The presidential campaign that ends today has been long on debates over domestic issues and short on discussions of foreign and national security policy. That may be okay with the electorate predominantly concerned about jobs, deficits, health care, education and the like. Both candidates have promised to devote themselves to improving the economy and other domestic tasks such as reforming the tax code and overhauling the nation’s immigration system.
Unfortunately, reality has a way of interfering with ones best plans, particularly if you are the president of the United States. Unpredictable, external events have a way of shaping the behavior and destinies of nations and their leaders. One bad debate performance, a late year hurricane or an administration that took its eye off the ball in Libya for a few weeks and everything changes. Whichever man occupies the White House on January 20, 2013 is certain to find the reality of a fragmenting international system bearing down on him like a runaway freight train.
Virtually every continent is in the throes of profound, unsettling and even violent change. The Middle East is experiencing a level of internal disorder and violence unlike anything seen since the era of decolonialization. Islamist extremism is spreading across the region and even gaining power in several countries. Asia is struggling to deal with the political and security implications of becoming the economic engine of the world. China is on the verge of deploying a first world military which would be dangerous enough but made all the more difficult because it is still a second world economy with a third world political system. Russia is seeking to rebuild the military of the former Soviet Union. Europe is in the midst of a protracted, perhaps interminable economic crisis that could see the collapse of the Euro, the fracturing of the European Union and the demise of NATO. Latin America continues to struggle to overcome the problems of narco-trafficking, political corruption and weak civic institutions.
Both candidates desperately need a peace dividend in order for their economic programs to make sense. Unfortunately, the time for peace may have passed. Whether it is a dispute over some rocks in the East China Sea, a terrorist attack on an embassy or consulate somewhere in the Middle East, a border clash in the Caucasus or a strike against an illicit nuclear facility events are likely to make the next four years even more difficult, dangerous and even violent than the past four.