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Expecting the unexpected in America

Apr 04,2016 - Last updated at Apr 04,2016

When the United States’ new president gets down to work in January 2017, some obvious foreign policy issues will already be waiting — some more patiently than others.

Some of these will be perennial problems in need of no introduction: North Korea and its nuclear ambitions, China and its global ambitions, Russia and its spiteful ambitions, and of course, the Middle East and its dysfunctional ambitions.

Often, however, the crises that greet a new president are not the ones anyone expects.

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he expected to increase defence spending, deploy an anti-missile system, and dismantle several long-standing multilateral arms control obligations.

Instead, the administration faced issues that were completely unforeseen, including Afghanistan and Iraq, and that consumed it for the next eight years.

The same thing could happen again when the next administration takes office. A few possibilities stand out.

Start with Saudi Arabia. To anyone paying close attention to the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, especially the weakening of many of its key nation-states and the rise of extremist violence, a severe crisis in the kingdom is no dark horse candidate.

Saudi Arabia has shown remarkable resilience in overcoming political weakness, often by using its considerable oil revenues to buy itself out of trouble and maintain a large royal family that has been an essential source of stability.

That stability may continue, but it is becoming less of a sure bet. With oil prices experiencing a prolonged slump, and new sources (for example, Iran) coming onstream, the Saudis will not find dipping into financial reserves quite as effortless a proposition as it has been in the past.

To be sure, by the standards of most countries, Saudi financial reserves are enormous; but so are the aspirations of its disgruntled public, not to mention the growing regional problems and the regime’s sense that it must step up its efforts — often financial — to counter Iran’s growing regional influence.

With another ageing monarch in King Salman, the Saudis’ day of reckoning in today’s polarised and radicalised Middle East could be approaching.

Then there is Turkey. In the past, this key regional actor suffered perennial economic crises, bouts of hyperinflation and occasional military coups that, brutal as some were, seemed to many Turks a welcome respite from weak centre-left and centre-right governments.

And, despite its economic and political dysfunction, Turkey managed to maintain a positive image, owing in part to its ambition to join the European Union.

Hope always seemed to outweigh the country’s accomplishments, but it was always viewed in Western circles as a reliable partner and ally.

Today, whether owing to “neo-Ottomanism” or just old-fashioned nasty governance under a thin-skinned autocrat (President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) with Islamist tendencies, Turkey is on many watch lists.

Its intervention in Middle East politics has been furtive and lacking in consistency or clarity.

At first, Turkey seemed to support Syria’s Alawite leadership under President Bashar Assad, then switched sides, joining a coalition of Sunni Arab states in the so-far disastrous effort to remove Assad.

In the meantime, Turkey’s long-standing problems with its restive Kurdish minority have returned with a vengeance as Erdogan has resorted to strong-arming the Kurds into submission, an approach that he has applied to his many domestic opponents, as well the media and civil-society groups.

Turkey’s internal politics have worsened by the day, and the country’s deep divisions, which reflect entrenched historical and sociological fault lines, show no signs of narrowing under a president who seems temperamentally incapable of winning over anyone who is not already a follower.

A resolution of the crisis in Syria would certainly help Turkey, especially given its role as the prime destination for refugees from the chaos there; but the governance shortcomings with which Turks must reckon are profound.

Turkey may muddle through its current predicament (as it has many times before) and maintain its unity and its purpose. Or not.

Those hardy perennials may return as well. But the crises they cause may be different in degree and substance.

North Korea is one such case. Its current leader, Kim Jong-un, seems far more dangerous than his father, Kim Jong-il, or grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

The regime’s proclivity to threaten war against its neighbours did not start with Kim 3.0, of course. After all, his grandfather actually started the Korean war in 1950.

But Kim’s recklessness, combined with his relentless effort to build deliverable nuclear weapons, may push the North Korean problem to the top of the new president’s agenda.

Finally, there is China.

For many Americans, the risks posed by China lie in its strength. In fact, the real cause for concern is not China’s strength, but rather incipient weakness, which could plunge the country — and the many others that depend on its economic performance — into crisis.

One hopes that all the current candidates vying for the US presidency will be up to the challenges — both perennial and unanticipated — that they will face.

In some cases, to be frank, those hopes may be monumentally unrealistic. In any case, there will be little room for error.


The writer, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and the author of  “Outpost: Life on the Frontiers of American Diplomacy”. ©Project Syndicate, 2016.

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