During the presidential campaign, two issues often seemed like the only foreign policy topics in the entire world: the Middle East and China. Those are unquestionably important: The wider Middle East contains most of the world’s oil and, currently, much of its conflict; and China is the world’s manufacturing base and America’s primary lender. But there are a host of other issues that are going to demand Washington’s sustained attention over the next four years, and don’t occupy anywhere near the same amount of Americans’ attention.
You could call them the icebergs, largely hidden challenges that lie in wait for the second Obama administration. Like all of us, when it comes to priorities, the people in Washington assume that the thing that comes to mind first must be the most important. The recent crises or tensions with Afghanistan, Benghazi, and China make these feel like the whole story. But in fact they are really just a few chapters, and the ones we’re ignoring completely may actually have the most surprises in store.
If the administration wants to stay ahead of the game, here’s what it will need to spend more of its time and energy dealing with in the coming four years.
The eurozone. This is the least sexy, most important foreign policy issue facing America. The nations linked by the euro have started to split apart, with economies staying fairly strong in the north while others, including major economies like Italy and Spain, weakened to the point that they could go bankrupt. To save the euro, the continent’s stronger players might have to spend and borrow to untold levels to bail out its weaker ones. Or it could let them fail, and suffer a chain of collapses that will throw the entire continent, and possibly the world, into another, even longer recession. The debt crisis in Europe could make the American financial crisis of 2008 seem a minor contretemps by comparison.
Europe’s recovery needs to be managed, and that requires global cooperation and money.
Washington and China, along with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, will have to be closely involved, and that won’t happen without American leadership. Though the European crisis has already been a front-burner problem for two years, in the United States it barely cracks the public agenda except as a rhetorical bludgeon: “That guy wants to turn America into Greece!” But Europe’s importance to the global economy, and to America, is staggering: It’s the world’s largest economic bloc, worth $17 trillion, and it’s the US’s largest trading partner. If Europe goes down, we all go down.
Climate change. No politician likes to talk about climate change. It’s depressing news. It’s become highly partisan in this country, and it has no obvious solution even for those who understand the threat. It requires discussion of all kinds of hugely complex, dull-sounding science. When we do talk about it as a political issue, it’s largely as a domestic one: saving energy, dealing with the increasing fury and frequency of storms like Hurricane Sandy, investing in new infrastructure.
In fact, climate change is a massive foreign policy issue as well. On the preventive side, any emissions reduction requires cooperation across borders—between small numbers of powerful nations, like America and China, along with massive worldwide accords like the failed Kyoto Protocol. The responses will often need to be global as well. Rising oceans and temperatures have no regard for national boundaries, and most of the world’s population lives near soon-to-be-vulnerable coastlines. Entire cities might have to move, or be rebuilt, often across borders. Sandy could cost the American Northeast close to $100 billion when all is said and done (current damage estimates already top $50 billion). Imagine the price of climate-proofing the cities where most of the world lives—Mumbai, Shangahi, Lagos, Alexandria, and so on. Climate change, if unaddressed, could well become an American security issue, propelling unrest and failed states that will spur threats against the US.
Pakistan. Like our tendency to obsess over shark attacks rather than, say, the more significant risk of getting hit by a car, we often find our foreign policy elite preoccupied with rare, dramatic potential threats rather than actual banal ones. You’ll keep hearing about Iran, which might one day have a bomb and which emits noxious rhetoric while supporting well-documented militant groups like Hezbollah. What we really need to hear more and do more about, however, is a regional power that already has nukes (90 to 120 warheads), that is reportedly planning for battlefield bombs that are easier to misplace or steal, and that sponsors rogue terrorist groups that have been regularly killing people in Afghanistan and India for years.
That country is Pakistan. Power there is split among an unstable cast of characters: a dictatorial military, super-empowered Islamic fundamentalists, and a corrupt civilian elite. A significant portion of its huge population has been radicalized, and can easily flit across borders with Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Pakistan isn’t a potential problem; it’s a huge actual problem, a driver of war in Afghanistan, a sponsor of killers of Americans, and perennially, the only actor in the world that actively poses the threat of nuclear war. (The hot war between India and Pakistan in Kargil in 1999 was the first active conflict between two nuclear powers. It’s not talked about much, but remains a genuine nightmare scenario.) Pakistan is also a huge recipient of American aid. We need to find leverage and work to contain, restrain, and stabilize Pakistan.
Transnational crime and drugs. When it comes to violence in the world, foreign-policy thinkers tend to think first about wars, militaries, and diplomacy. But to save money and lives, it would be smarter to think about drugs. In much of the world, the resources spent and lives lost to criminal syndicates in the drug war rival the costs of traditional conflict. Narco-states in the Andes and, increasingly, Central America, make life miserable for their own inhabitants. Criminal off-the-book profits symbiotically feed international crime and terrorism. And in every region of the world, drugs provide the economic engine and financing for militias and terrorist groups; they fuel innumerable security problems, such as human trafficking, illicit weapons sales, piracy, and smuggling. Ultimately, wherever the drug business flourishes, it tends to corrode state authority, leaving vast ungoverned swaths of territory and promoting political violence and weak policing.
The United States pays a lot of attention to this problem in Afghanistan and Mexico, but it’s a drain on resources in corners of the globe that get less attention, from Southeast Asia to Africa. Washington needs to approach the international illegal drug trade like the globalized, multifaceted problem that it is, requiring international law enforcement cooperation but also smart economic solutions to change the market, including legalization.
Mexico. It feels almost painfully obvious, but it’s been a long time since a US president has prioritized our next-door neighbor. Our economies are inextricably linked. America’s supposed problem with illegal immigration is actually the organic
development of a fluid shared labor market across the US-Mexico border. Meanwhile, the distant war in Afghanistan eats up an enormous amount of resources while another conflict races on next door: Mexico’s increasingly violent drug war. Since 2006, it has claimed 50,000 lives, and the violence regularly spills over the border. Washington has collaborated piecemeal with Mexico’s government, but this is a regional conflict, involving criminal syndicates indifferent to jurisdiction. The United States needs to persuade Mexico to pursue a less violent, more sustainable strategy to counter the drug gangs, and then partner with the government there wholeheartedly.
The dangerous Internet. Cyber security might sound like a boondoogle for defense contractors looking for more money to spend on a ginned-up threat. Yet in the last year we’ve seen the real-world consequences of cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear program, apparently orchestrated by the
United States and Israel, and an effective cyber response apparently by Iran that hobbled Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. Harvard’s Joseph Nye points out that cyber espionage and crime already pose serious transnational threats, and recent developments show how war and terrorism will spill into our online networks, potentially threatening everything from our power supply to our personal data.
The US budget. Elementary economics usually begins with the discussion of guns vs. butter: You can’t pay for everything given limited resources, so do you eat or defend yourself? For generations, America has had the luxury of not really having to choose: The economy has mostly boomed since
World War II, meaning we never had to cut anything fundamentally important. But America now faces a contracting global economy and a world in which it increasingly has to share resources with other rising powers. This is unfamiliar, and unhappy, territory: America’s next defense and foreign affairs budgets will probably be the first since the Second World War to require serious downsizing at a time when there are actual credible threats to the United States.
The Americans who reelected President Obama didn’t care that much about his foreign policy, according to polls. And, perhaps fittingly, Obama dealt with the rest of world during his first term with competence and caution rather than with flair and executive drive. His impressive focus on Al Qaeda hasn’t been mirrored so far in the rest of his national security policy, made by a team better known for its meetings than for setting clear priorities.
In the wake of a decisive reelection, Obama will have the political latitude to shape a more creative and forward-thinking foreign policy in his second term. If he does, he’ll have to work around both deeply divided legislators and a constrained budget: We simply can’t pay for everything, from land wars to cyber threats to sea walls to protected American industries. The priorities the next administration chooses—and its ability to pass any budget—will dramatically shape the kind of foreign influence America yields over the next four years.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at thanassiscambanis.
com. He is an Ideas columnist.