While President Obama devoted the first days of his presidency to the economic crisis he inherited from his predecessor, the rest of the world was waiting impatiently for his attention. At the conference of the Association of American Law Schools earlier this month, Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, Dean of Sacramento’s McGeorge School of Law and former counsel to the CIA (among other government positions she has held), delivered a well-considered address in which she ranked the ten most pressing international problem areas facing the new administration.
McGeorge (my professional home) is the law school of the University of the Pacific, but Dean Parker’s remarks were hardly limited to that part of the world. In fact, she sees challenges, if not trouble, looming for Barack Obama just about everywhere. Here is the list she provided the 6,000 or so law school professors and administrators who attended the conference in San Diego.
Dean Parker places Russia at the top of her list, citing that country’s economic resurgence (fueled by its oil reserves) and its obvious thirst for a return to co-equal status with the U.S. as a world power. China is a close second on the Dean’s list, largely due to its capacity to become an economic power over the balance of this century, if not much sooner, and because of its wealth of human resources, which can be both a blessing and a burden, but which, in either event, poses a threat to the West generally and to the United States in particular.
Afghanistan, Pakistan and India take up the three, four and five spots (in that order). Afghanistan, the Dean notes, is essentially ungoverned at present, despite six years of U.S. military presence/dominance in the country. But without a central government of any consequence, the country continues to be a land of distinctly independent communities where various forms of Islam may again provide sanctuary for terrorist camps, a la Al Qaeda.
Pakistan may well rank higher in the near future. In addition to currently serving as a principal base of operations for bin Laden’s organization, it may also be falling into ungoverned status months after the fall of Musharraf, whose iron-fisted control of the country has now been replaced with the presidency of Benazir Bhutto’s widower, who seems incapable of deterring the country’s radical elements from plotting the kind of terrorist attack on neighboring India that occurred last November.
India is the democratic version of China, with all the potential for economic dynamism or catastrophe, depending on how well the nation’s human resources can be contained and directed. With over 500 separate “castes” still seeking equality under the law, the potential for internal discord can never be ignored, nor can the fact that the country has a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, as does its potentially-belligerent neighbor.
Iran only ranks sixth on Dean Parker’s list, which is probably more an indication of how seriously she views the five countries she places ahead of it than a suggestion that the theocratic state is somehow mellowing with age. Iran still appears intent on gaining greater influence in the Middle East, both by maintaining a bellicose attitude towards Israel, by developing nuclear weapons, and by leveraging its abundant supply of oil reserves.
Iraq comes next, ranked this low in spite of the uncertain future for the fledgling democracy the U.S. military has imposed. Whether a withdrawal of American forces will lead to the long-anticipated civil war or allow the country to grow into a fully self-sustaining democratic beachhead for the rest of the region (or something in between) will determine where the country ranks on a future list.
The decline in natural resources and food supplies (a pairing that could easily be separated into two distinct threats) holds the eighth spot on the Dean’s list. As oil, coal and other non-renewable energy sources become scarcer and as food becomes harder to produce and distribute, political unrest is almost certain to increase, first in third world countries, then in emerging nations with over-population issues, and, finally, in industrialized societies with sizeable rural and inner-city under-classes .
The current world-wide financial crisis comes in ninth on this list. It could easily get worse, but with a country like Iceland already on the verge of bankruptcy, it is probably already bad enough. A country going bankrupt, even a small one, cannot speak well for the global economy in a world that is ever-more interconnected and interdependent.
Dean Parker closed her list with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which remains unresolved, even if the immediate military action taken by Israel in response to the missile attacks launched from Gaza has been halted (temporarily, at least). But this hotbed of unrest has been recognized as a major trouble spot for over 40 years, (actually, since Israel gained statehood in 1948) and it will continue to be one, at least until a legitimate two-state solution can be achieved.
The Dean then noted some “honorable mentions” that certainly require the new president’s attention nearly as much as the ten that made her list. Leading this group is North Korea, which, despite some flickering indications of a softening of its defiance and belligerence, continues to be a threat to the nations in the region.
The Dean also expressed concern for the growing incidence of piracy by Somalia-based renegade vessels; the ill-governed nation of Zimbabwe, now racked with a plague of cholera in addition to the dictatorial rule of Robert Mugabe; the ongoing starvation and probable genocide in Darfur; the question of Cuba after Castro; the growing corruption (much of it drug-related) in Mexico; the upstart and un-American regime of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez; and the constitutional crisis currently gripping Thailand.
To this list she could easily have added perhaps a dozen other troubling areas of concern on the international scene, but, either because of time constraints or because the Dean did not want to alarm her audience any further, she stopped at that point.
No matter. However long the list could have been, the message was clear: President Obama needs to focus as much energy on the world scene as he is devoting to the domestic economic crisis.