Predicting World's Future Trouble Spots Will Not Be Easy, But U.S. Must Continue to Lead

By Lee Hamilton for Huffington Post
Feb 4 2016

In these early weeks of 2016, a thoughtful canvassing of world affairs and the challenges to our nation's foreign policy engagement doesn't paint a particularly pretty picture.

Indeed, there are days when I consider the state of our planet and ask myself, "Can anything in the world go right?" Everywhere I look there seems to be turmoil, conflict and violence, and just when one global trouble spot seems to simmer down, another pops up in its place.

The U.S. finds itself fighting fires in every corner of the globe, but increasingly it feels as if we're caught in a game of whack-a-mole.

As I wrote here on Huffington Post a few weeks ago, for many decades and presidential administrations now, our foreign policy has been drawn into the violent vortex that is the Middle East. The old saying "There are no optimists in the Middle East" is holding true now and seems as if it will carry relevance well into the future, as we look ahead to decades of chaos in the region. Presently, we don't appear to have any solid solutions for how to relieve the tension and mayhem that dominate the region.

There's Syria, which is involved in a devastating civil war, closing in on five years now, which presents grave consequences for the world. The impact of the Syrian civil war stretches across the entire region and has sucked in all of the great powers of the globe, including the U.S. Refugees fleeing the escalating conflict continue to pour into Europe and other areas of the world. According to recent reports, half of Syria's pre-war population, or more than 11 million people, have been killed or forced to flee their homes.

A civil war is also ongoing in Iraq, where the country's leaders continue to cope with the disintegration of the country and chaotic aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion, more than a dozen years ago, that ousted Saddam Hussein. And despite our successful negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal, which ended decades of economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for restrictions on the country's nuclear programs, there is still a great deal of harsh criticism and outright rejection of this accord. Some of this has come from our ally Saudi Arabia, which is struggling with the impact of low oil prices while it entertains grave doubts about the U.S. and our engagement with Iran, a country that it considers its chief and most dangerous rival in the region.

I know I'm not alone in focusing much of my foreign policy gaze on the Middle East, which confounds and distracts us from other serious problems around the globe. On the African continent, major conflicts abound. Recent reports indicate the situation in the South Sudan is worsening, putting the country on the precipice of another civil war. A United Nations-brokered peace deal, penned in December to end the divide between Libya's two rival governments, appears to have already collapsed, as that country continues to suffer from the widespread chaos and unrest that has engulfed the country since the ouster, in 2011, of longtime dictator Muammer Gaddafi. Meanwhile, violence has escalated in Cameroon, Chad and Niger, with each country engaged in a vicious battle with the Islamic extremists Boko Haram, which has declared its allegiance to another terrorist group wreaking havoc on the region, ISIS. And the central African nation of Burundi is facing its worst crisis of violence and turmoil since a 12-year civil war ended there in 2005.

Asia continues to be dominated by a confident and powerful China, which increasingly has flexed its muscle through bold diplomatic initiatives, activist foreign and economic policies, and aggressive actions over territorial boundaries in the hotly contested South China Sea. On almost every major issue concerning the future of our planet, including nuclear proliferation, terrorism and climate change, the U.S. and China have become the major players. Indeed, I'm repeatedly impressed by the extent to which China has captured our attention. U.S. political and foreign affairs pundits have written about how China should address its faltering economy, which, according to some major media reports, is experiencing its weakest growth in recent memory.

These pundits have also weighed in with further advice to China with respect to North Korea, which repeatedly rattles its sabers and gives the globe a glimpse, through missile tests and more, of its growing nuclear capabilities. They want to deal with the problem by getting the Chinese to apply more pressure on North Korea, advice that China continues to reject over fear that this course of action will cause greater instability in the region. For its part, the U.S. also seems to be pulling back from dealing with provocations from the North Koreans.

Once upon a time there was Europe, a beacon of stability, at least relative to the Middle East and other more volatile regions of the world. Today, though, the continent faces the challenge of damaged economies, major political divisions and a growing refugee crisis, which has overwhelmed several countries. These issues and more have severely weakened Europe and threatened one of its greatest historic achievements, its open borders.

Meanwhile, our relations with Russia have become increasingly strained over Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggressive policies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The West continues to wrestle with Putin, who not long ago brought East-West relations to the brink of major chaos by annexing Crimea and amassing tens of thousands of Russian troops in Ukraine. At the same time, the West struggles with the significant challenge of reinvigorating a declining global economy and putting it on the path of robust growth.

Finally, there is ISIS, which continues to strike terror into Europe and the U.S., as we in the West grapple with how to respond to a group determined to cause death and destruction by any means possible. Defeating ISIS will clearly take more resources and time than any of our nation's leading politicians have suggested.

Looking at our foreign policy vis-à-vis all of these troubled spots leaves us with an unrelentingly gloomy outlook, but I'm encouraged that the U.S. remains the strongest, freest nation in the world. What's more, no nation will displace us in the near future from our position of preeminence.

The question looms: Can the U.S. exercise the leadership necessary to create a freer, more safe and secure, and more prosperous world? We cannot control or even manage the world, but we can and should take the lead in trying to resolve many of its problems. There are far too many problems across our planet for us to solve alone. Our future--and the future of the world--depends on international cooperation and our network of partnerships. Moving forward, we must do a better job of strengthening our alliances, pooling our collective resources and coordinating our actions with like-minded nations.

Identifying where the largest problems will be and where new conflicts will arise will undoubtedly continue to cause us major difficulty. My experience tells me that, even with all of the talent and resources at our disposal, we're just not very good at predicting the hot spots. Still, we must always be prepared for surprises that pop up. The bottom line is that the U.S. remains in an enviable position, and we have many reasons to be confident about the future. But a realistic view reveals the challenges, which can only be met if we successfully rally the support our allies and friends, and recognize that solving any one of these problems will require time, patience and fortitude, hallmarks of American leadership that will be vigorously tested every day.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Director, IU Center on Representative Government. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.