As Americans prepare to head to the polls in November, it is useful to examine the foreign policy landscape the next president will be navigating for the next four years. To help you out, here’s a list of America’s top challenges and challengers (in no particular order).
1. China: Surprised? China is increasingly becoming the primary focus for U.S. foreign policy makers, movers, and shakers. From the Pacific pivot the U.S. undertook in 2011 to concerns over Chinese government-linked companies like Huawei to cyber espionage, Sino-U.S. relations remain the most important and delicate bilateral relationship of the 21st century. Given the economic and military nature of the relationship, expect China to continue to preoccupy the next administration – particularly as tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea over offshore natural gas and oil deposits.
2. Transnational Crime and Terrorism: Terrorism remains a central focus of the U.S. intelligence and defense infrastructure – and rightly so. But with every new advance in technology and year gone by, the U.S. and its allies get better and identifying, tracking, and disrupting terrorist networks. The same goes for international drug cartels, identity thieves, human smugglers and other nefarious Bond-villain types. The threat remains real and is the type of problem that will never fully go away. That said, terrorism is slowly but surely taking a backseat to other concerns. If there is another terrorist attack in the U.S. all bets are off, but provided things continue as is (knock on wood), the issue of terrorism and other transnational non-state threats will continue as normal: a priority, but no longer top of the list.
3. Iran and North Korea: Everyone’s favorite villains, Iran and North Korea remain international wild cards. Preventing Iran from going nuclear and maintaining regional stability will continue to be one of the most pressing and important challenges for the next president. Should Iran successfully develop a nuclear weapons capability (if that is truly its intent), there will be little the U.S. could do except contain the reaction. Managing Iran also means managing relations with Israel, and to a slightly lesser extent other regional powers like Saudi Arabia who don’t want Iran to get a nuclear weapon anymore than the U.S. does. Should Israel launch a pre-emptive strike or the situation otherwise escalate to a military confrontation, the U.S. will find itself embroiled in yet another war in the Middle East. North Korea, on the other hand, is still a country in flux. After the death of Kim Jong Il and the ascension of his son as head of state, North Korea’s future is uncertain. Whether the regime collapses or there is a conflict with South Korea, maintaining stability is the order of the day – as it has since 1953.
4. The Deficit: In 2011, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen said, “Debt is the single biggest threat to our national security.” In order to continue to spend over half-a-trillion dollars on the nation’s military and provide security for the global commons, as it has for over fifty years, the U.S. needs to get its fiscal house in order. Beyond its implications on the America’s defense posture, the deficit affects the country’s image as a responsible global leader – particularly in economics – that can frustrate the next administration’s foreign policy objectives. And of course there are the obvious domestic repercussions. The bottom line: the U.S. must lead by example.
Taken as a whole, these are the most pressing foreign policy concerns the next administration can be expected to confront. The only notable difference between the next four years and those preceding them is the emphasis — the deficit and China are likely to play a more central role in America’s foreign policy considerations for the next four years while terrorism/transnational crime and the ever-present challenge of managing Iran and North Korea will be more static geopolitical concerns. A terrorist attack in the U.S. or a military strike against Iran by Israel (or the U.S.) would certainly change the priorities of the next administration, however with respect to long term challenges, managing the deficit and the evolving relationship with China will remain top foreign policy priorities.