Next Year's Global Challenges

The next president of the United States will have to deal with a turnover of world leaders, turbulence in the Middle East, and climate change.

By + More

Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.

With the presidential campaign trail disrupted by Hurricane Sandy, this seems like a good day to think about next year, and several trends that will shape the world a new president has to deal with, and the tools he has available to him.

Global Leadership in Transition.  The U.S. elections come in the middle of an 18-month period that will see more than one third of UN member governments change leaders, either through election or selection. The past year has seen notable elections and transitions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen in the Middle East; Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Greece in Europe; Mexico and Venezuela in Latin America; and North Korea and Burma/Myanmar in Asia. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

But what's to come is even bigger. Just days after the U.S. election, China installs a new leader—the fact that we know in advance who it is doesn't lessen the impact. Staying in Asia, South Korea has elections next year which will certainly change its North Korea policy; meanwhile, the final look of North Korea under Kim Jong Un is far from clear. Japan's politics are unstable as well, and the interplay among all these political seasons and the flaring territorial disputes in the region's waters presages more tensions.

Moving east, Israel and Iran will hold elections in the next eight months, creating instability and opportunities for destabilization even if neither is expected to produce significant change. Syria's transition (How violent? Who will take power?) and instability in Lebanon and Iraq are significant wild cards.

In Europe, the long-awaited German elections will come next year. The technocratic governments in Italy and Greece lose their mandates.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

And close to home in the Americas, two of the region's aging strongmen continue to defy predictions of their demise. But one day death will come for Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Castro seems to have devolved much of his power and put a succession in place; Chavez, not so much.

Emerging Challenges. Several new or perennial issues which seem to overflow and transcend both U.S. and international mechanisms have been—surprise—little-discussed during the campaign:

New categories of weapons. New categories of weapons include: conventional weapons that approach the destructive power of nuclear blasts; cyber warfare, where defense blends into offense; remote-control warfare such as drones. Technology has moved these three areas along even as public debate, congressional oversight, and domestic and international law have not.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Next round of terror fights and interventions.  The UN's recent endorsement of an Economic Community Of West African States intervention in Mali was little-noticed. That is likely to change if casualties rise, if the trail of the investigation into the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens runs that way, and/or if there is more extremist violence against official American or European targets. Some have also predicted that organization's forces will struggle against the insurgents, which may raise calls for European or NATO assistance as well. If this sounds far-fetched, remember that France and the UN teamed up to reinforce a weak peace operation in Ivory Coast in 2011—without any allegations of al Qaeda links, "only" regional instability concerns. Then there's the question of what happens with the U.S.-backed hunt for Joseph Kony and pursuit of Somali-backed extremists in East Africa, which is out of the news now but may not stay that way.

Future shape of the Middle East:  regional war, new order, muddling through? The apocalyptic scenario for the spread of the civil war in Syria to a region-wide sectarian conflict engulfing Lebanon, pulling in Jordan and Iraq, and pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran via proxies may well not occur. And there will be no Israeli strike on Iran—for now. But the ethnic and geostrategic questions, and the conflict's proximity to NATO ally Turkey and to Israel, mean it won't be out of our headlines, or contingency planners' worries, anytime soon.

Oh yes, and climate change. Jokes about Hurricane Sandy being climate's revenge on the elections aside, scientists tell us that we are going to see more extreme weather—not just here at home, but the kinds of devastating floods in Haiti and Pakistan that have disrupted the path of international affairs and claimed thousands of lives in recent years.  Desertification around the Sahara will furnish newly-homeless recruits to North African conflicts and radicalism; water conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia will only intensify. And there is another UN process with deadline looming out there.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Changing domestic environment.  Let's put this simply: There's no money for new Marshall Plans for the Arab world or for doubling the rate of shipbuilding to float a bigger Navy in the Pacific. There's not much indication that next week's election will produce new interest in bipartisan problem-solving. And blogs, Twitter, and the rest continue to eat away at the time available to decision-makers to plan, think calmly and react rationally to all the uncertainties that the factors above will produce.

Moral: Enjoy your day off today. Then buckle your seatbelts.  

  • Read Benjamin H. Friedman: Mitt Romney vs. Barack Obama is Hawk vs. Hawk
  • Read Robert Nolan: Polls Show What Americans Really Think About Foreign Policy
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.