Four of the Biggest Challenges Facing the Next President

September 16, 2015

Many esteemed observers of world affairs argue that the world is becoming more dangerous. Some go further, contending it is even more perilous than it was during the Cold War. While this refrain is likely to grow louder as next year’s presidential election draws nearer, the threat of a nuclear or conventional war between great powers is thankfully much lower today than it was during the Cold War. Indeed, few of America’s foreign policy problems pose existential threats to the country’s security. Over time, though, they will chip away at regional structures, further undermine confidence in the resilience of world order, and challenge U.S. national interests. Success in addressing them will not always arrive in clear, dramatic fashion. More often than not, it will emerge from the accumulation of small, hard-won victories.

Here are four of the toughest challenges that await President Obama’s successor.

Containing the Conflict Between Russia and Ukraine

The United Nations’ human rights office reports that nearly 8,000 people have been killed since clashes erupted between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian resistance last April. Over 17,000 have been wounded, and some 1.4 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced. While fighting has eased since the Minsk Summit in mid-February, the conflict continues to take incremental steps in an escalatory direction. Russia has announced its intention to station nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, its administrative enclave between Poland and Lithuania, and even seems to be entertaining the possibility of deploying nuclear forces to Crimea, which it wrested from Ukraine last March. Meanwhile, the United States is sending tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, self-propelled howitzers, and other materiel to temporary storage sites in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. It is also contributing special operations forces, air- and sea-based weaponry, and other military capabilities to a new NATO rapid response force.

Considering how much diplomatic isolation and economic punishment Russia has been willing to absorb to maintain its annexation of Crimea — an issue that has arguably developed some symbolic importance to the United States, but one without commensurate strategic significance — it seems unlikely to reverse course now. Nor is the United States likely to ease its enforcement of sanctions or its support for greater NATO military preparedness in the Baltic. The most likely scenarios involve more of the same: pockets of low-grade conflict in eastern Ukraine, NATO fortification, Western isolation of Russia, and Russian “rebalancing” eastward. While these developments may not amount to a new Cold War, they do portend a protracted downturn in U.S.–Russia relations, without apparent basis for a détente.

Countering the Islamic State

Less than five years after U.S. special operations forces killed Osama bin Laden, there is renewed alarm about the capacity and reach of terrorist networks, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In equal parts a result of the chaos that followed the “Arab Spring” and the already fragile state of security in Iraq, ISIL has managed to cut a wide path of destruction through Iraq and Syria. A UN Security Council report released in May stated that some 22,000 foreign fighters — approximately 15 percent of them from the United States and Europe — have joined ISIL’s ranks, which some estimate to number 100,000.

According to one monitoring organization, the United States and its allies have conducted close to 6,700 strikes against ISIL, dropping nearly 20,000 bombs and missiles in the process and killing some 15,000 fighters. Yet few terrorism experts believe the organization’s operational capacity has been significantly affected. Jessica Stern notes that beyond “the territory the group now controls in Iraq and Syria, its affiliates have established ‘provinces’ in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, among other places.” Meanwhile, ISIL’s ideology “continues to spread, largely due to the group’s impressive use of social media.”

President Obama believes that countering that ideology will be “a generational struggle,” while Brett McGurk, a senior State Department official involved in overseeing the fight against ISIL, concedes that “it’s going to take a very long time to defeat them.” A survey done by the Pew Research Center this July found that while 63 percent of Americans support military action against ISIL, 49 percent oppose deploying troops to Iraq and Syria (44 percent favor doing so), and just 30 percent think the military campaign against the organization is going “very well” or “fairly well.” Numerous other surveys confirm public wariness about sending American troops back into the Middle East. Reconciling that reality with Washington’s desire to contain the Islamic State’s threat to regional stability, the United States appears to have settled on playing a Whac-A-Mole game of indefinite duration.

Conducting Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran

Few U.S. observers would like to see a nuclear-armed Iran, though some believe the United States could contain one. Just as few, if not fewer, support immediate military strikes against its nuclear facilities, with most fearing that military action would not only accelerate the Middle East’s decline into chaos, but also jeopardize the passage of oil supplies through the Strait of Hormuz. Many longtime diplomats and nonproliferation experts accordingly support the recently negotiated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — not only as a means of constraining the scope of Iran’s nuclear pursuits and lengthening the amount of time it would need to develop a weapon, but also as an avenue for integrating Iran more fully into the world community and boosting Middle Eastern stability.

The Iran deal is highly technical; outgoing Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman says it resulted from “the most complex negotiation I have ever seen.” Sustaining support for the deal at home, in Iran, and among the P5+1 countries over the coming decade will be an enormous task; so, too, will be ensuring adequate implementation over that period. As is inevitable with the fruits of intense diplomacy, the deal is imperfect. Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert and a supporter of the accord, observed before its finalization that “there is no ‘good’ deal. Any deal will be a compromise that leaves in place many dangers to Israel, as well as Iran’s neighbors and the United States.”

Responding to China’s Maritime Moves

China’s campaign of land reclamation in the South China Sea is arguably the most sophisticated incremental effort underway today to change a regional order, and it proceeds under two ambiguities. First, China has not clarified whether it regards its territorial claims in the South China Sea as a core interest on par with Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Second, Beijing has not explained whether its self-declared sovereignty over the South China Sea applies only to select features within the Sea or to the entire 90 percent of the Sea that its “nine-dash line” encompasses. According to the Pentagon’s Asia-Pacific Maritime Strategy, China had reclaimed over 2,900 acres in the South China Sea by June 2015, up from roughly 2,000 in May. While many of China’s neighbors protest its course of action, they are finding it increasingly difficult to resist Beijing’s gravitational economic pull. The United States has also struggled to respond, as Financial Times correspondent Geoff Dyer observed in a recent commentary:

Perhaps more than any other subject, it is the South China Sea that has shifted U.S. views about what a rising China will portend. … The U.S. is taking seriously the prospect of being squeezed out of a crucial maritime artery that is used for up to 50 percent of global commerce.

The United States is attempting to counter China’s behavior by posing freedom-of-navigation challenges and strengthening its diplomatic and military ties with regional allies. But China recognizes that the United States wants to avoid being drawn into a military conflict over maritime disputes, a conflict that would not only destabilize the emerging crucible of world order, the Asia-Pacific, but also risk the two countries’ multifaceted economic interdependence, which includes nearly $600 billion in bilateral trade. By continuing to reclaim land and build outposts in the South China Sea — some of which, by China’s own admission, might serve military purposes — China could eventually exercise control over much of the Sea and use it to field sophisticated instruments of anti-access/area-denial capabilities.

Setting Realistic Expectations

The next president will face two major dilemmas in addressing challenges such as the ones outlined above. First, he or she will have to meet them without precipitating an escalatory spiral from which there would be no ready avenue of extrication. Second, the president will have to marshal the discipline to manage them over the long term, even as today’s social media environment is ever-quicker to demand results and pronounce failure. Some banal yet oft-forgotten propositions bear mention. The conduct of foreign policy has always been demanding, and it will only grow more challenging. Few, if any, foreign policy challenges can be solved. Quite often, the best that can be done is to circumscribe their ramifications.

Keeping in mind these realities will be essential to countering the declinist thinking that suffuses so much commentary by U.S. observers. The perception of U.S. impotence in world affairs owes in part to nostalgia for days of U.S. hegemony that never existed. Crucially, it also owes to an insufficient appreciation of the limits to American power and the concomitant disappointment observers experience when the United States cannot fulfill unreasonable expectations. While there is much the United States can do to increase its contribution to the constructive evolution of world order, observers should not expect the next president to make headline-capturing breakthroughs on challenges that may well span multiple generations. Indeed, observers should be skeptical of candidates who articulate sweeping solutions and characterize them as self-evidently meritorious. Reflecting on his recent study of eight presidents who presided over periods of growing U.S. power and influence in the 20th century, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Joseph Nye warned:

President Obama and his successors should beware of thinking that transformational proclamations are the key to successful adaptation amid these rapidly changing times. American power and leadership will remain crucial to stability and prosperity at home and abroad. But presidents will be better served by remembering their transactional predecessors’ observance of the credo “Above all, do no harm” than by issuing stirring calls for transformational change. In foreign policy, careful, transactional leadership is often more effective than a grand, transformational vision.

The next president should get high marks if he or she can move the needle forward slowly but decisively in handling the myriad challenges to world order.


Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat, a global fellow at the Project for the Study of the 21st Century, and a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School.  He is a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013).