As the Obama administration prepares to assume its second four-year term, 2013 will force the president and his new team to hit the ground running once again on foreign policy. Indeed, even after the first Obama administration's many foreign policy successes, including responsibly ending the war in Iraq and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the U.S. now faces an international landscape as complex and difficult as any since the start of the Cold War.
What are the top threats to U.S. National Security in 2013?
They are led by possibilities that are often not thought of as "national security threats," including:
1) Politics in Washington undermining the recovery of the U.S. economy: A strong economy undergirds the entire foundation of American national security, including the maintenance of our military. Continuing America's economic recovery, including by spurring job creation and reinvesting in our nation's physical infrastructure and human capital while responsibly cutting our debt over the medium-term, remains the country's first national security priority. Irresponsible actions, such as the recent threat by Tea Party Republicans to veto reasonable budget deals, could impact our national security as much as our economy.
2) Failing to live up to the ideals of our society at home: Our economic health, in turn, results from the fundamental health of our society. As a national security priority, we must continue to perfect our democracy and open avenues of opportunities for our people, including through improving the education system and investing in the health and welfare of every member of our society, including all of our immigrants. Not only will such investments improve America's material wealth, they will improve our moral standing and strengthen our "soft power." As Bill Clinton wisely said, "people the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of power."
3) Failing to acknowledge that the world holds opportunities: America faces real enemies abroad that we must always be prepared to confront, including through the use of military force. But the world is not just composed of threats. The rise of so many countries around the world also offers tremendous opportunities for the American economy. The lifting of so many people out of poverty, meanwhile, offers new opportunities for peace, prosperity, and scientific advancement globally. In 2013, we must continue to engage abroad — including in places like Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East that often don't receive positive press — in a way that reflects our country's natural faith in the future.
Of course, we also continue to confront tremendous challenges abroad. Among the most critical for 2013 include:
1) The continued evolution of the Middle East: The sheer magnitude of events in the Middle East and North Africa is breathtaking. The course of the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen continue to develop — even as a number of longstanding American allies such as Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, face the possibility of greater unrest. The horrific civil war in Syria continues to rage, even as Iran's continued failure to live up to its international obligations on its nuclear program threatens the entire region and the wider world. Meanwhile, the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to fester, heightening Israel's unacceptable isolation and extending the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
In 2013, many of these issues may come to a head, particularly Iran and Syria. There is a possibility of regional war, including involving the U.S., renewed international terrorism, or an oil crisis.
In confronting these challenges, it is vital that the U.S. keeps a flexible policy approach. Across the region, we must be willing to confront our enemies even as we must also engage with them to see if their coalitions can be splintered or deals can be made. We must stand with our allies, even as we encourage them to accelerate needed changes. And we must continue to lay out a positive vision for the future based on mutual interest and mutual respect even as we prepare for any eventuality.
2) Adjusting to new Great Power Dynamics: At the same time, there has been a relative shift of power in the international system, marked most significantly by the rise of both the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the "global South." The resurgence of major powers such as China, India, Brazil, and Russia all requires carefully calibrated U.S. policy. The rise of these powers present the U.S. with significant challenges, including the possibility of any of them challenging our regional interests. But in 2013, it may just be the "slowdown of the rest" that confronts the U.S. with its most dangerous challenges. In an interdependent world, their economic pain will quickly also become our pain. At the same time, the relative decline of traditional U.S. allies such as Europe, also presents problems, and the Euro Crisis remains a critical international issue.
3) Confronting the changing nature of Power itself: Last, but my no means least, threats to America will come in changing nature of power itself. Societies, economies, businesses, organizations, and systems of information have all been "flattened" in recent years, diminishing the ability of any one actor to command or control events — even as the power of any individual to effect change (whether by peaceful or violent means) has increased exponentially. Moreover, the international system as a whole faces a growing governance crisis, as antiquated global institutions as well as many national governments have to varying degrees proven incapable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century.
These challenges could emerge in the form of cyber terrorism, or through a rogue state like North Korea, or from the spark from the next Arab Spring. No one can be sure of what will come except to say that it will almost certainly hold tremendous surprise.