Tuesday, January 04, 2011

New Year Question 1: Can American Power Manage New Challenges in 2011?

President Barack Obama’s leadership in foreign policy will be critically questioned this year, as he lost terribly in the midterm elections last November. Toby Harnden, US Editor of the Daily Telegraph, lists 10 foreign policy priorities of the United States to foresee the world this year (”Top 10 foreign policy challenges facing Barack Obama in 2011”; Toby Harnden --- Daily Telegraph Blog; January 1, 2011). In dealing with these challenges, whether the United States is willing and able to invest sufficient resource is the foremost question.

Among them, Afghanistan and Iran are far more vital than other top 10 issues. Though Obama remarked that US troops in Afghanistan would withdraw from July this year, he postponed it by December 2014 at NATO Summit in Lisbon last November. There are some problems within the Obama administration. As Bob Woodward mentions in his book “Obama’s Wars”, the President is psychologically out of Afghanistan. Also, the team is split between Vice President Joseph Biden who insists on withdrawing early, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who argue for completing the mission. Harnden points out intertwined problems on the Afghan side. Insurgents use frontier areas in Pakistan as their safe havens. The Afghan government is still corrupt and its security forces are still unreliable despite some improvements. The Obama administration needs to tackle the above problems mentioned by Harnden this year. Otherwise, progress achieved by General David Petraeus will be ruined.

As to Iran, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon says that technical problems delay the nuclear project, and it takes three more years to make the bomb (“Israel - Iran nuclear bomb 'still three years away'”; BBC News; 29 December 2010). Though it is unlikely that the Ahmadinejad administration stop this project, economic sanctions hit the Iranian economy which leads to nation wide frustrations among youngsters. Harnden says that possible regime change or an Israeli attack there would help counter insurgency operations in Afghanistan.

While facing major Middle Eastern challenges like Afghanistan and Iran, the United States must deal with strategic and geopolitical rivalries with China and Russia, and threat of North Korea. The United States needs to contain China’s peaceful rise, but dependence on Chinese money inflow could loosen the grip. New START with Russia does not make the world nuclear free, nor prevent Vladimir Putin from winning the presidential election in 2012. Quite puzzlingly, it is necessary to have China and Russia involved in sensitive diplomacy to stop nuclear ambition of Iran and North Korea. As current tension in the Korean Peninsula becomes increasingly complicated, in view of North Korea after Kim Jong-il, vigilant attention to China is required.

Stagnant global economy can pose some constraints to US defense budget, while the Chinese economy rises. American policymakers keep in mind that the share of current defense expenditure in GDP is lower, compared with those in the Cold War era. Therefore, the economy is no excuse for American leaders to lower defense commitment.

Other issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Lebanon problem need consummate diplomatic efforts. WikiLeaks has spotlighted a new threat in the cyberspace era that cannot be resolved in traditional concepts of security.

In such a problematic world, Obama needs to get along with House Republicans as Democrats lost the midterm elections. Being preoccupied with Afghanistan and Iran is no excuse to loosen the grip on other security challenges. The media often talk of American decline (“The limits of power --- Blocked at home, what can Barack Obama achieve abroad?”; Economist; November 22, 2010). But this “decline” is the consequence of “A Holiday from History” attitude shortly after the Cold War. The United States was not prepared to curb the rise of new threats. It is not partisan politics that matters. Has America learned this lesson? That is the question.