The world on his desk
Nov 4th 2004 | NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition
briefing for the weary winner from the man in charge of
policy and planning at the State Department in 2001-03
GEORGE BUSH contemplates his second term, he faces far more
challenges, and more difficult ones, than he did four years
ago. The first reason for this is the objective state of the
world, with a host of problems, from Iraq to North Korea to
HIV/AIDS, demanding urgent attention.
The second is the current condition of the United States.
America remains the world's pre-eminent actor, but it is
also stretched militarily, in debt financially, divided
domestically and unpopular internationally. It all makes one
wonder why Mr Bush seemed so keen to keep the job.
The United States is engaged in at least three conflicts.
First, terrorism. Although al-Qaeda's original
membership may be diminished, some of its leaders (including
Osama bin Laden himself) remain at large and many have
joined them. Mr Bush may find himself dealing with groups
that possess not just box-cutters and access to aircraft,
but nuclear material or, worse, a nuclear weapon.
Iraq, America and its foreign allies are continuing,
slowly and against resistance, to train Iraqis to look after
their own security. Achieving stability will not be easy.
Nor will conducting elections that will be accepted by
Iraqis and the world as legitimate.
Afghanistan, the task of creating a modern state
still suffers from the initial decision to limit America's
role in nation-building. The central government is weak,
warlords are strong and poppy production is at record
levels. It is unlikely that this effort, any more than those
against terrorism or in Iraq, will be completed before Mr
Bush leaves office.
The biggest challenges, however, may lie elsewhere, in
North Korea and Iran. North Korea reportedly
possesses between six and ten nuclear weapons, or at least
the fuel to make that many. Iran is farther along on the
path to enriching uranium than anyone knew. Either regime,
if nuclear-armed, could prove the tipping-point for its
region as neighbours decide to follow suit. Either regime
might also slip fissile material to terrorists. Mr Bush will
have to decide in a hurry what he can tolerate and what he
Then there is the matter of Israelis and Palestinians.
Where there was once a “peace process”, there is now
little peace and even less process. Mr Bush will need to
figure out what the United States can do to make sure that
Ariel Sharon's policy of Israeli disengagement from Gaza
does not become Gaza only, and that Gaza does not become a
lawless failed state. Failure here would not only make it
much more difficult for the United States to promote
democratic reform in the Arab world or slow terrorist
recruitment, but would damage its reputation everywhere.
Darfur is a humanitarian tragedy that continues to
unfold while the world debates whether what is going on is
genocide. The question is what more the United States and
others are prepared to do, whether to stop the killing or to
assist those whose lives have been devastated.
Turning to the major powers, the issue with most potential
to cause real harm is China-Taiwan. There, it is
getting harder for America to balance its “One China” policy
with its security obligations to Taipei. If Taiwan's leaders
insist on more trappings of statehood, China may go to war.
Coming to Taiwan's defence could well poison America's
relations with one of the world's emerging powers, and
undermine chances of an acceptable resolution of the North
Korea problem; not doing so could raise fundamental
questions about America's reliability, and give the
impression that China had replaced the United States as the
region's dominant force.
Russia is a problem largely of its own making. It is
fighting a costly and possibly losing war in Chechnya;
alcohol and AIDS are ravaging the
population; and democracy is being rolled back as Vladimir
Putin takes advantage of high oil prices and fears of
terrorism to consolidate his rule. But the United States
needs Russian oil, as well as Russia's co-operation to deal
One last set of challenges requires a mention. Call them (as
Donald Rumsfeld might) the unknown unknowns. The most
obvious is another massive terrorist attack that sets
America reeling, economically, psychologically and
politically. There could be assassinations; imagine the
difficulties of building Afghanistan without Hamid Karzai,
Pakistan without Pervez Musharraf, or Iraq without not just
Iyad Allawi but much of his team. The departure of Fidel
Castro, too, though hardly a cause for grief, could lead to
instability that some in the United States might find it
hard to ignore.
Tackling such an array of challenges would be difficult if
America was in the best of shape. But it is not. The economy
is growing at a reasonable clip, but the foundation of this
growth is vulnerable. When Mr Bush ran for president four
years ago, the budget was in surplus to the tune of $236
billion; now the annual deficit is more than $400 billion.
Calls to reduce growth in federal spending will put pressure
on funds available for defence, foreign aid,
HIV/AIDS and homeland security.
Add the fact that the current-account deficit is expected to
be more than $600 billion this year, or around 5.5% of
GDP. All this leaves the economy at
the mercy of bankers in Asia and elsewhere who have
accumulated massive dollar holdings. As Herb Stein said,
that which can't go on forever, won't. A day of reckoning
could well come over the next four years. If it does, Alan
Greenspan or his successor will have to put up interest
The deficit has grown so much, in part, because of the cost
of defence and homeland security. Related to this is the
fact that the United States is so active militarily. Some
135,000 troops are in Iraq, another 15,000 in Afghanistan.
Reserve call-ups are being extended. The United States would
be hard pressed to meet the demands of a crisis on the
Korean peninsula. Preventive strikes on a would-be nuclear
state are one thing, but it is difficult to see how the
United States could take on a full-scale war with even a
medium power at this point.
Making matters worse is America's energy dependency. The
United States now imports some 12m barrels a day, more than
half the oil it consumes. There is no reason to believe that
the oil price will soon come down from its $50-a-barrel
perch. Besides, the balance between world supply and demand
is sufficiently tight that it would not take much disruption
in a medium producer (say, Venezuela or Nigeria), not to
mention Saudi Arabia, for the price to spike through the
will not be all doom and gloom, of course. Relations overall
with the other big powers—China, Japan, Russia, India—have
never been better. In addition, India and Pakistan have
moved back from the brink, and links between the two are
growing. East Asia is on the economic rebound. South Africa
is faring relatively well, as is much of Latin America.
The state of America, too, should be put in perspective. For
all its weaknesses, it remains the world's dominant power.
Americans support an active world role, despite the costs.
Mr Bush could benefit considerably from simply adjusting the
tone and style of his diplomacy.
to focus on
What should rise to the top of Mr Bush's agenda? Let me
suggest nine items.
Success in Iraq. This need not require transforming
Iraq into a shining city on a hill. It does mean making it a
functioning country. Elections will have to be held as
scheduled, and the training of Iraqi security forces
accelerated. It may be both desirable and necessary to
increase American troop levels in the run-up to January's
elections, coupling any such increases with an announcement
that reductions would follow the vote. America would also be
wise to declare publicly its lack of interest in holding on
to any bases in Iraq once its troops depart. To be avoided
are an arbitrary exit date that would require forces to
leave without establishing relative stability, and any
appearance that the United States is being driven out of
Iraq as it was out of Somalia.
Engage North Korea and Iran. The United States, with
others, should make comprehensive offers to both North Korea
and Iran. In both cases, the offer should include security
assurances and political and economic incentives in exchange
for giving up nuclear ambitions. It should also indicate the
price to be paid if the world's concerns are not satisfied.
Two other good ideas: accelerate efforts to secure Russia's
“loose nukes”, and get the nuclear haves to agree that no
other country should be able to gain access to nuclear fuel
which could be used as, or in, a weapon.
Revive Middle East peace efforts. Making sure that an
Israeli withdrawal from Gaza goes ahead and leaves something
stable in its wake will require American, European and
Egyptian collaboration. Ensuring that diplomacy begins
rather than ends with Gaza will require America to speak out
about where peace efforts should lead, and show greater
commitment to getting there. Appointing a senior envoy who
clearly enjoys White House backing would be a start.
Prevent a Taiwan crisis. This means continued
pressure on Taiwan's leaders not to go too far, along with
continued warnings to China's leaders to pursue their goals
peacefully. Both should be left in no doubt that they would
not benefit from a crisis of their own making.
Drive Doha. A new WTO
agreement would be a boon for both America's economy and the
world's. America should set an example by eliminating all
its remaining subsidies, quotas and tariffs.
Help Darfur. America should make intelligence,
logistics, training and equipment available to the African
Union, and push for targeted sanctions against Sudan's
Repair transatlantic ties. Further continental
drifting apart will serve neither America's nor Europe's
interests. Alas, there is no quick fix available. Europeans
(read French and Germans or, better yet,
NATO) must find some way to help meaningfully in
Iraq; a failure there would do them as little good as it
would the rest of the civilised world.
Stay the course on terrorism. Continue to go after
terrorists and frustrate their recruitment efforts, but also
keep investing in homeland security. Lowering America's
profile in Iraq will help, as will raising it on the
Palestinian issue. The United States should also stick with
efforts to promote political, economic and education reform
in the Arab world.
Get your house in order. The United States will not
remain a great power for long if the economic foundation of
its power erodes. It must rein in domestic spending,
including tackling entitlements. America must also develop a
serious and responsible energy policy. The only debate
needed is over the right mix of mandated efficiency
improvements, investment in alternative fuels and (get the
children out of the room) new taxes.
All these challenges will add up to a more restrained
America. New wars of choice are less likely; Mr Bush will
have his hands full. Many around the world will no doubt
welcome this. But they should be careful what they wish for.
The world is a very dangerous place and, unlike the economic
marketplace, there is no invisible hand making sure all
turns out for the best. As Mr Bush well knows, only the
United States can fulfil this role.