Five New Foreign Policy Challenges for the New Decade

During the next ten years, the U.S. will confront a broad range of policy challenges. Some will likely be largely unchanged over the course of the decade. Others, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or the fight against terrorism will probably remain important issues but will change and evolve during the decade. There are some issues, however, which seem somewhat remote today, but which may dominate headlines by the year 2020. We cannot, of course, know for certain what these issues are, but the five issues below all may become very important by 2020.

Initial Effects of Climate Change-
While the most severe effects of climate change and the dystopic images they suggest will not be upon us by 2020, some of the early effects could begin to play a role in foreign policy. For example, as the oceans begin to provide less fish andfarmlands in warm climates become less fertile, the chance of instability in many small countries will increase. Correspondingly, immigration from these countries to the wealthier countries will accelerate. Additionally, tension within and between countries in these warming climates may increase accelerating both instability and migration. This represents the tip of the climate change iceberg, if the oxymoronic metaphor can be forgiven, as the impact of climate change will increase as the century proceeds. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to think the consequences of climate change lie in the distant future.

A Different Direction for China-
It was hard to read a newspaper or surf the web in the waning days of 2009 without reading about how the decade coming to an end was defined by China’s rise and that the coming decade would see China supplant the U.S. as the global power. China may complete its ascendancy this decade and become the most powerful country in the world; and a powerful and wealthy China raises many issues for the U.S. as we would have to share global leadership with a country with a very different political and economic outlook from ourselves. However, there is a not insignificant chance that another scenario plays out as the internal pressures, separatist movements, inequalities and lack of freedoms in China cause the economy to slow down, the government to tighten its control and for domestic stability to be disrupted. If this occurs, the U.S. will face an entirely different, but probably greater set of challenges as the global economic system will be imperiled, China’s foreign policy, in this scenario, could become aggressive as a means to appease domestic dissatisfaction and regional peace could be threatened.

The End of NATO-
NATO has been a central component of global security for more than half a century, but it may not survive this decade. Some members like the U.S. and former Communist countries would like to continue to expand NATO to include countries like Georgia and Ukraine and, at least in the case of the former Communist countries, see the alliance as largely an anti-Russian organization. Many western European NATO members, notably Germany and France, seek a significantly less confrontational relationship with Russia. If this tension increases it will reinforce existing stress between older and newer NATO members, particularly in Europe. Other disagreements within NATO on issues such as conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq may also fray the Cold War era alliance. If NATO is substantially weakened, the U.S. will have to rethink and restructure much of its overall approach to maintaining, and contributing to global security.

Growing Isolationism at Home-
Presidents Obama and Bush, albeit in different ways, have been committed to a foreign policy which involves the U.S. deeply in affairs of the world, and of many countries, beyond what is required simply for national security. Although foreign assistance remains a very small proportion of the overall U.S. budget, during the next ten years the American people may begin to oppose such broad involvement not so much on economic principles but out of frustration with the lack of success, or even good explanations, for U.S. foreign policy and intervention. The American people may demand better answers to questions of why the U.S. is so deeply involved around the world and what all this has accomplished for the U.S. If there is a rise in this sort of isolationism, politicians of both parties will court these voters and eventually isolationist candidates will win election to congress. These isolationists will raise challenges not just to high profile policies like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but may create obstacles for implementing the less controversial aspects of foreign policy such as foreign assistance, overseas bases and the like. Raising thoughtful questions about these policies is probably useful, but simply opposing U.S. involvement in the broader world will be far less useful.

Changing Role of the State-
The increasing influence of multi-lateral organizations, most significantly the European Union in recent decades, coupled with the collapse of some states, such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia as well as the increasing inability of many states to assert control over all of their territory will not be a new development in the teens. However, this may be the decade when policy makers are forced to recognize that some of the basic assumptions, regarding the centrality of states, on which we base our foreign policy are not true anymore. This has already had an enormous impact on national security as most of the last decade has been focused on defending the U.S. from non-state actors, but it may permeate our foreign policy more broadly in the next decade. During the next decade, the impact of these developments will begin to be felt on issues such as trade, energy and human rights as well.

Undoubtedly the next decade develop in ways that are extremely difficult to anticipate, but the five issues mentioned above are not all that remote. They may be too far off to focus on right now, but they are also too likely to for policy makers to ignore altogether.