Whether Obama or Romney, next US leader faces severe foreign challenges

Whoever wins the US presidency – be it likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney or President Obama – faces an array of foreign-policy challenges that may be as daunting as those of the cold war. For starters, they involve China, Russia, the Arab world, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama looks through binoculars to see North Korea from Observation Post Ouellette in the Demilitarized Zone in Panmunjom, South Korea, March 25. Columnist John Hughes says the 'problem countries requiring the attention of the American president have one common denominator: They are all in the grip of authoritarian regimes.'

Whoever wins the US presidency in November faces an array of foreign-policy challenges that may be as daunting as those of the cold war. While revitalizing the US economy may be the next president’s primary concern, uncertainties abroad will likely reshape global politics and redistribute power.

For starters, they will involve China, Russia, the Arab world, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan.

CHINA. Its spectacular economic growth has made it a serious challenger to US global leadership and a formidable factor in a potential shift of power from the West to the East. Its growing military force makes countries in Southeast Asia nervous. Its growing Navy patrols waters where US warships have been dominant.

As America’s banker, Beijing commands respect in Washington, but the US-China relationship is prickly, particularly when US officials deplore the way China hobbles its citizens’ freedom and purloins US intellectual property. Pending changes in China’s top political leadership make for uncertainty about that nation’s internal and international direction.

RUSSIA. By shady vote-rigging and the neutralizing of opposition candidates, Vladimir Putin is president again and talking tough about America. But the opposition of young Russians was vocal in the election, and change seems inevitable.

When Ronald Reagan was president, he engaged with Russian leaders even during the cold war. Whoever occupies the White House for the next four years must do the same, seeking common ground on Syria and Iranian nuclear weaponry.

THE ARAB WORLD. Upheaval in Arab lands may not lead to democracy as Americans understand it or want it. The American president must press the incoming governments for the essential tools of freedom: free elections, a free press, an independent judiciary. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad should be tried for crimes against humanity.

IRAN. President Obama must be anxious to head off any military action against the Tehran regime until after the US elections. Whoever emerges as president for the next four years will face a ticking clock as Iran races to produce either the means to produce a nuclear bomb, or the bomb itself. That president must successfully step up non-military pressure to neutralize the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb.

A nuclear war in the Middle East is unthinkable.

NORTH KOREA. The American president must decide whether Kim Jong-un, the young new leader, is for real, promising less belligerence in return for American food.

We have had a long history of broken promises from the North Korean regime. If the new leader is now ready for his nation to become a respectable member of the international community, we need proof.

PAKISTAN. It is time for this country of many proud and talented people to turn their failing nation into a successful one. They will need international economic help, and the United States should be ready to continue what has already been a substantial amount of assistance.

But the Pakistanis must clean up their act. The Pakistani intelligence service’s ties to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations that have been killing Americans must be severed. As the US presence in Afghanistan runs down, a stable Pakistan could play a constructive role in the region.

These problem countries requiring the attention of the American president have one common denominator: They are all in the grip of authoritarian regimes.

Despite imperfections, America has long been regarded around the world as a beacon of freedom. Americans traditionally believe that their country should support freedom for unfree peoples elsewhere. That happens to be in America’s best interest. Nations whose people are free and prospering are not generally the cause of strife.

If Barack Obama is reelected and able to reshape a changing world on a platform of peace, he will have earned his Nobel Prize. A Republican who is elected president and achieves the same will deserve one.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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