What developments will dominate the international agenda over the next 12 months? And what will it mean for the United States and American foreign policy? Such questions are easier to pose than answer.
A year ago, few people would have predicted that Kosovo would become the greatest military challenge ever faced by NATO. Or that the Senate would reject the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Or that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and protesters on the streets of Seattle would prove better organized than the Clinton administration in defining the future of world trade.
Even so, it is possible to hazard a few guesses about the coming year that are more than just speculation. There is even some positive news on the horizon.
Prospects are good for a peace treaty this year between Israel and Syria as well as between Israel and Lebanon. Successful negotiations in turn would lead to major debates in Israel, where a referendum would be held to approve the terms of any agreement, and in the United States, where Congress would be asked to approve massive economic and military-assistance packages and possibly some form of U.S. presence on the returned Golan Heights.
Despite controversy, all these initiatives should pass. There is also likely to be progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, although the chances are slim that the two sides will be able to meet the ambitious goal set by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for completing peace talks before year’s end.
Less clear is what will happen in Russia. Boris Yeltsin’s resignation paves the way for Prime Minister (now acting President) Vladimir Putin to succeed him. Yet just who Putin is and what he stands for remain giant questions. His writings suggest someone who favors maintaining a strong presidency, building up Russia’s military, and a more assertive Russia. Battlefield success in Chechnya have made his election in March all but certain, but much less clear is Russia’s ability to prevail in its struggle with Chechen rebels and to translate its military gains into lasting political arrangements.
Events in Chechnya are sure to sour U.S.-Russian relations. But even more difficult to manage over the long term could be the consequences of U.S. plans to introduce significant defenses against ballistic missiles. Persuading Russia to cooperate in a transition to a new strategic balance will be a major diplomatic undertaking. If the attempt fails, and if the United States then unilaterally abrogates the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty and deploys defensive systems, it could lead to a major chill in relations with Russia and its new leadership.
This is also shaping up to be another major year for and with China. Taiwan goes to the polls this spring; it is conceivable that China will resort to military force of one sort or another to intimidate pro-independence politicians in Taiwan. This in turn would be sure to generate pressures for the United States to come to Taiwan’s defense.
Even without such a scenario, U.S.-China relations are sure to be buffeted by the debate this spring in Congress over whether to pass legislation that would pave the way for China to join the WTO. After much shouting, this initiative, too, will pass.
The worst of the rest
What else? Even if things stay calm in Korea and between India and Pakistan, it is only a matter of time before Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sparks a crisis.
It is safe to assume that he is producing and storing weapons of mass destruction. What remains to be seen is whether the United States and the rest of the international community have the stomach to rebuke him if and when he does make a challenge.
Also likely are two challenges of another sort. The first is terrorism.
We may have survived the transition to the new year with little difficulty, but we should not expect our good fortune to last. Sooner or later, we will awaken to the awful news of some terrorist attack. Good intelligence can make this less likely, and good preparations can reduce the consequences. But nothing can be done to eliminate this threat.
Second—and if the past year is any guide—we will face several man-made humanitarian nightmares. Once again, we will have to decide whether to act even though vital national security interests are not involved.
We should act only if the situation is draconian, intervention is likely to make things better at a reasonable cost, and there are others willing and able to share the burden. If these conditions are met, outdated notions of sovereignty or the absence of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing an intervention should not deter us.
All in the context of an election year
As has already been noted, almost all of these developments will stimulate intense debate in the United States. What is more, all this will occur in the run-up to November presidential and congressional elections.
History suggests such a political context will tend to sharpen the lines of domestic discord. Achieving consensus, already difficult in the absence of any post-Cold War agreement on the outlines of U.S. foreign policy, will prove more difficult than ever.
Two things seem assured: We will learn more of what the candidates think about foreign policy, and the next occupant of the Oval Office will inherit a demanding international agenda.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.
[On the U.S. negotiating team at the COP 24 climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland] They work seriously, effectively and knowledgeably. There is only this technical negotiating team, not a political one.
[John Bolton’s statement that the North Koreans “have not lived up to the commitments” made in Singapore] totally cuts Secretary of State Pompeo and the special representative, Steve Biegun, at the knees. What is the incentive for North Korea to actually talk about the meat-and-potatoes of denuclearization with the special representative and with the secretary of state if the national security adviser has said nothing is happening so we have to go straight to the top?