The world is increasingly becoming a dangerous place. Some analysts even argue that it is more perilous than it was during the Cold War era. It is especially due to the spectre of terrorism and the unending war led by the United States to fight it. Since the US spearheads the global antiterrorism campaign, continuing it effectively will be the first and foremost challenge before the new President of the United States.
The instant article is aimed at analysing the most immediate challenges that the new US president will have to tackle with when he enters the Oval Office on January 20 next year.
1. Russia-Ukraine Conflict
Russia’s resurgence as an increasingly formidable superpower has posed an existential threat to the US hegemony over the world affairs. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, both Russia and United States have been at daggers drawn. Immediately after the annexation, the US imposed an array of sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses, targeting certain key sectors of the Russian economy which are closely connected to the ruling elite. The sanctions also targeted many senior officials in the pro-Russian separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine, including Crimea, and organisations linked to them. The conflict, which is often described as the Cold War 2, has been intensifying ever since.
A picture of the gravity of the situation has been presented by the United Nations’ Human Rights Office which recently reported that nearly 8,000 people have been killed since clashes erupted between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian resistance. The report further stated that over 17,000 Ukrainians have been wounded, and some 1.4 million have been internally displaced.
While fighting has eased since the Minsk Summit in early 2015, the conflict continues to escalate. 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. 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.
Although the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has floated the idea of creating a new alliance with Russia, her rival, Hillary Clinton, sees the other way. However, what is almost certain is that the United States is not going to ease its enforcement of sanctions or its support for greater NATO military preparedness in the Baltic anytime soon. Therefore, 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.
2. Global Terrorism
The United States has, for decades, assumed the role of a global policeman and it has strained both its army and its budget. The demands have not lessened; conversely, they have only increased. The country has been fighting wars in the Middle East for a decade and a half. The price tag for those wars, predominately in Iraq and Afghanistan, has surpassed $1.7 trillion. But, despite attempts to form alliances with both, the US was left with no viable partner in the Middle East.
So, dealing with extremism abroad and its spillover at home will be another enormously complex challenge for the next president. Over the last five years, conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the Middle East and North Africa at large have not only frustrated the United States diplomatically but has also sapped its military resources and provided a breeding ground for Islamic State radicals, who have spread bloodshed and destruction all over the world.
The multidimensional nature of the problem was on full view during the recent weeks when the US, on October 3, broke off talks with Russia on implementing a ceasefire agreement in Syria, which was concluded on September 9, because Secretary of State John Kerry was “enraged by air strikes on rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo”.
The Syrian battlefield becomes even more confounding because of the fact that there are overlapping wars: between President Bashar al-Assad and rebels; between an American-backed coalition and the Islamic State; between Turkey and the Kurds. Russia and Iran are backing Bashar al-Assad with military power whereas the US and Sunni Arab states are helping rebels.
Recently, it was reported that President Obama is considering a plan to directly arm Syrian Kurdish fighters. This major shift could help speed up the offensive against the Islamic State while worsening tensions with Turkey.
Moreover, influence of Daesh has grown to such an extent that it has become a formidable threat for the United States. Although half the Daesh-controlled territory has been reclaimed in Iraq, yet the coming battle for Mosul, which the US wants to fight along with Iraqi and Kurdish troops, is likely to be fierce.
At home the next president will also have to confront threats on American soil from extremists who enter the US to commit terrorist acts and those who are not formally allied with terrorist groups in the Middle East but draw inspiration from their calls to violence and become radicalized.
3. Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran
On July 14, 2015, Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1 reached an agreement, in Vienna, on Iran’s nuclear programme. Although the deal brought much hope and joy in Iran, particularly with promises of an economic boost and closer ties with the West, the recent developments suggest that all is not well with the deal. The cracks became ever more visible when Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the US for dragging its feet on lifting sanctions in the banking and insurance sectors, and on unfreezing Iranian assets despite the fact that Iran has fulfilled all its obligations under the agreement. Moreover, Iranians’ disillusionment with the nuclear deal, the leaders who produced it and the United States, is also on the rise, a new poll suggests.
Since the lifting of international economic sanctions, albeit partially, Iran has increased oil production by a million barrels a day and almost doubled oil exports. But unemployment remains high and the biggest factor behind this is that major foreign companies and banks have so far been reluctant to invest in Iran. Furthermore, the United States still sanctions Iran for its support for terrorism, missile tests and human-rights abuses.
The concerns of European banks about working with Iran is one the most difficult issues. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sees the difficulties as sabotage. Due to a lack of direct ties between Iran and the United States, communication between their governments is always difficult, if not impossible.
Washington has its own share of critics of the deal. The Obama Administration had hoped that the deal would lead to greater cooperation with Iran on regional crises, especially in ending Syria’s civil war and fighting the Islamic State fighters. But Iran has aligned itself with Russia and with this Iranian interest in collaborating with the United States on regional issues has declined. Countries in the Middle Eastern region also believe that the deal’s political effects have encouraged, even enabled Iran’s hegemonic quest. Based on regional developments, after the nuclear agreement, a decrease in Iran’s interference in domestic affairs of other regional states did not correlate with expectations. For the first time, Hezbollah admitted receiving financial and military assistance from Iran.
However, only a few in US government circles support military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities as they fear that military action will not only accelerate the Middle East’s decline into chaos but will also jeopardize the passage of oil supplies through the Strait of Hormuz. Many longtime diplomats and nonproliferation experts accordingly support the deal; 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.
Hillary Clinton supports the recent nuclear agreement but she has alleged that Iran continues to violate UN Security Council resolutions through its testing of ballistic missiles, and she has called for new sanctions against the country.
On the other hand, Donald trump has been an unequivocal critical of the deal. He has said that the White House received few concessions from the deal and has proposed renegotiating the nuclear deal, though it’s unclear exactly how he would structure any agreement.
Since the Iran deal is highly technical in nature, sustaining support for the deal at home, in Iran, and among the P5+1 countries over the coming decade will be an enormous task.
4. Relations with China
The United States and China have had a complicated relationship for decades, as both nations are economically entangled and seen as superpowers in different regions of the world. The US is frequently at odds with China on issues like trade and foreign policy, but US leaders have often stopped short of attempting to punish the communist country for its behaviour, fearful that it could make problems worse. China also holds a tremendous amount of US debt.
Moreover, the rising tensions in the South China Sea, America’s backing of India with an aim to contain China, tensions on the matter of North Korea’s nuclear programme, Trans-pacific Partnership (TPP) and other issues have made the relationship even more complicated. So, the new US president will have to deal with a rising and more assertive China on a wide range of issues.
The United States is out to counter China’s behaviour by posing freedom-of-navigation challenges and strengthening its diplomatic and military ties with regional allies, especially Japan, South Korea and India. 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 will also risk the two countries’ multifaceted economic interdependence, which includes nearly $600 billion in bilateral trade.
The US economy has been the world’s biggest but the unabated rise of China, and America’s involvement in wars has sapped it and it is overdue for a recession. At present, the United States has probably the highest Gini coefficient — a commonly used measure of income distribution — among the industrialized democracies. Numerous studies — notably the French economist Thomas Picketty’s best-selling ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ — have adduced convincing evidence that the income of the middle class has stagnated in the past three decades, while that of the top 1 percent has increased nearly twofold.
Moreover, it is also an undeniable fact that America’s contribution to the global economy, with the exception of a few brief periods, has been falling. In 1960, the US GDP represented 40% of global GDP. By 2014, America’s economic contribution had been cut in half. This decline is sending huge shockwaves to the world.
More recently, the IMF downgraded the economic growth outlook for the United States to 1.6 percent in 2016, which is the largest one-year drop seen for an advanced economy. The group projects that the economy will grow to 2.2 percent by 2017, but medium-term growth will be held down at 1.8 percent due to an aging population and low productivity growth.
It is also to be noted that the IMF has revised down its estimates for the US and other advanced economies for this year while maintaining its forecast for global growth as a whole at the low level of 3.1 percent. Moreover, during the recent years many world leaders have expressed fears that the world economy is about to enter into recession. These are all indications that a period of economic recession is looming large on the world economy. Being world’s biggest economy, the US too will not remain immune from its deleterious impacts.
So, arresting this decline will be another big challenge before the new president. But, an analysis of the plans of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump suggests that US economy will not be able to fare well. Trump’s plans will roll back several US free trade agreements, a step that would drag US economic growth down to minus 0.1 percent by 2019, increasing unemployment by 8.7 percent and destroying four million jobs. On the other hand the entire Clinton agenda is to spend $1 trillion more on government public works programmes, free daycare and college education, and expanded entitlements. She would raise investment and personal income tax rates (paid by many small businesses) to finance all of this.
So, there are fears that the US economy will be relatively weak and the next president will need a plan right out of the gate.