Our television screens have been filled over the past few days with events signifying the huge international challenges a new President Barack Obama or John McCain will face next January. Here's a quick summary:
The Olympics in China are more about China's national pride and will to global power than the athletic competition per se. In that regard, they resemble the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, staged by Adolf Hitler as a showcase for Germany's rising power and rallying point for German nationalism. (Other comparisons between present-day China and Hitler Germany should be made with great care, however).
A few days ago, China and India were the principal players in bringing to a halt, and perhaps destroying, the Doha Round of global trade negotiations and a 50-year drive toward multilateral liberalization of world trade. They, as well as Brazil, will be increasingly unlikely to accept Western-made groundrules on global warming — in fact, on any issue which might slow their drives toward economic growth.
Russia's military strike against Georgia, an independent sovereign nation, was about its similar intention to reassert regional dominance and regain true superpower status. Domestically, oil revenues have brought prosperity and new strength to Russia. There is again in Russia an authoritarian central government exercising media censorship, crippling democratic institutions, and imprisoning and murdering dissidents.
U.S. and other coalition troops are on the ground attempting to establish internal security in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In nuclear-armed Pakistan, the new national government appears less inclined to challenge Al Qaida/Taliban forces operating out of its border provinces than was the previous one. Such forces are moving freely into Afghanistan, and back again, often with the collaboration of Pakistani intelligence agents.
Famine and genocide recur in Africa and parts of Asia as the international community finds itself generally helpless to intervene except through humanitarian aid and ineffectual diplomacy.
What's the common thread in these events? A new President Obama or McCain will face challenges where U.S. military interventions, for the most part, would be useless or counter-productive and where meaningful peaceful measures will be of dubious effect. Take the Russian action against Georgia. Neither the United States nor NATO is about to challenge the Russians in a shooting war. The intervention has been a wakeup call for the West. Russia supplies some 40 percent of Western Europe's energy. It is nuclear armed. It would be able to veto any action by the United Nations Security Council. As a practical matter, only strong diplomatic positions taken by the European Union, NATO, and Group of Seven economic powers are likely to move the Russians — and not much.
In the wake of the Russian incursion, steps must be taken to strengthen not only Georgia's autonomy but that of Ukraine and the Baltic states. All want to join Europe rather than remain under Russia's thumb. A high-risk strategy would involve positioning NATO troops along the eastern borders of these countries, should the countries request them, to deter further Russian intimidation. If the Russians moved anyway, we would be on the brink of general war.
China, too, wishes to dominate its neighbors. But, ahead of that priority, China wishes to gain sufficient economic and financial power to feed, educate, and find jobs for its huge population. The domestic Chinese economy must grow about 8 percent annually just to hold even. The United States and its partners must engage China economically and financially both to help and channel its growth. A first priority must be to keep China within the World Trade Organization, and its rules, after China's leading role in breaking up recent global negotiations.
There are no easy options regarding Iran either. Any nation with the technical capability to do so — North Korea stands as a prime example — can acquire nuclear weapons if it wishes to spend its national wealth for that purpose. Israel took out nuclear facilities in both Iraq and Syria, but it would be more difficult to do so in Iran. Its facilities are decentralized and hardened. Moreover, an Israeli action against Iran would provide it with a pretext to generate revenge actions not only against Israel but against Western nations, by shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, for instance. The populous, coming generation in Iran wants to westernize and will reject the present regime. But, until then, the frustrating but probably necessary U.S. course will be to converse with the coming generation while keeping international pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, and encouraging Iranian movements toward modernization and democracy.
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