President Obama and his new national security team will inherit an inbox that is full and quite possibly overflowing. The Middle East alone could keep the Obama Administration fully occupied, what with a deadly civil war in Syria, the need to decide how best to head off Iran’s apparent push to develop nuclear weapons, the uncertain course at home and abroad of Egypt’s new government, international pressure to do something about the impasse between Israelis and Palestinians, and the real possibility of major instability in the pro-Western monarchies of Jordan or Bahrain or both.
But the president and his team won’t have the luxury of focusing just on the greater Middle East. Indeed, one challenge will be not to allow this region to continue to dominate American foreign policy to the extent it has over the past decade, owing to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One area sure to require considerable attention will be the Asia-Pacific. Heading off a crisis between China and its neighbors needs to be a priority. This will require the most nuanced diplomacy, not just with Beijing, but also with Tokyo, Seoul, Manila, and other capitals. This part of the world has been the venue of extraordinary economic growth for decades; the task will be to see that this growth is not interrupted by a revival of nationalism that makes it hard to prevent or, if need be, manage incidents involving rival military forces amid competing claims to territory and seas.
Another area filled with challenges is not geographic in character but functional: the set of global issues that includes but is hardly limited to climate change, cyberspace, health, and investment. The problem is that the large and growing gap between the scale and significance of these challenges and the effectiveness of existing global arrangements meant to deal with them. Narrowing this gap will be slow going, given the absence of consensus among governments on what needs doing and how the burdens of action are to be shared.
And there is sure to be the unexpected. Few observers a year ago would have predicted that Mali would be where it is today. It is not difficult to imagine a crisis involving Pakistan, a country with more than 100 nuclear weapons, the world’s most dangerous terrorists, and a political system that is democratic in name only. Conflict between Pakistan and India cannot be ruled out. Russia could be rocked by a “Moscow Spring” in which anti-government forces confront President Putin. Venezuela and Cuba may both experience turbulent transitions as flawed but charismatic leaders pass from the scene. And even without such transitions, instability could erupt in several African countries, including oil-rich Nigeria.
It will be important, too, not to view the world solely as a collection of problems and crises. There are opportunities. One is North America. The United States stands on the threshold of energy self-sufficiency, thanks to its own increased oil and gas production along with that of both Canada and Mexico. Building NAFTA 2.0–tighter links among the United States, Canada, and Mexico not just in the energy sphere but also involving the movement of labor, climate change, infrastructure, security, trade, and more–makes a great deal of economic and strategic sense.
There are also opportunities to create new free-trade areas. Trade has a strong record of generating good jobs and of building ties that give governments a stake in not doing anything that would threaten the peace. Talks are already underway in the Pacific; bringing them to fruition should be a goal. Starting discussions to create a free-trade zone across the Atlantic with our European partners is also an attractive initiative, one that could help boost the U.S. economy while helping Europe get out of its economic trough.
What is clear is that there is no shortage of challenges or opportunities beyond America’s borders. What may matter most when it comes to this country’s national security, though, is whether it can put its own economic and political house in order. If so, the United States will be positioned to deal with any crises that arise; if not, the United States may well become the source of its own crisis, one that will leave it in no position to lead a world that still needs American leadership.