1. War with Iran -- and a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East
The easiest war to avoid may be the one everyone sees coming. But in the case of conflict with Iran, it will not be so simple. In the first instance, to stop Iranian weapons development will require a more credible threat of military action from powers capable of derailing the program than currently exists. Next, while there are sensible arguments that suggest Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is not only unavoidable but may not be disastrous given our deterrent capacity, the bigger risk is not from Iran but from a world in which Iran's rivals across the Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, to others in the region and emerging powers elsewhere around the world enter a nuclear arms race. Such a race would both geometrically increase the likelihood such weapons might be used but it would also sap precious resources from struggling economies that would better spend them elsewhere. It will take toughness with Iran and a recommitment to a new, more effective global nonproliferation regime as a top priority to avoid all those traps.
2. Regional Conflagration in the Middle East
The Greater Middle East has not been more dangerous since the darkest days of the Cold War. Today instability from Tunisia to Pakistan means there's a real possibility of crises spreading rapidly -- and connecting up with each other. Syria, already now a proxy conflict between Iran on the one side and various Gulf states on the other, is one such example. But imagine the consequences of a collapsing regime in Jordan or, even more likely, of what the coming reckoning in a fractured Iraq will look like. The next U.S. administration will be tempted to lean back and indeed, must embrace solutions led by regional actors more than ever before. But as with Iran, it will take vastly more effective use of formal and informal global mechanisms to keep a lid on this region.
3. Escalating U.S. Involvement in an Unraveling Africa
Africa is the new Middle East. It is rich with resources, unstable, and targeted by insurgents, extremists, and major powers for both these reasons. Civil wars, corruption, historic instability, Islamic extremists, humanitarian crises, more active U.S. and European military presences, and rising stakes for China and other emerging powers have created a volatile situation that could gradually escalate into the world's newest quagmire. Will the next U.S. president be sucked into the trap of incremental escalation like the that led to the Vietnam War?
4. The Next 9/11
Among those who have done the most with the least credit are those up and down the U.S. chain of command who have forestalled terror attacks. Since 9/11, the record of protecting the homeland and Americans around the world has been admirable. But the next president will have to do that, and then some: by avoiding another 9/11, I mean something more than confounding the plots of terrorists. I mean avoiding events that suck America into the orgy of political hysteria, government spending, and violating our own most cherished principles that marked our "war on terror." It is not enough simply to neutralize terrorists. We need to ensure that we regain the perspective that allows us to respond to threats proportionally and in ways that do not damage our standing in the world or ability to lead. (Note: Waves of drone attacks, cyber incursions, and special ops only meet the first half of this guideline.)
5. A Trade War with China
With sluggish economies in the United States and China and both countries engaging in artificial devaluation of their currencies, it's easy to imagine scenarios that lead to conflict as blame-shifting escalates and populist impulses rule. That's especially the case given that China through subsidies and other unfair practices has yet to start playing by the international trade rules it accepted over a decade ago. But confrontation could easily get out of hand, threaten China's new leadership, and deteriorate into a real trade war. Not only is this economically unhealthy for the world's two largest (and very interdependent) economies but it would be diplomatically devastating since many of the biggest problems require a kind of cooperation between the two sides we have seldom seen before.
6. A U.S. Fiscal Catastrophe
The "fiscal cliff" is only the first among many huge challenges associated with getting America's financial house in order. Failing to address these could further undercut America's credit rating, our ability to invest in our future or protect ourselves, and even lead to default. Neither the world economy nor our own can withstand more of the kind of brinksmanship and denial practiced by Washington in the past decade. Tax increases and spending cuts in programs beloved by both political parties in America are absolutely essential to beginning a trajectory of improvement in this critical area.