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UK Strategy in the Gulf and Middle East after American Retrenchment

This paper considers the impact of the possible relative decline of the U.S. and its engagement in the Middle East and the Gulf in particular. U.S. disengagement started under the Obama Administration and seems to be continuing under the Trump Administration. Applying theories of ‘rival hegemonic transition,’ possible post-American successors are identified. In particular, the UK’s intents, capabilities, and strategies as it returns to ‘east of Suez’ are examined, along with the geopolitical implications of such a return for the shifting balance of power in the Middle East.

UK Strategy in the Gulf and Middle East after American
British PM May and the Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman pose for a photograph with other members of the British government and the Saudi ministers and delegates inside Number 10 Downing Street, London on March 7, 2018. DAN KITWOOD / Getty Images

The default U.S. post-war grand strategy has been one of deep engagement with active security alliances and responsibility for regional stability. As the system becomes more constrained with the rise of other great powers such as China and the West declines economically, does American deep engagement still make sense? If the U.S. is in the early phases of relative decline, conventional logic suggests that “great powers moderate their foreign policy ambitions and offer concessions in areas of lesser strategic value”1 through exercising greater strategic restraint.2 Many analysts now call for the U.S. to scale back its ambition and retrench to avoid being sucked into regional wars, and to focus its resources in areas of greater concern.

Arguably, the Middle East has felt the American impulse toward retrenchment more than most regions. Former President Obama’s pivot to Asia sent a very clear signal that the U.S. wished to concentrate its resources on managing China’s rise. His now infamous failure to reinforce America’s “red line” in Syria, after the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, only further weakened the U.S. credibility. While President Trump has sought to reassure regional allies like Saudi Arabia of the U.S.’ continued commitment, he remains reluctant to commit the U.S. to nation-building or ‘boots on the ground,’ a reticence no doubt complicated by Russia’s now more assertive footprint in the region.

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