Next president’s foreign policy priorities
President-elect Donald Trump has just over two months to get his administration’s key personnel and top policy priorities in place before Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2017. Although his road to the White House was hard, it will be as nothing compared to the foreign threats and challenges he now faces.
Eight years of Barack Obama’s policies have left the United States in worldwide jeopardy on many fronts. While the president-elect may hope to concentrate on domestic issues, as Obama did, international realities will not permit this luxury. Indeed, if our international perils are not addressed soon and systematically, they will worsen, with even direr consequences later.
Consider the five gravest challenges confronting America in the next four years, starting with the most imminent.
First, and almost certainly the highest national-security priority for voters last Tuesday, are the closely related threats of radical Islamic terrorism and the Middle East’s spreading chaos. Obama’s unwillingness even to acknowledge radical Islam’s ideological basis, let alone his failure to counteract its multiple dangerous manifestations, has left us increasingly vulnerable to terrorist attack. And in the Middle East itself, despite long-overdue territorial gains against ISIS, governments have been disintegrating or gravely weakened, thus providing safe havens where ISIS and other terrorists can again take root.
If Trump does not quickly reverse Obama’s strategy, regional chaos will only grow, and the terrorist threat here and in Europe will increase. Destroying ISIS should certainly be a priority, but not Obama’s approach, which actually strengthens Iran’s hand at the expense of America’s traditional allies in the region, Israel and Arab states alike.
Second, nuclear proliferation, primarily by Iran and North Korea, is continuing and even accelerating. Obama’s cherished nuclear deal with Tehran has not contained Iran’s nuclear program, has not stopped its cooperation with Pyongyang, and has not changed its offensive behavior across the Middle East. Iran obtained the nuclear deal’s financial benefits at the outset, agreeing only to make cosmetic, easily reversible modifications to its nuclear infrastructure. Almost certainly, the ayatollahs have been cheating since before the ink was dry on the deal.
As for North Korea, even Obama’s own director of national intelligence, James Clapper, acknowledged last month the hollowness of nearly 25 years of negotiation with Pyongyang, saying, “I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause.”
Failure to contain nuclear, chemical and biological proliferation today has even more dangerous longer-term consequences, namely even greater proliferation. Moreover, the prospect that terrorists could receive weapons of mass destruction risks the perfect storm of more 9/11s but with far more tragic consequences. Moving vigorously to eliminate the rising proliferation tidal wave will either be the hallmark of Trump’s presidency — or possibly its epitaph.
Third, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is on the prowl in Eastern Europe and the Middle East in ways unprecedented since the Cold War. Unchecked by Obama’s weak and feckless policies, Putin has had every reason to believe that persistence will achieve any objective Russia has the capacity to seek. He sees little incentive to restrain his ambitions or engage in genuine cooperation when Washington is bereft of strong, decisive leadership. Rebuilding protective structures of deterrence in Europe; reducing Moscow’s Middle East influence to pre-Obama days; and utilizing Russia effectively against Islamic terrorism and in the epic struggle with China may seem contradictory, but all are possible with renewed U.S. strength of purpose and the attendant resources, political and economic as well as military.
Fourth, China’s belligerent assertion of territorial claims in the South and East China Seas, its extensive military buildup, and its disdain for international commitments in trade and other fields all demonstrate not merely the attributes of a rising regional power, but one that neither respects nor fears the consequences of ignoring or even humiliating America. And after eight years of Obama, why not? Continued failure to deal firmly with Chinese adventurism and intransigence will result in more Asian states falling under Beijing’s sway, as the Philippines appears to be doing, simply accepting their fate as Middle Kingdom vassals. While no one seeks confrontation with China, submissiveness such as Obama’s only encourages more aggressive behavior.
Finally, although mostly ignored during the campaign, global governance will inevitably pose increasing challenges for America. Trump’s campaign indirectly addressed part of this issue on immigration, but the fundamental importance of protecting U.S. sovereignty is far broader and more complex. Obama is entirely content with surrendering vital decisions to multinational organizations, courts and treaties, even while we are seeing key projects to diminish the authority of the nation-state begin to come apart: Britain voted to leave the European Union, and African governments are withdrawing from the International Criminal Court.
The ultimate outcome of this struggle is yet unknown, but it will be increasingly at the center of global affairs in the years ahead. So congratulations, President-elect Trump! The easy part is now over.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.