America's top foreign policy challenges

The White House, Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON: Whoever sweeps into the White House in January, their in-tray will be overflowing with a host of foreign policy issues, some of which have the potential to drag the United States into open conflict.

AFP interviewed top foreign policy experts about the challenges facing the next administration irrespective of who wins next month's election.

Here are their picks in alphabetical order:


The next commander-in-chief will have to oversee the withdrawal of the last US combat troops from the nation invaded by George W. Bush in 2001. But huge challenges remain amid a deadly Taliban insurgency.

The question will be "how to leave some modicum of lasting stability," said Martin Indyk, vice president and director of the foreign policy program of the Brookings Institution think-tank.

A further issue will be how capable the next Kabul leaders who emerge from 2014 elections will be to "hold the Taliban at bay."


The US relationship to a rising China is going to be key on the global stage, as Beijing flexes its muscle in Asia.

Tensions are likely to increase over competing claims to islands in the South China Sea and elsewhere in East Asia, pitting Beijing against many of its neighbors, including Japan, with which the US has a mutual defense treaty.

"Number one, China is now more capable of asserting its historical claims," said James Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Number two there's actually something to fight about. There's a lot of money at stake, particularly with the oil and gas concessions."

US pledges to defend its allies mean "US credibility at a minimum would be implicated," Lindsay said as those nations would be looking to see if America keeps its word.

If the relationship with China is mishandled by either side, "the worst-case scenario is one in which we head towards friction and an arms race in Asia, and increasing potential for conflict," said Indyk.

"I think that that can be avoided... but there's potential for conflict that simply comes from the rise of an assertive power in the global balance."

Justin Vaisse, director of research at Brookings, pointed to China's top-level boycott of global financial meetings in Japan as a sign that Beijing's "rise in strategic power could have a concrete effect on the economy."


America can do little to influence the outcome of the crisis afflicting the eurozone as it has no financial assistance it can bring to the table.

"So we have to counsel quietly. Our ability to affect things is more limited. But the impact could be quite devastating," Indyk said.

Paramount will be maintaining good relations particularly with "decision-makers in Paris and Berlin."

"We need Europe to get its act together as quick as possible so that it can assume its rightful role on the world stage as an important power."


For some this is the number one challenge facing the next administration as failing to get America's fiscal house in order will have a direct, and negative impact, on its ability to maneuver abroad.

"A failure to deal effectively with that is going to affect everything else. It will affect the economy, relations with key trading partners and allies, our ability to build up forces overseas or at least maintain the forces that we have," said Indyk.

"The ability of the United States to project power abroad depends on having a solid fiscal economic foundation," agreed Lindsay.


The threat from Iran is going to be an immediate "2013 challenge," said Indyk.

Despite biting sanctions, Tehran has shown no signs of halting its uranium enrichment program. The New York Times reported Saturday that Iran had agreed to one-on-one talks with the United States over its nuclear program, but the White House quickly denied a deal had been reached.

"We're getting to the moment where... either the Iranians are going to stop or the United States is going to have to make decisions about what its red lines really are," Lindsay said.

Vaisse warned the clock was ticking with the Israelis also doing a countdown. Snap polls are due there in January and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems certain to win re-election.

If Obama wins, "he'll do everything he can to avoid (military intervention), but it's not certain he'll be able to," Vaisse said, pointing to the president's repeated pledge to stop Tehran getting a nuclear bomb.

If the sanctions start to lead to a collapse of the regime that could force it to accelerate its quest for a nuclear bomb, and "Obama could be faced with the decision on whether to go to war in 2013 or 2014."

"Both candidates have ruled out containment as an option and so if negotiations fail... then the military option is going to become more and more necessary," said Indyk.


The famously reset relationship with Moscow, will likely need to be reset yet again as, despite cooperation on Iran, hostilities have flared over Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"The reset hasn't completely disappeared... but the situation is not as good, and we will need to try to relaunch the reset," said Vaisse.

Indyk said negotiating "a new arms control treaty would be a confidence-building measure.

"It would go to the heart of the Russian hang-up with the United States which is that we don't take them seriously as a partner."


"In the Middle East there's the challenge of finding our footing in a very unstable and tumultuous situation, where the pillars of our previous strategy are all either gone or shaking," Indyk said.

He pointed to fears that "a descent into chaos and eruption of a sectarian war" in Syria risked spreading to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, both of which are key US allies in the vital oil-rich Gulf region.

Obama has come under attack from Republicans for a failure of his Middle East policy since the September 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, where the ambassador and three other Americans were killed.

His administration has so far refused calls to arm the Syrian opposition as the conflict drags towards its 20th month and there are increasing fears that in some Arab Spring countries conditions are ripe for a growth in Al-Qaeda.

The next administration will need to engage with the young democracies.

On the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations there is little hope that much progress can be made, especially if Netanyahu wins the polls.





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