When it comes to U.S. foreign policy challenges, four countries really stand above the rest: Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China. While we stumble from one dysfunctional episode to the next here at home and create leadership vacuums by retreating further from the global stage, those countries are consolidating their power--and their challenges to American interests.
(1) Iran is now more powerful than it has been since it was known as Persia. No longer balanced by Iraq, Iran is able to project influence all the way to--and through--the Levant. Iranian influence pervades the Iraqi government and society and is paramount in Syria and Lebanon. They're engaged in a successful proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, pose a severe threat to Israel via Hezbollah, and are now even looking east to a place where American troops are directly involved: Yes, Iran now appears to be providing support to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
(2) North Korea is closer than ever--perhaps mere months away--to having a nuclear warhead that is small enough to fit onto the tip of a ballistic missile and to having the delivery system to carry that warhead all the way to the U.S. This is the first time that a country has both directly threatened to use a nuclear weapon against the U.S. and been so close to having the capability to do so. Though not certain, it is not unreasonable to think that North Korea could complete its nuclear deterrent before 2019.
(3) Emboldened by having successfully interfered in our 2016 elections (and having not been punished for doing so) and preparing to do so again in this year's elections, Russia is rapidly consolidating a new sphere of influence that extends into the Middle East, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe in ways not seen since the days of the Soviet Union. Like Iran (and Pakistan), Russia also appears to now be providing assistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Its military involvement in Ukraine is no closer to a resolution than it was years ago. Now Russian President Vladimir Putin appears set to be overwhelmingly reelected in an election that the Kremlin would never allow him to lose in the first place. He is, in effect, a lifetime autocrat; carefully managed elections are allowed in order to maintain a veneer of "democracy." Make no mistake though: should a majority of Russian voters ever desire to remove Putin through the ballot box, they would not be allowed to do so.
(4) The greatest strategic challenge of all comes from China, however. They pose the greatest threat to our allies, to our economy (jobs, etc.), to global norms, and so on, and they are one of the few remaining expansionist major powers. While we've had our heads turned, Xi Jinping has gone from merely the next Chinese President to the first Chinese dictator in decades. Like Putin, he is an autocrat. Unlike Putin, he is increasingly unconcerned with maintaining any veneer of democratic processes. China's rubber-stamp National People's Congress has formalized Xi's status as a lifetime ruler, and all indications are that one of Xi's top priorities will be to use his and China's growing power to ratchet up challenges to U.S. interests. These aren't abstract interests either: they directly affect American "Main Streets'" jobs and security. The days when China spoke often of its "peaceful" rise appear to be behind us.
These are some of the toughest problems we face, but they are far from the only problems we face. The global commons is incredibly complex and increasingly hostile and volatile. This is not the time to disengage from allies and/or to fall into total dysfunction at home.
We should get our house in order at home so that we can present a strong, united front. Then we should robustly re-engage with our allies abroad. Shrinking in the face of growing challenges isn't strong leadership. It isn't, in fact, leadership at all. The days when the U.S. could simply retreat into itself and prosper as before are over. We no longer have the preponderance of power that we once did and, like everyone else, are partially dependent on other countries in order to maintain our security and our standard of living.
It's time for us to rise to the challenge.
Editor's Note: I'm a Liberty Lover that believes we shouldn't be actively countering foreign powers that aren't currently undermining our national security or liberty. What are your thoughts on the geopolitical mandate that requires the United States to continually slay dragons to ensure we stay on top?
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