The world in 2394 words

I spoke this afternoon at the 10th Summer School for Young Diplomats in Kolasin, Montenegro. Here are the speaking notes I prepared on “Global Security Challenges: New Developments and Future Trends.”


  1. It’s a pleasure to be here, especially in these beautiful mountains. While I’ve been to Montenegro a few times in the past, this is my first visit since it became a NATO ally. That betokens enormous progress. I can only wish all your countries as much success as Montenegro has had over the past twenty years or so.
  1. That teaches an important lesson in international affairs: if you keep going in the right direction, you will eventually get there.
  1. I’ve been asked to talk about geopolitical challenges. I’ve got my own ideas about what they are, but I’d like your ideas as well. So let me ask you to write one on each stickie—no more than a phrase is needed.
  1. My own list of current geopolitical challenges from a Washington perspective is this: the United States, the Middle East, Islamist extremism, Russia, and China as well as nuclear nonproliferation and climate change. That should keep us busy for the next hour and a half.


  1. First Washington. It is a geopolitical challenge for many countries, because of its global political and economic influence, its enormous capacity for power projection and because of its still ongoing political transition.
  1. Many of you will wonder how the new Administration will affect your country’s interests. I can’t hope to cover the entire world, but let me say a few things that may help you to work out the implications for your own country.
  1. President Trump was elected on an explicit promise to “make America great again,” which implies greater attention to American interests in dealing with the rest of the world.
  1. It also implies reduced attention to American values, especially democracy and human rights. The Administration appears to be applying a double standard: if you are America’s friend, you need not fear Washington will criticize your internal political behavior.
  1. Presidents Erdogan, Sisi, and Duterte can testify to that, as can Kings Salman of Saudi Arabia and Abdullah of Jordan.
  1. But if you are President Castro of Cuba or Supreme Leader Khamenei, you can anticipate sharp rebukes from the U.S., and possibly sanctions or other restrictive measures.
  1. The new Administration has also prioritized the use of military instruments over diplomacy and international aid. While its budget proposal was dead on arrival in Congress, where at least some aspects of diplomacy and aid have strong supporters, you can still expect less diplomacy and less money.
  1. The only exceptions to this rule so far have been North Korea, where the conventional artillery threat to Seoul and much of South Korea makes American military action unlikely, and the Middle East, where the president has committed his son-in-law and two of his personal lawyers to negotiating peace. I don’t know anyone in Washington who thinks they will be successful, but they may make some progress on confidence-building measures. I’ll return to North Korea later.

Middle East

  1. As I am already wandering into the Middle East, let me go there. It has been clear for some time, though few will say it out loud, that American interests there are declining. We need less oil from the Middle East while other countries are taking more, the top non-proliferation issue there is under control for a decade or more, and our allies there want military assistance but not much more.
  1. By far the most important interest the U.S. has today in the Middle East is terrorism. The current Administration wants to deal with it as a military problem: the objective is to kill Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and get out.
  1. This was precisely the approach intended by George W. Bush in Afghanistan: kill Al Qaeda and get out. It failed because we couldn’t find all of Al Qaeda. The President changed his mind because we were sure it would return if we left.
  1. In Syria, this approach faces the same difficulty, as it virtually guarantees that there will be a continuing Sunni insurgency, not to mention its metastases elsewhere in the world.
  1. That’s where all of you come in: with ISIS on the verge of defeat in Iraq and Syria, it is not attracting so many foreign fighters, who were the focus of much attention in recent years. Nor is the question of terrorist financing as important as once it was.
  1. The bigger issue is now home-grown terrorism, perhaps inspired or encouraged by fighters returning from Iraq or Syria. In the Balkans, for example, I would now regard this as a big problem, as it is in Europe and the U.S. as well.
  1. There are two important strategies in dealing with homegrown terrorism: making sure that people are not marginalized but rather have a stake in their own governance and society; and not overreacting to terrorist threats or attacks, as overreaction is precisely what they intend to provoke.
  1. Right-wing terrorism kills more Americans than Islamic extremism, even counting 9/11.
  1. We need to avoid the kind of overreaction that the Administration’s travel ban on 6 Muslim countries represents.


  1. In the Middle East, the Americans will focus next on the Iranian threat.
  1. That threat is real. Iran has vastly expanded its influence in the region, not so much because of the nuclear agreement but rather due to its support for proxy forces, which long predates the nuclear deal: Hizbollah in Syria as well as Lebanon, Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine.
  1. The reaction, led by the Saudis, has also been vigorous, making much of the Middle East a battleground for sectarian conflict and even splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar just won’t give up the good relations with Iran that enable both countries to exploit the largest natural gas field in the Middle East.
  1. Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood leadership has chosen to side with Qatar and Iran, undermining the American effort to construct an anti-Iran alliance that includes the majority Sunni states of the Middle East as well as Israel.
  1. To sum up on Iran: it has gained a lot of ground in recent years, not least due to the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the civil wars it has exploited in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The Americans have not yet figured out what they want to do about it, though my best guess is that they will in due course want to confront Iranian ambitions.


  1. Russia is another geopolitical challenge, not only in the Middle East.
  1. Putin’s Russia is using all the instruments of national power at its disposal to challenge the Americans and re-assert its status as a superpower, except for a direct force-on-force military clash that Moscow knows it would lose.
  1. The Russians are sending ships and planes to provoke NATO allies and sympathetic neutrals, they have invaded Ukraine with only a thin veneer of deniability, they are bombing Syrian moderate opposition, they are selling weapons to Egypt, supporting General Haftar in Libya, and using Sputnik News and Russia Today as propaganda tools.
  1. They are also interfering in elections, conducting cyberattacks, and plotting and conducting assassinations.
  1. None of this has provoked much reaction yet from either the Americans or Europeans, apart from Ukraine-related sanctions and a few tit-for-tat aircraft incidents.
  1. Inexplicably to me, Putin has a lot of admirers in the US, especially among the Republicans and certainly in the Trump Administration, which has made no secret of its desire to get along better with Moscow.
  1. We’ll have to wait and see what comes of the first Trump/Putin meeting on the margins of the G20 Summit tomorrow and Saturday in Hamburg.
  1. The American receptiveness to Putin may surprise many of you. It surprises me. I can’t really explain it in conventional national interest terms.
  1. I think it is related to ethnic nationalism: Trump is what we are calling these days “white nationalist”; Putin is a Russian nationalist. The two admire each other.
  1. But Russia is a declining regional power with an economy no larger than Spain’s and based largely on energy resources whose value has declined dramatically. It’s only real international capability is to make life difficult for people who want to run serious democracies.
  1. We are going to need to learn to live with that, responding to it in ways that block the worst consequences and nudge Moscow in more productive directions, but at the same time not accepting the Russian claim to superpower status.


  1. The more serious geopolitical challenge over the long term is not from Russia but rather from China.
  1. On the one hand, China is a rising power with hegemonic objectives in East Asia, where the U.S. has been an important factor for stability even as Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia have become thriving democracies.
  1. The Chinese model of autocratic economic liberalization under single-party rule clearly has an appeal in many parts of the world.
  1. And China’s rapid growth has provided it with resources that have enabled extraordinary success in military modernization and power projection, with particular emphasis on what Americans call “antiaccess/area denial” and on the South China Sea.
  1. So China’s rise, which the U.S. facilitated for most of the past three decades, now poses a military challenge, which the U.S. will have to meet without falling into the Thucydides trap by creating a security dilemma.
  1. This will require very careful management of relations with China and its East Asian neighbors.
  1. S. renunciation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a terrific mistake. It has left the economic field open to Beijing, which is doing its best to exploit the opportunity.
  1. But there is another risk from China: economic and demographic failure.
  1. This is what the Chinese authorities worry most about. They think China needs growth at 6% and above to meet popular expectations and maintain the authority of the Communist Party.
  1. That kind of rapid growth becomes less likely as Chinese capitalism and society age.
  1. No one has repealed the business cycle for China. It will inevitably face a recession, perhaps one associated with its vast and unaccountable internal debts.
  1. At the same time, the aging and impending shrinkage of the population also suggests continued growth at over 6% is unlikely.The rest of the world is going to get a big shock if—I might even say when—China’s growth fails.

Nuclear nonproliferation

  1. China’s emergence as a regional power is particularly important vis-à-vis North Korea, which is currently the world’s most pressing, but no only, nuclear proliferation issue.
  2. The Chinese have hesitated to squeeze Pyongyang too hard, for fear of collapsing the regime, creating a flood of Korean migrants, and ending up with a unified Korea allied with the U.S.
  3. The Americans hesitate to use force against Pyongyang because they fear retaliation against both the South Koreans (Seoul is within conventional artillery range of the North) and U.S. forces (if in fact the North has both nuclear weapons and the capacity to reach them).
  1. When you can’t use the military, sanctions are often your second best option, so the Americans have started sanctioning Chinese individuals and banks involved in trade with the North.
  1. We’ll have to wait and see how that works out.
  1. In the meanwhile, we need to be thinking hard about how we can continue to block nuclear proliferation to other countries.
  1. It has become a lot easier to make nuclear weapons, now that enrichment is generally done with centrifuges rather than gigantic diffusion plants. And the technical know-how is much more readily available than once it was.
  1. It is still a challenge to make nuclear weapons small and light enough to fit on missiles that travel thousands of miles, but even that has become easier with time.
  1. Missile delivery systems are not really needed. You could deliver a nuclear weapon to any port in Europe or the U.S. in a cargo freighter.
  1. The nuclear non-proliferation regime, like the prohibition on use of chemical weapons, is aging and fraying. We need to figure out how to shore it up and block not only North Korea but also other middle powers that will be tempted for nuclear weapons, especially in the Middle East once the Iran nuclear deal expires.
  1. That will require the U.S. to think hard about its own nuclear weapons: how many are really needed, and what we could get from others in exchange for limiting their numbers.
  1. The Trump Administration is definitely not inclined in that direction. Which means that for the next several years the burden will fall to other countries to carry the banner of non-proliferation.

Climate change

  1. The same is true for climate change.
  1. President Trump maintains that what he wants is a better deal with tighter limits on greenhouse gases for countries like China and India.
  1. I think we all know that isn’t going to happen, and he likely won’t even try.
  1. But climate change is still a generational issue, with much more dire implications in the long term.
  1. It is my hope that the rest of the world can hold onto the Paris agreement for the next few years.
  1. I have no doubt but that a future U.S. administration will again change course, realizing that our participation is vital and that further delay will only worsen the damage from climate change.


  1. I’ve taken you on a long tour d’horizon. What are the implications for your diplomatic careers, which I suppose might still run 20 or 30 years, if not more?
  1. The unipolar moment is over. The global role the U.S. played both during the Cold War and in its aftermath will not be as strong in the future.
  1. Other powers will be trying to rise both globally and regionally.
  1. This more multipolar world will face truly difficult challenges: terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, and climate change for sure.
  1. But they are not the only global challenges: migration, aging populations, automation, slowing economic growth, and state fragility will also be important.
  1. Our current regional and global institutions, mostly designed during World War II and in its aftermath, are not necessarily well-adapted to meet the needs of the multipolar world.
  1. Your challenge, if you wish to accept it, is to create new institutions and relationships that will preserve and enhance the quality of life on earth for the next hundred years.
  1. You’ve already started here in Kolasin. I wish you the best in continuing your efforts,


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