American voters face a dizzying array of 2016 presidential candidates — 21 at last count. Their positions on economic issues likely will command voters’ greatest interest. Historically, unless the country is at war, foreign policy has not been an issue of great interest during presidential elections. But this time may be different as two critical issues weigh on the minds of many Americans.

First, the world seems beset with a disquieting assortment of serious crises: ISIS and other Islamic terrorist movements in the Middle East, streaming refugees into Europe, menacing Russian behavior in Eastern Europe, an aggressive Iran in the Middle East, the state of the global economy post-2008 crash, uncertainty over climate change, and a rising and potentially hostile China. The list goes on.

Amidst all these challenges, equally important for Americans is their nation’s continued role as the world’s lone superpower and principal advocate for peace and stability in the world. The feeling has grown among many that America may be becoming powerless, unwilling or just unable to address many of these problems.

In at least five specific areas, that role is in question. Each candidate for the most powerful position on earth must be prepared to explain to American voters how he or she will address these challenges.

Maintaining European Integrity and Stability

The first great challenge is Europe’s growing tendency to look inward and ignore the problems of its neighbors or elsewhere. The EU and NATO were created to exorcize not only the demons of two world wars on the European continent but also centuries of nearly equally violent conflicts and the instability they wrought. Both institutions are severely challenged at the moment and neither Europe nor the US seems to be effectively addressing either.

We see examples of this in the EU’s fitful handling of the economic crisis in Greece, slow and conflicted response to the refugee crisis, and perhaps most acutely in its failure to respond firmly to Russia’s aggressive recidivism in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The Russian challenge is twofold: the territorial integrity and sovereignty of a European state and the fundamental cohesion of NATO, which Russian President Putin seeks to disrupt if not destroy.

Too consumed by individual fears of economic weakness, loss of their own relatively comfortable conditions or doubts about provoking an even more aggressive Russia, many European governments have withdrawn, adhering to economically ideological principles to avoid or escape a Greek economic collapse and potential unravelling of the Eurozone and doing the bear minimum to keep Russia at bay.

The schizophrenic response of EU states to the refugees flooding into the continent – some embracing them and others barricading borders – raises questions about deep-seated European attitudes about race that many thought had been purged after World War II and the post-war experience.

As a non-EU member, America’s role in the Greek and refugee crises and others to potentially follow must be one of a passionate advocate. As the prime sponsor of the world’s most vital economic-stabilizing institutions, e.g., the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, the US must actively prod, cajole and advise Europe to resolve its current challenges. The reasons are many but, simply put, a languid economy in Europe and divisiveness among the European states will mean depressed economic performance in the US and greater insecurity for the trans-Atlantic community.

Equally critical, the US must find a way to stiffen Europe’s, i.e., NATO’s, resolve. European security has not faced a significant threat since the Balkan crisis of the early 1990s. But even that disaster cannot compare with the threat now faced in Moscow’s efforts to out-muscle NATO on its eastern borders. Emboldened by his success in Crimea and established position in eastern Ukraine, Russian President Putin is seeking to divide NATO and ultimately weaken American influence and power in Europe.

While America has its own well-known moral demons to contend with, it should not be shy about reminding Europe of the moral imperative that all western nations should strive to meet. No superpower – and certainly none that professes the high-minded values of the US – should ever shy from speaking aloud on behalf of humanity and human dignity.

The questions for America’s presidential candidates is simple: what is your perception of the challenge and what are you prepared to do to maintain the strength and integrity of America’s most important alliance and the countries that comprise it?

Returning Stability to the Middle East

The problems of the Middle East are many. After two long and costly wars in that region, Americans are no longer convinced that (a) our interests there are sufficiently important any longer, especially given the rise in domestic oil and gas production and concomitant fall in prices, or that (b) the US has or should play a role in that conflicted region’s many crises.

So, the second foreign policy challenge for the candidates is to make the case to Americans that the region is of vital strategic importance and that because of those interests and of the inestimable sacrifices of so many Americans over the last decade, the US must continue to play a leading role in helping the region to resolve its problems.

Americans have no interest in seeing US troops return to the region.

Part “b” of that question will be difficult. Americans have no interest in seeing US troops return to the region. In truth, resolution of most of the problems does not reside in major use of US forces as was done in Iraq. So, candidates must articulate how they will convince the leaders and governments of the region to take ownership of their problems, e.g., chronically lackluster economies, rising unemployment, sectarianism, antiquated education and healthcare systems, corruption, spiraling environmental problems, etc. The US must be an advocate, cajoler, honest confidant, gambler, facilitator, guide and, most of all, an unflinching ally, prepared to back up our words with action when circumstances warrant. What America cannot be is a bystander, vacillator or, worst of all, fatalist.

Syria, Libya, Yemen, Islamist extremism, Iran, Arab-Israeli peace, Iraq, Lebanon, refugees and the humanitarian crises created by these conflicts are the most visible problems. Sunni-Shia and other ethnic and tribal tensions underlie many of those problems. The US cannot nor should not solve all or necessarily any one of these. But in each case, the US has a significant and often leading role to play. The candidates must be able to articulate clearly how the US will exercise that role and justify it in view of the important American interests at stake and those of its allies.

Confronting the Iranian Challenge

Iran poses challenges on several fronts. First, even with the agreement between the world powers, aka, the P5+1, and Iran on the latter’s nuclear program, it must remembered that Iran in the past has been a serial offender of such accords. In the event of an Iranian violation, other powers may waffle in order to avoid conflict or the possible unravelling of the agreement. The US cannot. It must remain firm on full and unqualified compliance on Iran’s part and be prepared to marshal all tools to ensure it does and that Iran never acquires nuclear weapons. To fail to do so would invite a “nuclearized” Middle East, i.e., a region with several nuclear-armed states and none with the command and control mechanisms that have kept American and Russian nuclear-tipped missiles in their siloes since the 1950s.

From the Supreme Leader on down his compliant chain of command, the Iranian leadership remains unyielding in its antipathy toward the US, Israel, and the West, though delighted to profit from new-found commercial ties with them. It openly supports in word and action the world’s most notorious and violent terrorist organizations, e.g., Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and even Al Qaida.

Its actions provoke greater instability and loss of life throughout the region: in Syria by backing the brutal Assad regime, in Yemen through support for the Houthi rebels, in the Sinai in fomenting unrest among tribes and funneling weapons to Gaza; and in Iraq by directing the Hezbollah-ization of that country through the Iraqi Shia militia. Simply stated, Iran is not behaving as a responsible member of the international community.

The P5+1 agreement with Iran, once implemented, will hand Tehran a financial windfall, providing more resources to continue the activities that undermine regional and global stability.

Each presidential candidate must be able to explain how his/her administration will enforce the new Iran deal effectively and confront Iran’s policy of supporting terrorism, whether by diplomacy or more coercive measures. But beyond the predictable rhetoric of wielding the big stick of coercion, each candidate should also be able to share how the US might also begin to encourage the Islamic state to move from belligerency and confrontation to integration into the international community as a responsible state. The latter may be a monumental task in diplomacy but it is one the world would expect of America as the globe’s hyperpower and strongest advocate for peace and stability.

Finally, Iran’s human rights record remains among the most abysmal in the world. It persecutes religious and ethnic minorities and imprisons, tortures and executes political dissidents. Press freedom is highly constrained as well. Tehran’s financial bonanza will only make the theocratic leadership more efficient in repressing these groups. US tools may be more limited in such internal matters but the candidates must be able to articulate their positions, especially if there is an effort to warm relations between the two countries. Voicing criticism will not be enough; polices that elicit good behavior will also be in order.

Keeping China’s Rise Peaceful

The next American president will need to employ an extraordinarily deft hand in managing America‘s relations with China. China is a rising power. As most assessments predict, it will become a global power with much greater economic and political clout. Its military power will undoubtedly increase as well.

The history of rising versus established powers in the world is not a good one. Most often, e.g., the Germanic tribes versus Rome, Arab Muslims versus the Byzantines, Nazi Germany versus a British-led Europe, etc., wars and protracted conflicts that sap both are the result. One contrary example was the handoff in power from the UK to the US after World War II. Britain had been drained by the war and was in no position to resume its global leadership perch. It also faced the same Soviet threat as did America. So, it used its special relationship with America to help it forge a Western alliance that went far beyond just Britain or even Europe and ushered America into its superpower role.

America must work hard to find a way to ensure that China’s rise does not come at its expense.

The US is not in the British position of post 1945. Nevertheless, as the recognized global power today, America must work hard to find a way to ensure that China’s rise does not come at its expense or that of others. Above all, the US must do its part to dispel the prediction of many that China and America must inevitably collide. Such a collision would cause irreparable harm to both countries. The two nations have never fought against one another and more often have been allies and sought to resolve peaceably their differences. Furthermore, a US-China conflict would have repercussions far beyond what might have resulted from an open US-Soviet conflict.

The probability of escalation in any rising versus established power is enormous. The slightest misstep or misunderstanding by one side can precipitate a conflict in which there might be no turning back. The human consequences of such a conflict are unthinkable.

Moreover, the global economy is so interconnected and interdependent that a confrontation between its two economic behemoths would have economic consequences far more severe than did WWII. International trade, finance, transportation and communication would be set back by decades, even assuming an amicable outcome to the confrontation.

Simply put, China and the United States must find a way to resolve their differences. Today, those are the South China Sea, cybersecurity, climate change, trade and finance, and human rights. There will be more as China advances toward superpower – indeed hyperpower – status.

America as the established power must convince China that it doesn’t intend to block China’s path toward great-power status. It would be fruitless to even try and beyond America’s capabilities. However, it must also convince China that it will need to play by certain internationally accepted rules. And if that may seem somewhat unfair to China, it must be made to understand that 2016 is not 1946 or even 1991. China’s rise must take place under the circumstances it faces now, not what it may perceive as the more favorable conditions America faced in 1946 or afterwards.

If the two powers can figure out a modus vivendi, however, the benefits to each and to the world will be inestimable. For example, the US assumed the mantle of the world’s largest economy toward the latter quarter of the 19th century, ushering in more than a century of US-led global economic growth, interrupted only by two world wars and its own Great Depression. America’s ever expanding population and economy served as the engine for global economic growth, providing countless export opportunities and technological innovation for nations around the world, most especially Europe.

No single nation has within its power the ability to address these transnational challenges.

Imagine what a China at peace with the world, a leader in good standing in the international community, and a population several orders of magnitude greater than America’s at the outset of the 20th century – and with increasing numbers of Chinese moving into its middle class – could do for global economic growth. China’s technological contributions would be equally substantial for global prosperity.

All that is predicated, however, on the US as the current leader, managing its relationship with China in a way that encourages, versus provokes, Beijing. This doesn’t mean kowtowing to China; even without open conflict, the US can do a great deal to hinder China’s advance, especially through the use of its still considerable political influence around the world.

So, each American presidential candidate must be asked, “What is your plan for interacting with China and ensuring that the US and China avoid conflict and develop a collaborative relationship to the benefit of all?”

Mobilize the International Community on Transnational Issues: Climate Change, Refugees and Human Trafficking

Humanity is beset with serious problems that require the collaborative effort of all nations. No single nation has within its power the ability to address these transnational challenges.

The first and most apparent of these is climate change. To date, the global response has been inadequate, largely due to the inability of several very large countries – specifically the US, China and India – to come to agreement but also to a lack of consensus on how to proceed between large and small, developing nations.

Climate scientists have established that the earth is warming, mostly due to human activity. But even if some dispute the cause, the effect is as clear as the need for action. Failure to act very soon may lead to catastrophic results, e.g., sea level rise and inundation of coastal cities, loss of vital agricultural areas, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, and the loss of critical animal and sea life habitat.

While willing to cooperate up to a point so far, America must now turn a new leaf and become a pro-active catalyst for global action. Soft-pedaling the matter or trying to manage the climate change deniers is simply no longer feasible and ultimately counterproductive. America must employ its celebrated abilities for innovation in policy and technology to lead the world in addressing this vexing problem. President Obama and several of his predecessors have taken useful but ultimately insufficient action. How will the next president galvanize America and the world in tackling this problem?

In The Spotlight

Europe’s current influx brings into sharp focus the world’s second major challenge, the refugee crisis. The Syrian civil war has produced nearly five million refugees and an equal number of internally displaced (IDPs). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates another nine or so million refugees, and a worldwide total “population of concern” of 42.8 million (includes refugees, IDPs, and stateless and other persons). That is more than the combined populations of the US states of California and Oregon.

Clearly, the problems of refugees must ultimately be dealt with at their source, i.e., the countries and the conditions that produce such persons. War, poverty and human rights abuses are the greatest causes but nations, to include the US, struggle to address such root causes. Meanwhile, what do we do?

Most often, refugees end up in neighboring countries, which also confront problems similar to those of the refugees’ home countries. As in the case of Syrian refugees, when such stressed neighbors are unable to cope, the refugees take extraordinary risks and flee to more prosperous and seemingly welcoming countries. But refugee settlement remains an unmet challenge for the world.

Failure to meet that challenge ultimately can produce a dependent population that is unable to “make it” in the host country and children deprived of educational, health and cultural opportunities necessary for proper development.

Where there are refugees or internally displaced persons, there is the attendant rise in human trafficking, the third transnational challenge. Traffickers prey upon the desperation of such people, exact huge sums of money and ultimately end up placing those trafficked in a state far worse than that of the most destitute refugee. Women and children are most prone to becoming trafficking victims.

Human trafficking is often termed a hidden crime because law enforcement and other authorities do not become aware of the victims, who themselves are unable to access the law or other government and non-government institutions for help. Despite the unseen nature of this crime, however, one estimate puts the number of persons trafficked worldwide between 21 and 30 million. That no doubt includes preyed-upon refugees and IDPs as well as, for example, young girls trafficked to become sex slaves in their own countries and non-UNHCR registered refugees forced into compulsory labor.

The underground nature of this global crime also obscures the profits raked in by its perpetrators. One International Labor Organization paper estimated that global profits made from forced laborers exploited by private enterprises or agents reach US$ 44.3 billion every year, of which US$ 31.6 billion came from trafficked victims. The largest profits - more than US$ 15 billion - are made from people trafficked and forced to work in industrialized countries. Such figures, however, should be treated with the utmost caution since the nature of the problem defies certainty or precise quantification.

What is certain is that this is a worldwide problem and likely to grow even worse without concerted action. Starting with the administration of George W. Bush in the early 2000s, America, one the larger receiving countries of victims of trafficking, began taking a pro-active position on the issue, passing stronger laws in the US and vigorously advocating for UN conventions to stop human trafficking. But as the numbers suggest, the problem persists.

American citizens have also responded commendably, establishing hundreds of local and state-wide organizations to aid victims and educate law enforcement and communities to the problem. It is time to take that effort global. Without the help and concerted action of local communities, who are best placed to recognize and report abuses, human trafficking will be with us for a very long time.

By leading such a worldwide effort, which is one less of money than of education and mobilization, America can help stem the human tragedy of trafficking and modern day slavery.

Which presidential candidate is prepared to come forward with ideas or even take on the problems of refugees and human trafficking? Americans should ask.


Gary Grappo
About The Author Gary Grappo
Gary Grappo, a former US ambassador with nearly 40 years of diplomatic and public policy experience, is CEO of Equilibrium International Consulting, providing analysis and policy guidance on foreign affairs to businesses, institutions and the media.

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