Whoever has the job of U.S. secretary of state in 2018 will face a daunting tsunami of foreign policy challenges with dangerous implications if mishandled.
Here are the top three — all areas of the world that pose major national security threats to America.
North Korea: Secret talks are likely continuing between the U.S. government and North Korea to find solutions to the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. We need an outcome short of full-scale war. The testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile by North Korea in November sent shock waves through our intelligence systems, already rattled by the tension between our tweeter in chief and “Little Rocket Man.” Look for Congress and U.S. allies to question how much power we continue to vest in President Donald Trump, who can order a nuclear strike faster than he can tweet, and be prepared for domestic backlash if we end up in formal negotiations with Pyongyang. Economic sanctions on North Korea are almost at the limit of what can be applied, and they seem to be of little deterrence even if fully implemented.
Middle East: Always brewing with violence, the region is a boiling caldron following Trump’s decision to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Watch for violence in the region as Palestinian anger intensifies, along with continued agitation in the region over Iran and our decertification of the joint nuclear agreement that our European friends do not support. Watch the price of oil, particularly along with increased angst among oil-rich states concerned that America is getting too energy independent. And, of course, never rule out 2018 flare-ups from one-off terrorists — Islamic State leftovers and others who failed to hold land in Iraq and Syria.
Russia: Expect continued meddling by Moscow in U.S. domestic affairs. Beware of Kremlin interference in politics in Ukraine, Europe, Syria and everywhere it seeks influence. Russian manipulation of media, diplomatic wrangling over sanctions, and Putin’s quiet campaign to destabilize the West leave the United States vulnerable to cyberattacks and intelligence operations. (Don’t forget Afghanistan, where the Russians once got bogged down and where U.S. forces continue to battle the Taliban.)
So the common 2018 thread is nukes and failed states — never a good combination. “America first” is a slogan, but it misses the point that even oceans and armies can’t stop attacks in the modern era. But good diplomacy can.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and currently advises international students at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.