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International Challenges Facing the 44th President

Kenneth R. Weinstein

The 44th president of the United States will face significant global challenges, some of which were unimaginable when George W. Bush entered the White House in January 2001.  Approximately 180,000 American troops are fighting major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iranian theocracy is moving swiftly to acquire nuclear weapons while sponsoring a network of Shiite extremists across the Middle East and Central Asia. North Korea holds hostages, boasts a growing missile stock and nuclear capability. An unstable, nuclear Pakistan is beset by Islamic terrorists, especially in its un-administered northwest tribal region.  An oil-rich, increasingly authoritarian Venezuela is funneling money to radical populists throughout Latin America. An oil-rich, increasingly authoritarian Russia invades one democratic neighbor and is threatening others all the while pursuing an anti-Western agenda.  The world’s largest dictatorship, China, is expanding its international footprint while dealing with severe domestic unrest. All of this is occurring against the backdrop of a massive spike in commodity prices and a credit crisis, both of which pose the most serious threat to global economic growth since the Great Depression. 

Meanwhile, American power is allegedly waning, thanks, if the conventional wisdom is to be believed, in no small part to the wrongheaded policies of the Bush administration.  Given this perception, the new President will have to spend a significant amount of time trying to improve America’s image abroad, especially in Europe and the Middle East. 

To be sure, President Bush’s foreign policy has been uneven, shifting from an excessive idealism in his first term to a timid realism in his second term.  Despite inconsistencies and mistakes, Bush can claim significant accomplishments. Just as President Harry Truman established the security framework that guided U.S. strategy in the Cold War, so President Bush has reshaped institutions and policies to deal with today’s asymmetric challenges. He deserves credit for preventing another terrorist attack on American soil after 9/11, for weakening the infrastructure of terrorist financing around the globe, and for adopting a new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq that may well lead to a watershed victory in the struggle against jihadism.  Al Qaeda’s brutality has been exposed in Iraq and, outside of havens in Iraq and Pakistan, it can no longer claim to lead a sustained global war in the Muslim world against the West. 

For all the criticism of alleged American “unilateralism,” it must be remembered that the war in Afghanistan, which is not faring as well as the war in Iraq, represents the model of multilateralism par excellence: sanctioned by the United Nations, it enjoys the support of more than 30 countries. However, many of our European partners have offered disappointingly small contingents in the battle against the Taliban. The unfortunate reality is that European militarieswith the exception of their elite special forceslack the necessary capabilities to fight in places like Afghanistan.  Our experience in Afghanistan shows that multilateralism itself, especially with our European allies — helpful as these allies may be — cannot cure the world’s ills.   

Against this backdrop, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August offered a rude awakening.  In spite of Bush administration policy that incorporated Moscow into multilateral diplomacy on Iran and North Korea, Russian behavior grew increasingly belligerent.  The invasion reminded us that conventional “hard-power” challenges where the Europeans lack both training and equipment — remain endemic to international politics.  

The United States is the only country capable of projecting power globally, and thus the primary country capable of leading the fight to tackle challenges such as threats from North Korea or Iran. In their important new book, After Bush: The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2008), British academics Robert Singh and Timothy Lynch argue that, despite the popular conception of Bush as radical, his policies fall squarely within the mainstream of post-World War II American presidents. These policiespreserving American primacy, focusing on the internal character of foreign regimes, thwarting external aggression, asserting the right to launch preemptive military action if necessarywill remain in place for some time to come.  And so, therefore, will tensions within the Atlantic alliance. 

Another transformative legacy of the Bush administration that will remain U.S. policy is the emphasis on valued bilateral relationships, over the more multilateral approach favored by Bush’s predecessors and our European allies.  In no region are these favored bilateral relations more critical than in Asia, where these relationships are changing the security architecture of the region for the coming Pacific Century: one in which America will need to depend on strong, confident allies in North East and South Asia who, unlike the Europeans, have a growing willpower to meet regional and global challenges and the actual capabilities needed to maintain peace and stability. 

The enhanced bilateral relationship forged by President Bush and Prime Ministers Koizumi and Abe is critical to this effort.  In this new century, Japan with its advanced technologies, naval prowess and ability to protect sea lanes and project power, will be an even more critical ally, as we face challenges to energy security, the North Korean threat and the possibility of instability in the Taiwan straits.  The transformation of the once lukewarm U.S.-India relationship into a U.S. strategic partnership with the world’s largest democracy, an English-speaking nation with a growing population and technological base, will likewise become ever more critical. These two privileged relationships, and relations between our three nations, will enable us to continue a nuanced rapport with China that recognizes her importance and potential while noting differences in our value systems, her human rights shortcomings and possible domestic instability, and the threat of her global aspirations. 

The next American president cannot avoid the choices history has placed before him.  Despite the massive financial costs and the growing fallout from the economic crisis, America cannot accept defeat in either Afghanistan or Iraq.  The Iranian threat, moreover, must be resolved.

Russia is resurgent, North Korea remains dangerously volatile, and China’s interests often conflict with those of Western democracies. Given these challenges, a strong U.S.-Japanese alliance is now more important than ever. President Bush recognized that. His successor will as well. 

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