3 major foreign policy challenges facing the next U.S. president

By Kim Nilsen

Former U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns
Former US diplomat Nicholas Burns, in a speech to the AICPA’s governing Council, highlighted some of the complexities that the winner of the presidential election will face abroad. (Photo by Alex Della Gatta/AP Images)

There is one certainty in this tumultuous election season—the next U.S. president faces serious challenges.

Former U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns has described the landscape facing either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as one marked by the most dangerous set of international crises since World War II. In a speech in Orlando on Sunday to the AICPA governing Council, Burns, a former ambassador to NATO, highlighted what he sees as the three most pressing foreign policy challenges the next president will face.

1. Seeking stable ground in Europe. The next president will spend a lot of time on Europe, Burns said. The European Union, the United States’ largest trade partner and the home of the largest number of American allies, has shifted from predictable and stable to dramatically weakening under the strain of economic stagnation and political volatility. There’s pushback against the regulation that emanates from Brussels; the U.K.’s decision to separate from the EU; and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Georgia and Crimea, actions Burns said are redividing Europe.  

2. Navigating volatility in the Middle East. Burns anticipates that much of the region will remain unstable for the next generation. The region is home to four failed states (Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria) and crises such as the civil war in Syria have left millions homeless while creating quandaries for U.S. officials about what role to play in settling the conflict.

3. Charting a course with China: “China’s going to be the big preoccupation,” Burns said in an interview at the Council meeting. “We’re the two largest economies—so it will be up to us to stabilize the global economy together. … But on the other hand, China and the United States are going to compete for military power in Asia, because we’re the predominant power, have been since the end of the second World War, and China is definitely pushing back against us right now. So how to handle a country that is our strongest partner and strongest competitor for military power is going to be a big challenge for us.”

His list of foreign policy challenges facing whomever becomes the next president doesn’t stop with Europe, the Middle East, and China. In his speech on Sunday, he listed a number of what he calls transnational issues that will require broad coalitions to combat: among them, pandemics, terrorism, crime networks, human trafficking, and cyberattacks.

“We’re living in an age where cybersecurity has become paramount,” Burns said, just days after a major distributed denial of service attack disrupted many major websites. He views cyberattacks as the fastest growing threat to American business and national security. “If you think about the importance of safeguarding our electrical grid, water supplies, or our GPS satellites that guide the military, we’ve got to protect our online security.”

Burns also said he hopes that once the election has passed, the nation will rebuild its support for trade. “So many of our jobs now depend on trade, and we should have, I think, the self-confidence as the leading trade country in the world to believe that, while we’ve got to be on guard and we certainly don’t want to see American jobs exported overseas, we’ve got to be open to trade.”

Once a new president is in office and Congress returns to Washington, Burns hopes to see more clarity about regulation and some efforts to simplify the U.S. tax code. Those changes could allow corporate America to make longer-term plans and investments, he said.  

One area of investment that Burns has found encouraging is the commitment he sees top companies making to developing the skills of their employees.

“… A lot of the best companies are investing and reinvesting continually in their own people,” he said. That’s money well spent, he argued, as the increasingly global economy will demand a certain amount of dexterity from business leaders. “As the years go on, particularly for our kids and grandchildren, they’re going to have to be even more integrated and sophisticated about the world,” Burns said. That means being comfortable in an international environment. “You can’t really be an effective CEO or CFO of an American corporation these days if you’re not comfortable in Delhi or Shanghai or Berlin.” 

About Nicholas Burns: He teaches diplomacy and international relations at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. His 27 years of U.S. government service included work under Republican and Democratic administrations. Burns was under secretary of State for political affairs from 2005 to 2008 under President George W. Bush. He worked on the National Security Council at the White House under presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. He is advising Hillary Clinton’s campaign on foreign policy issues.

Kim Nilsen (knilsen@aicpa.org) is the JofA’s publisher.

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