Expecting the Unexpected in America

DENVER – When the United States’ new president gets down to work in January 2017, some obvious foreign-policy issues will already be waiting – some more patiently than others. Some of these will be perennial problems in need of no introduction: North Korea and its nuclear ambitions, China and its global ambitions, Russia and its spiteful ambitions, and of course, the Middle East and its dysfunctional ambitions.

Often, however, the crises that greet a new president are not the ones anyone expects. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he expected to increase defense spending, deploy an anti-missile system, and dismantle several longstanding multilateral arms-control obligations. Instead, the administration faced issues that were completely unforeseen, including Afghanistan and Iraq, and that consumed it for the next eight years.

The same thing could happen again when the next administration takes office. A few possibilities stand out.

Start with Saudi Arabia. To anyone paying close attention to the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, especially the weakening of many of its key nation-states and the rise of extremist violence, a severe crisis in the Kingdom is no dark-horse candidate. Saudi Arabia has shown remarkable resilience in overcoming political weakness, often by using its considerable oil revenues to buy itself out of trouble and maintain a large royal family that has been an essential source of stability.