enable regional navies and coast guards to counterbalance malign actors and complement CMF efforts through a regional lens. What Trump’s MESA has done is provide the working group with top political cover by signaling its increasing importance to Navcent leadership and bureaucracies in the U.S. Defense Department.

Meanwhile, Operation Sentinel, which thus far includes the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Albania, and soon possibly Qatar and Kuwait, is complementary to CMF and MESA. It seeks to maintain a persistent presence in the area, including with large naval vessels such as cruisers, frigates, and destroyers with air search radars; robust command and control suites; secure communications and data links; and rotary wing aircraft capabilities. Smaller vessels such as patrol craft and corvettes patrol between them. Airborne surveillance monitors the flow of traffic through the highest-risk areas. This is all underpinned by an international headquarters featuring a command center and supporting infrastructure in Bahrain.

One important operational challenge facing Operation Sentinel is the lack of clarity over rules of engagement and the notion of collective self-defense—a common problem for any such group. If any vessel perceives a threat or gets attacked, should it coordinate its response (and how) with others, and what kind of support should it expect from them? The U.S. position is that nations contributing to Operation Sentinel would fall under collective self-defense while nations that aren’t do not.

The issue of ship escorts is another important one. The United States will share intelligence with members of the coalition but refrain from escorting their ships through dangerous waters. That is an understandable and wise decision by Washington, but again, in the absence of clear rules of engagement, there might still be uncertainty that could be exploited by adversaries.

The aggregation of capabilities is also tricky business. Just because various members of the coalition are bringing to bear additional military assets and resources doesn’t mean that Operation Sentinel as a whole will immediately become more effective than the sum of its parts. Military history is replete with examples of coalitions operating suboptimally despite their individual members’ various strengths. Agreement on a common set of objectives and the establishment of clear strategic command and control frameworks is thus important.

Yet the biggest strategic hindrance dogging Operation Sentinel is the lack of consensus among its members on Iran policy. The United States is almost alone with its maximum pressure campaign against Iran, and its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 was not well received by its European allies. In turn, while Washington and Tehran seem to be on a collision course, the Europeans are doing their best to insulate themselves from a potential military conflict, which will continue to impact the nature of their involvement in and contributions to Operation Sentinel. The United States has repeatedly tried to reassure its allies and partners that Operation Sentinel has no offensive purposes and is not directed at Iran, but given that the most significant threats in the region do stem from Iran, the Europeans still have major qualms.

Given Trump’s interest in having allies “do their fair share,” Operation Sentinel appears more to be part of an older effort, timidly begun under the Obama administration, to solicit meaningful security contributions from allies and partners. Washington has come to a definitive conclusion in recent years that to continue to bear almost all the costs of regional security would be strategic lunacy from which its primary competitor, China, would benefit. Operation Sentinel, then, is less about Iran and more about China and Russia. The United States doesn’t necessarily need this large consortium of friendly navies operating beside it to deter and counter Iran, whose maritime forces are simply no match for the U.S. Navy. To be sure, Iran has mastered irregular warfare; can cause damage at sea and on shore with its mines, missiles, and unmanned systems; and could always harass the U.S. military below the threshold of war. But the United States firmly maintains dominance, a reality that should force the Iranians to restrict their options and keep respecting red lines, which include keeping the Strait of Hormuz open.

It is precisely because of the United States’ decisive advantages that Washington can afford to entertain and pursue multilateralist designs in the Gulf. The United States would be less inclined to pursue such strategies in the Indo-Pacific, for example, because China is much more powerful and the margin for error is much smaller.

The United States will still need to prepare for a conflict with Iran—one in which it will take on the lead military role—but it can still benefit from its allies and partners’ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance efforts. Such multilateralism should bring greater efficiency, but to secure it, U.S. policy must be precise and consistent.

None of this will happen overnight, and there will always be hesitancy and even resistance on the part of some allies and partners to share sensitive intelligence. But that is why the administration’s Gulf security construct has proceeded calmly and gradually, setting the stage for the long-term development of a regional strategy.

Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute.

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