The four horsemen: Macro trends facing an uncertain America

The four horsemen: Macro trends facing an uncertain America
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The tragedy of the Middle East has exhausted America. In the run up to the 2020 Presidential elections, there is little appetite in U.S. domestic politics to commit further blood and treasure to a region which continues to be mired in conflict. As Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes noted in a recent Foreign Affairs article, the United States rests in a “Middle East Purgatory.” This Administration risks slipping from purgatory to neo-isolationism where Syria just represents “sand and death,” Yemen is a non-descript side story of mass human suffering, and the Administration adopts a foreign policy of benign neglect.

The binary choice between endless wars and neo-isolationism is a false dichotomy.

The rise of great power competition, transformational changes in finance and technology, ascendent national aspirations of regional actors, and the stress of climate change are America’s four foreign policy horsemen of the next generation.


The Administration can begin now to help shape the future in a manner which maximizes our security interests, advances our central values of human rights and democracy, minimizes our military footprint, and positions our nation to seize new, unanticipated  opportunities in the generations ahead. To begin, however, we must acknowledge four broad trends that will shape the world, and America’s position in it, over the next two decades.

First, the Administration is undervaluing its historical leadership role in the post-World War II era. The U.S. largely built the post-World War II institutions that served as the greatest force for peace and prosperity in history. These institutions — including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Nations, and the multilateral finance banks — have served as global shaping forces for more than 70 years. We are now witnessing the rise of a “new great game” with China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran vying for power, position, and markets throughout the Middle East, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as in the Horn of Africa.

Second, the decade ahead will be defined by disruptive technological changes, (particularly in artificial intelligence and big data analytics), rapid public and private capital flows (including increased financing from non-U.S. sources), the continued mass movement of people across borders and regions, and a shifting of markets and trade routes away from the dollar economy in favor of nation state challengers. It is an open question, for example, as to whether China or the U.S. will own the technology and finance futures. In fact, we may find a bipolar economic and technology world in the Middle East, Asia and Africa in the medium term as Chinese-American competition heats up for influence in global frontier markets.

Third, national aspirations particularly in the Gulf states and South Asia will result in unprecedented opportunity and serious inflection points for American foreign policy. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are rising regional powers with complementary and at times competing geo-political interests. Saudi Arabia has an ambitious economic vision for 2030 that will require a respect for human rights and consistent rule of law to actually implement. The United Arab Emirates seeks economic expansion and political influence as demonstrated specifically by its race to build regional seaports, boost trade partnerships, and create new markets. India maintains aspirations of a global blue water navy and technological ambitions which foster partnerships with junior tech powers like Israel to challenge America and China. Rising national aspirations, coupled with rapid technological and financial trends, will likely accelerate the Israel-Sunni bloc re-alignment in ways which will be exciting and unexpected in the U.S. The Palestinians, of course, will retain their drive for statehood. As long as this Administration continues to devalue Palestinian aspirations, any proposed peace plan will not have political traction and its likely failure will inhibit better regional cooperation.

Fourth, the stress of climate change will affect more than a billion people in South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa in ways which have been understated by most foreign policy analysts. For instance, recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research demonstrates that a combination of high temperature and high humidity, an index which is measured by a reading known as wet-bulb temperature, is inconsistent with human life. As MIT noted, at a wet-bulb temperature of 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit coupled with extreme humidity), the human body cannot cool itself enough to survive more than a few hours. Climate change stress will be a threat multiplier where a billion people compete for water, power, food and security in ways which may be unfathomable. While there has been unprecedented economic development in many frontier markets, the risks associated with climate change are not predictable and could be catastrophic to security and human development.

American foreign policy in the Middle East, South Asia and the Horn of Africa is essentially backward looking, defined substantially by September 11 and the War on Terror. Interestingly, great and regional powers are intent on shaping their destinies — with or without America. Given this forward-looking context of our competitors, the U.S. needs a bolder vision for the next generation. To successfully navigate this complex future, America must sharpen its operational agility, build — not devalue — alliances, and more effectively leverage public and private capital, technology and diplomatic talent to help solve the most pressing challenges of the next generation.

R. David Harden, managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and CEO of Soutkel Inc., served as an assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, and most recently oversaw U.S. assistance to Yemen before retiring in April 2018.