The United States finds itself confronting several daunting challenges simultaneously. There is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already claimed nearly 120,000 lives and shows little sign of abating in large swaths of the country. The economic impact has been devastating, with some 40 million currently out of work and the Federal Reserve projecting that many of them will remain unemployed for a prolonged period.
On top of all this is the explosion of protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year old African-American man, at the hands – more precisely, the knee – of a policeman in Minneapolis. The protests, which have spanned the country, highlighted not just the enduring problem of deep-seated racism in the U.S., but also of police behavior, which all too often is violent and outside the law that those wearing uniforms have sworn to uphold.
It comes as no surprise that the American public and their elected officials have focused their energies on these domestic challenges. The problem is that much is happening in the world that calls out for American attention and is not getting it.
Worse, what attention U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is giving the world is mostly the wrong kind: threatening to withdraw nearly a third of U.S. armed forces stationed in Germany and all in Afghanistan, and announcing America’s departure from the World Health Organization and the Open Skies Treaty. The result is heightened concern among America’s allies about its reliability – and quite possibly increased vulnerability to adventurism by U.S. rivals and foes.
Meanwhile, several problems around the world are growing worse, fast. Last month, China’s legislature rubber-stamped a security law for Hong Kong that spells the end of the “one country, two systems” arrangement that China accepted when it regained sovereignty in 1997. A harsh crackdown on the former British colony seems to be only a matter of time. China has also been acting assertively along its contested border with India and using sharper rhetoric about Taiwan.
Moreover, North Korea just announced that it will cut all lines of communication – including military hotlines – with South Korea, raising new questions about stability along the world’s most heavily armed border. The country followed this up with a statement dismissing diplomacy with the United States and vowing instead to increase its nuclear arsenal. The bottom line is that North Korea boasts more nuclear weapons and more (and improved) ballistic missiles than it did before the summits between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Iran is once again becoming a nuclear concern as well. The International Atomic Energy Agency just reported that it has refused to cooperate with inspectors probing reports of unaccounted-for nuclear material.
Meanwhile, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, while still at a level of purity far below what is needed for weapons, has increased by 50% in the past few months. The country now holds some seven times the amount permitted under the 2015 nuclear accord it signed with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany, and the European Union. This means that the world would have far less time to react were it to discover Iran was racing to complete a small arsenal of nuclear weapons and present its new status as a fait accompli.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, there is a high chance that Israel, with American encouragement and support, will annex parts of the West Bank. Doing so could end whatever slim hope for a Palestinian state still exists. Annexation could also undermine stability in Jordan and the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. And it could jeopardize Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state; Israel can have one or the other, but not both, if it proceeds with annexation.
Heightened conflict is not the only risk the world is facing. Brazil has emerged as a major obstacle to combating climate change, which could well become the defining international challenge of this century. Under President Jair Bolsonaro, destruction of the Amazon rainforest is accelerating. This matters because the rainforest absorbs a significant amount of the world’s carbon dioxide and influences global weather patterns; as it is cut down or burned, the pace of climate change will increase, harming the planet and all living on it.
Brazil’s irresponsibility is to some extent a byproduct of the country’s domestic turmoil, owing to a fast-growing COVID-19 outbreak and populist politics. Alas, it is not unique. The pandemic is also raging in Mexico, Iran, Egypt, Russia, and Bangladesh, reflecting inadequate public health systems, poor leadership, or both.
Fortunately, the news is not all bad. Perhaps the most promising development is in Europe, where the European Commission and the European Central Bank, with the backing of France and Germany, are taking steps to help countries ravaged by the pandemic navigate the resulting economic crisis and recover. It is a welcome sign that in the wake of Brexit, the European Union is showing renewed relevance and determination to make a difference.
But this positive development is the exception that proves the rule. Against a backdrop of deteriorating relations between the U.S. and both China and Russia, a host of regional and global challenges are growing. America is less able and willing to address them, its partners and allies lack the power to do so on their own, and China offers a model and an agenda that few find appealing. One can only hope that the U.S. sorts itself out sooner rather than later. History has no pause button.