Home inFocus The Challenges Abroad

The Challenges Abroad

James S. Robbins Winter 2010

The United States will face many international challenges in the coming years, some of which may not be expected. The recent disturbances in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere are a reminder that the future challenges that policymakers expect often do not arrive, and those they have not planned for have a much greater impact. When 2011 arrived, American national security strategists were not considering potential scenarios in which a destabilized Egypt fell under the sway of a radical Islamist movement that would consider renouncing the Camp David Accords and rekindle the possibility of a fifth Arab-Israeli war. But swiftly moving events in Cairo have brought that and other dangerous scenarios to the fore. It is a reminder of the fundamental unpredictability of the future, and the precarious balance of international stability.

But while circumstances may change, the United States’ fundamental interests remain relatively constant, and the threats to those interests can be assessed. Among the current and growing challenges with which U.S. policymakers must cope are: nuclear proliferation and rising nuclear powers, the threat of hostile ideologies, the rise of competing economic powers, adversarial regional states, and competition in space.

The Nuclear Challenge

The United States has recognized the challenge of nuclear proliferation since the dawn of the atomic age. The first burst of expansion and competition in the nuclear realm gave way to a general international consensus that nuclear technology would be employed for peaceful purposes, at least among those states that did not possess nuclear weapons. This understanding was codified in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1970 and was signed or acceded to by most of the world’s countries. But in recent years the consensus has frayed. Three non-signatory states—India, Pakistan, and Israel—have built nuclear arsenals. North Korea withdrew from the NPT, tested nuclear weapons, and has become a major facilitator of Iran’s nuclear program. Other problem states, such as Venezuela and Burma, have expressed interest in launching nuclear programs, and over a dozen countries in the Middle East are expected to begin to nuclearize if Iran tests an atomic weapon.

The spread of nuclear weapons changes America’s security calculations in a variety of ways. The most noted potential direct threat is a rogue state’s nuclear weapon falling into the hands of a terrorist group like al-Qaeda, either accidentally or by design, and being used against an American target. But nuclear weapons do not have to be used to have influence. Those who shrug off the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program by noting that Tehran could be deterred from using nuclear weapons in the same way the Soviet Union was during the Cold War overlook a vital point. A nuclear armed Iran would equally deter the risk-averse United States, ensuring the survival of the Islamic regime in Tehran and opening the door for more vigorous support for low-level conflict perpetrated by Hezbollah, Hamas, and other sponsored terror groups.

The Obama administration has not been able to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear capability or opening a meaningful dialogue, much less obtain a “grand bargain” with Tehran. Repeated statements from Washington that an Iranian nuclear capability would be “unacceptable” ring hollow; George W. Bush’s administration used identical rhetoric regarding the North Korean nuclear program with no effect before Pyongyang’s weapons tests and no follow-up after. Sanctions and other efforts have at best delayed but not derailed the Iranian effort. And the Obama administration’s focus on traditional nuclear arms limitations such as the New START treaty could hamper development of ballistic missile defense programs just when they are most needed.

Hostile Ideologies

Terrorism will continue to be a challenge to the United States as the capabilities of terror groups to commit acts of low-level violence increase and their motivations remain high. The U.S. has been able to prevent the reconstitution of the traditional al-Qaeda network through the aggressive use of “kinetic” warfare, principally drone strikes against key leadership targets, but the terrorists have adapted to this by metastasizing the threat and now openly pursue a strategy of “leaderless” individual strikes. This and other developments led Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to state that the threat of domestic terror attacks is at its highest level since September 11, 2001—which could also be read as a failure of her department to deal effectively with the evolving terror situation.

America’s reputation in the core regions that give rise to terrorism has not improved. In 2009, President Obama embarked on an unprecedented outreach effort to the world’s Muslims, in an attempt to polish the image of the United States and undercut the support for anti-American extremism. But the outreach effort failed; after a minor increase in approval for the United States in Muslim majority countries, by 2010 opinion reset to around the level it had been at the end of the Bush administration, and in some critical cases, such as Pakistan and Egypt, views of the United States are worse than before Mr. Obama’s public relations effort was launched.

A critical blind spot in administration thinking is the focus on the threat posed by violent Islamic extremism but an unwillingness to recognize the problem of Muslim extremists who are nonviolent. President Obama refuses to acknowledge that the dominant strains of Islamic thought contradict most Western values and are inimical to democracy. In 2009, the United States co-sponsored with Egypt a UN Human Rights Council resolution against “racial and religious stereotyping,” which enhanced the effort by Muslim majority states to put any international criticism of their religion off limits. The Organization of the Islamic Conference is also seeking to absent its member states from adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, replacing it with their own 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam. And the U.S. has made no coherent defense of values. It is incumbent on the United States and other Western countries to oppose attempts to erect parallel international legal structures that undermine liberal values and institutions and legitimize continued oppression of women, religious minorities, and proponents of political reform.

American Economic Decline

During his November 2010 trip to India, President Obama said, “For most of my lifetime the U.S. was such an enormously dominant economic power … that we always met the rest of the world economically on our terms.” But those days are rapidly fading, which the president implied is a good thing. China’s GDP in 2009 was 35 percent that of the United States, double the percentage it was in 2005, and in 2010 China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. Rapidly expanding U.S. debt has threatened the dollar as the international currency of choice. The Eurasia Group recently identified the growing threat of the “G-zero,” the abrogation or inability of a small number of countries to exert global economic leadership, which will lead to increased chaotic competition and global economic instability.

It is worth noting that trends are not destiny and Mr. Obama’s surrender may be premature. Japan’s GDP quadrupled between 1985 and 1995, and policymakers debated the implications of future Japanese economic hegemony. But Tokyo’s growth spurt ended abruptly in 1995 and since then Japanese GDP has remained flat. And while in 1995 Japan’s GDP per capita was 150 percent of that in the U.S., the same figure for China is currently eight percent. The future in which China dominates the world economy may be long in coming, if it arrives at all.

Nevertheless, increasing debt held by foreign countries, declining confidence in the dollar, higher energy costs, lagging U.S. R&D spending, declining shares of patents issued to Americans, and a weak domestic job market all point to a weaker position for the United States in the global economy. An important step towards rectifying this trend is to recognize that it is not the inevitable development that the White House thinks it is, and to begin to craft strategies to increase American competitiveness and restore relative growth. The economy is the center of gravity for the United States, the source of its power and influence. If it is allowed to fade, all the challenges the country faces will be magnified proportionately.

Regional Challenges

The profits from rising energy prices have underwritten the rise of hostile powers, most importantly Iran and Venezuela, seeking to establish regional hegemony and reduce U.S. influence in their respective spheres. While economically miniscule compared to the United States—both with GDPs around 2 percent of the U.S.—their strategic positions, energy-based economies, and hostile ideologies increase the magnitude of their threat. Both countries are ruled by authoritarian, anti-Western regimes. Both countries have sought to build anti-U.S. regional coalitions—Iran’s bloc with Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas, and Venezuela’s Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, which includes Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, and several smaller Caribbean countries. Both countries support international terrorist groups that are hostile to U.S. allies. And, most troubling, both countries have nuclear ambitions being supported by a third energy-rich potential regional hegemon, Russia. Iran, Venezuela, and their surrogates are working cooperatively to “accelerate the fall of imperialist hegemony and the birth of the new world of equilibrium and peace,” as Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez said in Damascus last fall. To date, the United States has done little to disrupt this evolving anti-American alliance structure.

Competition in Space

The United States has claimed to be the world’s “preeminent spacefaring nation,” but this title may soon be in dispute. The aging space shuttle fleet is soon to be retired and has no ready replacement; the U.S. will have to depend on Russia to put astronauts in orbit. And while China plans and prepares for a future manned moon mission, the Obama administration has cut back NASA’s mandate and left the space agency adrift.

Space-based assets are increasingly important for communications, commerce, and warfighting. But while the U.S. program languishes, other countries are increasing their efforts to obtain a presence in space. In 2010, Iran claimed to have launched a satellite into orbit, which is a short step from developing intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, capability. Dual use of rockets for civil and military applications has precedent; the U.S. Atlas missile, an early ICBM, was also the booster that put the first American into space. Development of advanced rockets in Iran will also contribute to progress in the missile programs of Tehran’s partners in Syria and North Korea, all to the detriment of U.S. interests.

In June 2010, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden praised other countries that are ramping up their space programs even as America retreats. “That really excites me,” he said. “It excites President Obama.” He asserted that “perhaps [the] foremost mission” of the American space agency is to “find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science.” And while President Obama tried to motivate the country in his State of the Union address by declaring a “Sputnik moment,” Senator Richard Shelby (R-AK.) noted that the president’s proposed NASA budget “begins the death march for the future of U.S. human spaceflight.”

A Posture of Strength

The Obama administration’s general approach to foreign policy has been to reject what the president sees as Bush-era “unilateralism” in favor of seeking engagement, consensus, and common ground. The current national security strategy stresses the need to find “ties which are rooted in shared interests and shared values, and which serve our mutual security and the broader security and prosperity of the world.” The administration eschews projecting strength in favor of currying favor by promoting international understanding and by downplaying the country’s uniquely American qualities.

However, the United States has few shared interests in many parts of the world, no shared values, and significant areas of conflict. Abandoning a policy of peace through strength in favor of one of peace through understanding has increased global instability and uncertainty. This approach has not yielded tangible positive results but instead has generated a general sense of American weakness and the notion that the United States does not stand for anything. It emboldens the enemies of freedom, and dispirits those harried and oppressed voices for liberalism in the darker corners of the world. And if the United States fails to address these and other challenges described in this issue, if it chooses conflict avoidance over leadership, the country will face a growing number of unforeseen and unpredictable challenges, which may not always be resolved in America’s favor.

James S. Robbins is executive director of the American Security Council Foundation.