A world of problems awaits

By Lee Hamilton
Jan 29 2008

 It is primary season. As our candidates address audiences, hopping from one state to the next, it is easy to forget the daunting circumstances under which our next president will take office.


A dangerous array of new and profound challenges for the United States lurks around every corner. The world our next president will confront is difficult, complex and dangerous.

The challenges are as great as any incoming president ever has faced.

In Iraq, violence has subsided, but political reconciliation remains unsatisfactory. The next president will have to craft a responsible exit strategy from Iraq. How many U.S. troops will remain, with what mission, and for how long?

A resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan increasingly is threatening multinational forces, the Karzai government, and is testing the resolve of NATO itself.

To Afghanistan's east, our worst fears of Islamic radicalism coupled with nuclear weapons could be realized in Pakistan. Encouraging stability and sound government institutions, in which Pakistanis can have confidence, is a high priority.

To Pakistan's west, Iran is still a potential threat — despite the recent National Intelligence Estimate's findings that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program. Now there is a window open for negotiations to persuade Tehran to freeze its uranium enrichment program. North Korea has already crossed the nuclear Rubicon and inspired even more headaches with its recent failure to disclose fully its nuclear capabilities.

Nuclear proliferation is, without a doubt, the most consequential issue in U.S. foreign policy. The ramifications of a nuclear explosion in this country stagger the imagination. Today is reminiscent of the 1960s, when many feared a proliferation tidal wave, with weapons programs spreading across the world.

Russia has re–emerged as a global force, while moving further from democracy. U.S.–Russian relations are at a post–Cold War low, but a relationship built on shared interests — of which there are many — is essential to achieving American policy objectives in Iran and elsewhere.

More than six years after Sept. 11, radical Islam remains a threat to our nation's security. Our next president will have to pursue a long–term course to combat this threat and limit the appeal of its murderous ideological underpinnings.

The people of Burma and Darfur continue to endure humanitarian crises.

Venezuela is at the forefront of a backlash against the United States in many Latin American countries. How do we re–engage our southern neighbors and bolster the forces of democracy, free markets, and cooperation?

On the economic front, the dollar's sharp decline, the erosion of its role as the world's reserve currency, our dependence on foreign oil, and the emergence of sovereign wealth funds remind us that our position of economic pre–eminence cannot be taken for granted in the era of globalization. Budget deficits, trade deficits, and the stalled Doha round of trade talks are all headaches for the next administration.

The list goes on, and includes the rise of China and India, democracy promotion, nation building, climate change, the clash over the world's resources, especially water, and much more. The sheer number and complexity of these challenges are bound to impress the new president. And there's always the unknown threat, the unexpected menace, which can often, like the Sept. 11 attacks, dominate a presidency.

The next president will not be able to solve all those problems. Our ability to bring about change is limited and our resources are not unlimited. Deciding which ones to address first will be one of the major decisions of his or her administration.

He or she also will have to ask the big questions: What is America's role in the world? What kind of world does it want to help create?

Presidential leadership is the key ingredient for U.S. foreign policy. Without it, the country will remain stuck in neutral. Only the president can get our own foreign policy apparatus in order — that means using all the tools of American power, making the interagency process work, and improving relations with Congress.

To protect and promote America's interests, the next president needs to negotiate these myriad challenges. He or she must build a strong team in the government and, more important, build strong support across the country to be successful.

 (Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)