NEW YORK — Of all the lists drawn up over the past few months – Barack Obama's cabinet picks, auto industry plant shutdowns, New Year’s resolutions and so on — none will prove as fateful, full of surprises or difficult as the list of international challenges facing the new U.S. administration.
It is easy to tally a half dozen or so trouble spots that will require serious, sustained attention from the new president and his international policy team. A list double that size would perhaps better reflect reality, and that's not taking into consideration sudden, unwelcome events, like Russia’s summer war with Georgia or Israel’s more recent tangle with Hamas.
Each of these challenges is complicated by America’s waning ability to set the global agenda, not merely a consequence of the huge U.S. deficits piling up as industry after industry is saved from its own mismanagement.
Then there is the enormous discredit that Washington brought upon itself in the first decade of this century with two of the most poisonous exports ever from our shores: a paranoid, arrogant reaction to 9/11, and an equally arrogant insistence that America’s financial titans had the wisdom and moral fiber to shape global economic policy.
As GlobalPost correspondents around the world weigh in on the particular challenges, in the series “For Which it Stands,” I launch this column with a look at what I consider to be the seven biggest challenges facing the Obama administration.
Global Economic Crisis: Nothing will underscore the downward trajectory of American influence like the reordering of international economic institutions looming in 2009. America remains the world’s linchpin economy, but its future has been mortgaged to China. Not to mention a host of smaller, export-oriented nations whose trade surpluses have created the cash mountains, known as “Sovereign Wealth Funds,” that underwrote U.S. profligacy in recent years. Swooning oil prices cut some of these newly rich states off at the knees (Russia, Venezuela and Iran, in particular). But China, India, Brazil, and older export powerhouses, such as the E.U., South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Japan, will no longer accept Washington’s veto on matters of trade and development policy (at the World Bank and IMF), or currency regulations. Republicans will cry foul, but economic sovereignty follows economic competence, and America will be forced to ante up in the coming year in exchange for continued Chinese investments in the U.S. economy. In the broader sense, America can restore some of its reputation by resisting narrow national interests in this crisis, particularly when it comes to the nations of the developing world. As always, no matter how hard it gets here, it’s the poor who will suffer most.
China and America: No other relationship has the potential to do so much to benefit or harm humanity as the one between Washington and Beijing. For one, this partnership will be decisive in determining the length and depth of the global recession. In the longer term, these two governments hold the power to make or break reforms of global markets and trade practices, efforts to reduce carbon emissions, schemes to curb proliferation of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons technology, enforcement of human rights in the developing world, and the restructuring of the U.N. Security Council. Most of all, they need to establish the kind of dialogue that allows cool heads to prevail during times of tension over Tibet or Taiwan, or unforeseen incidents like the accidental downing of the American spy plane in 2001. America's recklessness in pursuit of material wealth has lessened its ability to lecture China. Even when Washington is on the right side of the argument, it now simply lacks the leverage. In the circumstances, it is essential that these giants from their focus on the big picture: restoring global economic growth and preventing conflict.
The Wars of 9/11 (Iraq, Afghanistan): Military officers hope the twin strategy that brought down levels of violence in Iraq – the “Anbar” model of paying insurgents to switch sides, combined with a “surge” in western troop levels – will work in Afghanistan, too. Skeptics have ample arguments for their pessimism, but they had as many (if not the same) arguments on their side before Iraq’s violence began to fall. Still, as U.S. forces in Iraq abandon forward positions and begin shifting assets toward Afghanistan in earnest, nothing guarantees that Iraq won’t begin to unravel anew. Obama has every reason to want to avoid a repeat of the ignominious evacuation of Saigon in 1975, and he likely will not get U.S. troops out in the 16 months promised during the campaign. Reducing troop levels in Iraq from their current 140,000 to less than 50,000 might be a more realistic goal. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, no light has appeared at the end of the tunnel. Political will in America to take the fight forward there, however, appears far more durable given its clear link to 9/11, though America’s NATO partners may not last in Afghanistan through Obama’s first term.
Pakistan and India: Pakistan presents a particularly thorny problem for Washington, which once again has lived up to its reputation in Pakistani eyes as a “fair-weather friend.” The incoherence of the Pakistani state, however, and especially the role Pakistani intelligence had as the midwife of radical Islamic terrorism in the region, may have made that a self-fulfilling prophecy. A full tilt toward democratic India, too, presents problems. Pakistan’s ungovernable tribal belt along the Afghan border, meanwhile, offers a haven both to Al Qaeda and to the resurgent Taliban radicals, whose determination to retake power in Kabul appears undimmed after all these years. As in Iraq, where Obama’s desire for a withdrawal timeline ultimately became Bush policy, his desire to strike into Pakistani territory when targets present themselves also has become a fact even before his presidency. Maintaining the best ties possible with Pakistan will be necessary, even as U.S. influence in the existential rivalry between these two enemies wanes.
Containing Iran: No nation took a greater hit when global oil prices began to fall last autumn than Iran, beset as it is by UN economic sanctions. This may provide breathing space for diplomacy with Tehran on the most pressing concern: its alleged effort to build a nuclear weapon. Obama repeatedly promised an openness toward talks with Iran. Most experts seem skeptical that a grand bargain can be struck that would avoid a nuclear Iran. Then, many point out that trying to negotiate is a prerequisite to the other policy options, neither of them attractive: living with a nuclear Iran, or military action. Yet with Hezbollah, and to a lesser extent, Hamas as its proxies, Iran has options of its own, too.
The Arab-Israeli Conflict: As the late-December assault on Gaza demonstrated, a president ignores this mother-of-all disputes at his peril. Active American diplomacy may be futile, with Israeli politics in flux and the Palestinians split between Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah old guard on the West Bank. But not all roads lead to Jerusalem. Damascus, for instance, may present an opportunity if recent Turkish mediation between Israeli and Syria can forge a deal to return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for assurances that Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militants who fought Israeli to a standstill in 2006, can be reined in. In this hate-filled conflict, waiting for the right opportunity may mean never trying at all. The conflict magnifies Iran’s influence in the region and feeds Islamic militancy, especially as the Arab media continues to stress the “Made in America” label stamped on most Israeli weaponry.
Europe and Russia: The E.U., and Germany and France in particular, will seek to revise the rules on international trade now that American tax dollars are propping up selected industries. Such moves by the Europeans were the target of frequent criticism in the past from Washington, and the shoe is now firmly on the other foot. Meanwhile, Russia’s creeping autocracy has made the best of a poor hand, tethering Europe’s largest economy (Germany) to its natural gas supplies, cowing wayward former Soviet states with its war on Georgia, and cultivating ties with states that don’t succumb to the allure of NATO membership. The fall in oil prices will hurt Russia badly, and likely will moderate recent adventurism. Russians, however, have proved stoic in the face of economic hardship, and many will judge the trappings of lost prestige that Vladimir Putin returned to them as worth the trouble.
This list could easily run into double digits: Al Qaeda, wounded but not slain, stalks the planet still; Africa’s many problems – the genocidal conflict in Darfur, the failed state of Somalia, the bleeding of Congo, withering, suffering Zimbabwe – present special challenges to America’s first African-American president; Cuba faces an uncertain future when the Castros finally depart the scene; border violence and general instability continue to buffet Mexico; and in North Korea, there is an ever-present danger that the nuclear-armed regime will implode. Each challenge will warrant the close, if not undivided, attention of the Obama administration.
Michael Moran is executive editor of CFR.org, Web site of the Council on Foreign Relations.