Foreign adversaries present challenges — but the US is not vulnerable

Foreign adversaries present challenges — but the US is not vulnerable
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There are some who believe the United States — a liberal democracy with a rule of law that obliges the government and the people to abide by the law — should be concerned that illiberal autocratic countries may try to sow discord and exploit the U.S. during the presidential transition period. 

As we transition from the Nov. 3 election to the inauguration of the 46th president on Jan. 20, 2021, certain countries and illicit groups may be emboldened to take actions inimical to U.S. interests. This transition period, currently tense with litigation in a few states, will require greater diligence and leadership as the elected president prepares his team for four years of governance that will mean dealing with a multitude of complex domestic and international issues. 

The 10-week transition period should not be viewed by foreign adversaries as one of vulnerability for the United States. Instead, it’s a period of strength and rejuvenation, a time to reflect on the accomplishments and challenges of the past four years and the domestic and foreign issues that require immediate attention. It’s also a commentary on a vibrant democracy that protects and cherishes the will of the people through a fair and legal electoral process.


So, a message to those countries and groups that may think the U.S. is too preoccupied to care about their threatening behavior during this period: You’re wrong. The U.S. will never cease caring about peace and security for the U.S. and its allies and partners, and the inalienable human rights of all people. It will always confront and deal with aggressor nation-states and terrorist organizations.

The international challenges for the 46th president are formidable. Of priority is dealing with China on a myriad of issues, including trade and investment concerns that historically have benefited China. The trade deficit has not improved while waiting for China to implement phase one of the recent trade agreement that obliges China to purchase $200 billion of agricultural and other goods and services this year and next. Protecting U.S. intellectual property and China’s unreasonable technology transfer policies will continue to be addressed in trade negotiations that, if managed properly, could lead to greater U.S. investment in China.

Equally important, China’s militarization of islands and atolls in the South China Sea could affect freedom of navigation and more than $3 billion of global trade. China refuses to comply with a United Nations tribunal’s 2016 ruling that China has “no historical rights,” based on China’s “nine-dash line,” to ownership of these strategic islands and reefs in the South China Sea. China’s recent moves in the South and East China seas have become progressively more threatening.

China’s “re-education camps” in Xinjiang for more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims, and its June 2020 national security law that undermines the autonomy of Hong Kong, guaranteed by the 1984 joint declaration between China and the United Kingdom, are two recent human rights abuses that have moved the United States, and others, to condemn China and impose sanctions.

Despite two leadership summits and one demilitarized zone meeting between President TrumpDonald TrumpHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Man arrested for allegedly threatening to stab undercover Asian officer in NYC Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech MORE and North Korean leader Kim Jung Un in 2018 and 2019, the North continues to produce fissile material and increase its nuclear weapons stockpile, assessed to be between 20 and 60 weapons.  Concurrently, the North continues to enhance its ballistic missile capabilities, with the launch of two intercontinental ballistic missiles — the Hwasong 14 and 15 — in 2017 and the October 2020 display of a monstrous, road-mobile ICBM, capable of targeting the whole of the U.S., with an assessed ability to deliver multiple nuclear warheads. Additionally, North Korea is believed to be perfecting its submarine-launched ballistic missiles and its long-range multiple rocket launcher capabilities.


Dealing with a revanchist Russian Federation and negotiations for a new nuclear arms treaty, when the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expires on Feb. 5, 2021, will require considerable time and effort of the next U.S. administration, given the importance and complexity of these issues.

Iran, a state sponsor of terrorism that has pursued a secret nuclear weapons program, is another country requiring close attention. Iran may be willing to entertain a U.S. request to renegotiate a nuclear deal to replace the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from which the U.S. withdrew in May 2018. What’s unlikely is that Iran would cease its support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and its use of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Command to support militia forces in Iraq and Syria and the Houthis in Yemen.

These are a few of the foreign affairs challenges the new administration will face beginning in January 2021. And these are just a few of the countries that may view this presidential transition period as an opportunity to test U.S. resolve. But make no mistake, it would be misguided for them to pursue policies and operations that are inimical to U.S. interests.  

Joseph R. DeTrani was a special envoy for negotiations with North Korea and director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views expressed here are his and do not imply endorsement of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or any other government agency.