To get a sense of just how daunting the foreign policy picture facing the next U.S. president is, consider the following conflicts converging in the months ahead.
The Post-Islamic State Scramble
The Islamic State will inevitably lose its claim to a caliphate in the Iraq-Syria battlespace as coalition forces steadily strip territory away from the apocalyptic jihadist group. This will deny its leadership space to operate, critical revenue and the ability to attract foreign recruits. But it is not without good reason that the territorial claims map attributed to this battlespace resembles a canvas by Jackson Pollock. The clamber to exploit post-Islamic State territories will be fierce. Once the common enemy is removed, the real scramble for revenge and power begins.
In Iraq, fractious Kurdish forces will butt heads with Baghdad as they try to formalize strategic territorial gains in northern Iraq, such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. Turkey and Iran will seek to play the role of sectarian protectors in the broader Sunni-Shiite competition in the region. A heavy sectarian agenda shaped by the Middle Eastern powers will diminish the credibility of Iraqi government structures, which could in turn preserve the root cause of the Sunni drift toward jihadism. Meanwhile, the erosion of the Islamic State core will encourage grassroots attacks abroad and provide an opportunity for other jihadist factions to assert themselves. Al Qaeda affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula, which have benefited greatly from the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, require especially close monitoring.
Debate in Washington over whether to extend the U.S. military campaign in Syria will be eclipsed by a much bigger dilemma. Turkey is in the process of anchoring itself in northern Syria and Iraq, hoping to wedge itself between aspiring Kurdish statelets while at the same time redrawing the Sunni sphere of influence in its favor. No amount of diplomacy will dissuade Ankara from pursuing its objectives across its former Ottoman territories. Still, Turkey must plan for heavy resistance from its old regional foes, Iran and Russia. For now, the Russians are working with Ankara to create strategic energy links into Europe and encouraging Turkish resistance to NATO proposals, such as building up forces in the Black Sea. But with Turkey moving forcefully ahead in Syria, and Russia still intent on using the Syrian conflict to goad the United States to the negotiating table, the possibility of a collision on this crowded battlefield cannot be discounted. And such a turn of events could draw the United States into a fight it has so desperately sought to avoid.
Russia has long sought to link the Ukrainian and Syrian conflict zones to draw the Americans and Europeans into some kind of grand bargain. Moscow reasons that if Russia could present itself as both a spoiler and a facilitator, the country would be able to reach an understanding with at least some Western parties on easing the pressure of sanctions. The Kremlin also seeks to place limits on NATO expansion in the former Soviet sphere. But unfortunately for Moscow, the plan has not gone as predicted. Russia is much more convincing as an obstacle-maker than as a peacemaker in these complex conflict zones. So long as Russian negotiators feel they are not making progress with their Western counterparts, the establishment will increasingly revert to obstructionism to stymie perceived threats from abroad.
Europe makes for an easy target. The launch of Brexit negotiations and elections in Germany and France will take place as nationalist forces expand throughout the Continent, bringing competing designs for how the European Union should be remade. Russia has already been quietly facilitating the rise of such disruptive forces, betting that a divided Europe will be too distracted to focus on Russia, therefore denying the United States a united Western front with which to pressure Moscow. At the same time, the Kremlin can increase tensions with the West by not cooperating in existing nuclear pacts and treaties, making it impossible to sideline Moscow on matters of strategic importance.
Moscow’s aggressive posture is not solely a product of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia is moving into a darker, more vulnerable period where economic, political and social stresses are driving the state toward authoritarianism. As Russia searches for a common thread to unify itself from a position of weakness, it will try to stoke nationalism through the fear of “the other” — the United States.
North Korea, Nuclearized
North Korea has vexed Washington policymakers for more than two decades. With each year of idled U.S. strategy as it concerns the northern stakeholder on the Korean Peninsula, Pyongyang has grown that much closer to being able to reach the United States with nuclear arms. With North Korea now in the final stages of achieving a viable nuclear deterrent, the next U.S. president’s foreign policy legacy will unavoidably rest on how this conundrum is handled. At this stage, however, the options for preventing North Korea from exercising a nuclear deterrent are dismal. Imperfect intelligence on target sites and the high cost of retaliation, borne largely by South Korea, make pre-emption unlikely. And while China is uncomfortable with its proximity to a nuclearized Pyongyang, it is also not prepared to deal with the fallout from a North Korean crisis across the Yalu River. From Beijing’s perspective, it is better to stay close to Pyongyang and be realistic about North Korean intentions and capabilities than freeze out the regime and risk a political implosion that Beijing would be left to mop up.
The best Washington can do at this point is to try to re-establish a direct dialogue with Pyongyang, not because it wants to legitimize North Korea’s nuclear abilities or because it has a realistic chance of talking the administration out of achieving a nuclear deterrent, but because continued lack of communication in this high-stakes environment raises the potential for serious miscalculation.
The U.S. focus will be on strengthening existing security architecture in the region, with South Korea and Japan at the helm. This will in some way prepare for a nuclearized North Korea and help keep a check on China. But the prospect of a growing U.S. security footprint in the Asia-Pacific greatly unnerves Beijing, which is determined to reduce U.S. interference in what China considers its maritime sphere of influence. This complicates aspirations for a coordinated policy on pressing concerns — such as North Korea — and at the same time hardens Beijing’s resolve to assert its maritime claims while it can still take advantage of U.S. distractions elsewhere.
The Coming Venezuelan Implosion
The United States has a lot to focus on in the Eurasian belt and Far East, but it must also brace for fireworks down south. In Latin America, the Venezuelan people have so far endured hyperinflation, food scarcity and extreme insecurity in a crisis seemingly without end. But things appear to be nearing a climax. Even as debt payments are prioritized over disbursements for importing basic goods, the Venezuelan government is not going to avoid a default on its sovereign debt next year. That means Caracas cannot guarantee its formal and informal security appendages will remain coherent enough to contain mass protests, not without creating a bigger conflagration in the process.
U.S. criminal cases against Venezuela’s top narcopoliticians are concerning for the fractious Chavista government but are the exact reason obstinate elements within the government are entrenching themselves and resisting a negotiated transition. They have everything to lose if they are stripped of political immunity and made vulnerable to extradition. As a result, they are holding out for a better option even as the state itself is spiraling downward. The longer they resist, the more desperate the situation becomes on the streets. Washington has kept a fair amount of distance from the Venezuelan time bomb, avoiding decisions that would accelerate default and catalyze a detonation. That wait-and-see strategy is likely to expire within the first year of the new U.S. president’s tenure, when Venezuela reaches its crisis point.
American Exceptionalism, Revisited
It appears that everywhere Washington looks, a foreign policy minefield awaits. The United States is not, however, expected to manage these crises alone. Every theater is home to significant powers with vested interests. And although these powers’ interests, strategies and tactics will not always neatly align with those of the United States, this is not the first time Washington will be working with difficult allies in trying geopolitical times: Charles de Gaulle’s France tested NATO at the height of Cold War tensions with Moscow; Maoist China was anathema to the United States ideologically but critical to isolating the Soviets; and Pakistan was quietly hosting Osama bin Laden while Washington was spending billions hunting the terrorist leader. Similarly, the Philippines and Turkey are prickly allies, but they are strategic partners that nonetheless require a deft diplomatic touch when it comes to understanding and anticipating their next moves, as opposed to reacting once it’s too late.
America’s battered global image makes these diplomatic struggles all the more formidable as allies and adversaries alike question the ability and political will of the United States to lead when the world is ablaze with conflict. As many American travelers abroad can attest, the mere mention of “American exceptionalism” is often quickly met with scorn as the United States’ contemporary troubles are hastily thrown in the same basket as the European Union’s existential crisis, China’s struggle with economic reform and Russia’s security dilemma. Nobody wants American exceptionalism rubbed in their face when America clearly has deep-seated problems of its own. But as much as the chaos of election season and the prospect of what might lie ahead is panic inducing, there are ways to stay grounded.
American exceptionalism was based on the Lockean premise that the state is designed to protect an individual’s rights. Most of America’s adversaries still operate on the notion that an individual’s rights must be suppressed to preserve the state. This distinction is what makes America not just a place on the map but an idea — and a powerful one. It is an ideal embodied in the right to vote (even if the path to that vote has been particularly toxic) and protected by checks and balances embedded in the U.S. system to downplay the role of personalities in politics. In contrast to the clumsiness displayed over this election season, the founders who devised the system were sophisticated men and readers of classical texts who looked to ancient Greece and Rome to avoid the follies of democracy in building an enduring republic on a land that they knew held extraordinary privilege by virtue of its geography and ideals. But America’s “favored soils” and democratic peace were never something to take for granted. As Alexander Hamilton eloquently warned in the Federalist Papers No. 9:
“It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrast to the furious storms that are to succeed. If now and then intervals of felicity open to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret, arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage. If momentary rays of glory break forth from the gloom, while they dazzle us with a transient and fleeting brilliancy, they at the same time admonish us to lament that the vices of government should pervert the direction and tarnish the lustre of those bright talents and exalted endowments for which the favored soils that produced them have been so justly celebrated.”
We should be reminded, but not dazzled, by our own greatness, in other words. Maintaining a democracy is hard work and will be essential to the United States’ ability to weather the furious storms ahead.
“Between the Occasional Calms of Democracy is republished with permission of Stratfor.”
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