For Which It Stands: Worldview

As the U.S. Senate voiced its approval of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state on Wednesday, some attention shifted back to the foreign policy agenda of President Barack Obama's fledgling administration. 

A day earlier, the scene at the Presidential Inauguration cannot fail to have impressed, and in some cases, distressed those watching proceedings from foreign ministries and presidential palaces around the world. An estimated one million Americans of all walks of national life, many with their children, many having taken one of their notoriously scarce vacation days and risking their infamously expensive-to-maintain health against the chill of a winter's day, gathered to witness the investiture of an American president like none other.

Domestically, the hopes and expectations riding on Obama's stewardship have had a three-month fermentation period. Even still, Chateau Obama, vintage January 2009, is bound to be a bit raw now that it's been uncorked. Even the most experienced of politicians, taking office at the best of economic and geopolitical times, finds the first months – even years – something of a struggle.

The professional government — the permanent bureaucracy which endures regardless of the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – has had a busy three months. In Washington and across the United States, those not seeking direct employment from the new administration have spent a good deal of energy arguing that their particular cause — from family farms to inner city schools, medical research to climate change — is the fastest, greasiest skid down which to pour the billions of dollars in federal stimulus spending into the American economy. State governors, particularly among Democrats whose states plumped for Obama in November, have baked into their FY10 spending plans expected windfalls from the stimulus spending. Even the porn industry, in the form of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, is pleading its case.

Still, not everything costs money, and many of the expectations directed at Obama abroad hinge more on policy change rather than loose change from the U.S. Treasury. Here's a short tour of the horizon focusing on what other major international actors may be wishing or hoping for in the coming few months.

China: Stimulus is what China wants to see. While the very image of a minority elected to run the world's most powerful nation must bring discomfort to the ruling Communist Party, the economy is paramount in this relationship. China's ethnic Han minority runs the show in the world's most populous nation, and ethnic minorities often loom as problems (see: Tibet, Xinjaing) rather than assets.

Nonetheless, China and America are in a moment of classic geopolitical codependence; China's output needs American buyers, and American buyers need China to continue investing its profits in U.S. government bonds and other assets to finance the yawning deficits Washington has built up since the 1980s. China, then, expects stimulus — and lots of it. Obama appears ready to deliver.

Europe: The European Union, in nearly as dire economic straits as the U.S., would like to see a host of small changes in American policy. Fearful of being left out of the post-crash reordering of international financial institutions — where Europe stands to loose even more clout at places like the IMF than Washington — the EU wants pride of place at upcoming "Bretton Woods" style conferences, the next of which is slated for April.

Politically, Europe would like to see the United States get out of Iraq, an uncomfortable issue for the trans-Atlantic relationship, and wind down the commitment to Afghanistan, where NATO has proven unable to sustain a serious military expedition and Europe sees a military solution as being out of reach anyway.

Two further issues beckon: Europe hopes the Obama team will be more sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, and has hinted for several years now at the need to open some dialogue with Hamas if a solution is ever to be had there. And the Bush administration's plans to build a defensive missile shield based in Poland (with radars in the Czech Republic) irritates Russia, source of much of southern Europe's natural gas supplies. Though Washington has said the purpose of the shield is to protect Europe (including U.S. troops based there) from, say, an Iranian missile threat, European leaders generally see no EU dog in that fight, and would prefer the idea be dropped.

Iran: The consensus among American foreign policy analysts these days is that many of the problems of the "Greater Middle East," as opposed to simply the Arab-Israeli Middle East, can only be solved by speaking to Iran. Its nuclear weapons program, and its implications for Israel, will remain paramount. Obama repeatedly has promised to explore the idea of talks, and in his inaugural, without mentioning Iran by name, he said "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." This may or may not work, but most think it wise to try given the alternatives.

But Iran's influence regionally grew when U.S. troops removed Tehran's primary rival, Saddam Hussein. Tehran has armed and rearmed Hezbollah in Lebanon, and in spite of Sunni-Shiite animosity, the Sunnis of Hamas look to Iran for inspiration, funds, and missiles. Together, that virtually constitutes a veto on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Iran expects an early initiative, and Obama knows that. What no one knows is whether the prospect of normalized relations and a lifting of economic sanctions is enough to lure Iran toward a more cooperative international stance.

Afghanistan: The struggle against the Taliban masks a more significant challenge — strengthening President Hamid Karzai's central government enough so that his forces can exercise control over more than Kabul. Nearly seven years after the initial U.S.-led invasion, that goal appears far away. Karzai will be looking to Obama for reassurance that his plans to redeploy some departing American brigades from Iraq will be followed through, but also that a more comprehensive nonmilitary approach will be launched. Another item on the Afghan wishlist: an end to American air strikes, which had a particularly poor record last year of causing civilian casualties.

Iraq: Many wonder if Obama can hold roughly to the timetable of pulling out U.S. forces within 16 months, and that will depend in large measure on forces beyond his control. By now, the world understands the relative improvements in violence levels in Iraq were more than just a "surge" in U.S. forces, though that played its role. Efforts to buy off Sunni tribesmen and the decision by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to order his forces to lay low are equally important. The elections early next month, which should help empower some of the disenfranchised Sunnis who sat out the first round, could be an early indicator of where things are going. For the withdrawal to go smoothly, though, analysts agree that the relative calm must persist. No one wants a repeat of Saigon 1975, and among Obama's political aides, Gerald Ford's ouster by Jimmy Carter in 1976 looms large.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Nowhere does nuance carry such weight as in this hate-filled dispute. Anticipation about the appointment of a new presidential envoy is high given the recently ended fighting in Gaza. But envoys have been appointed before, and their best efforts still require matching energy on the part of the conflict's primary actors. With Israel about to enter a national election, and with the Palestinians still split between Hamas on the Gaza Strip and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, the other dance partners may stare at their shoes for a while before taking any chances.

That said, both sides will be looking closely at what changes under Obama. The long effort that culminated in the Clinton administration to portray the United States as an honest broker came unraveled after 9/11, particularly after Abu Ghraib. Arab moderates hope the U.S. will stop abstaining or obstructing votes like the one immediately following the start of the Gaza invasion when the UN Security Council debated a cease-fire resolution. Israel, on the other hand, will be alert to any sign that the U.S. is encouraging behind-the-scenes talks with Hamas.

This leaves a great deal out of the picture. Cubans, for instance, may expect a Sadat-to-Jerusalem-like opening at some point soon, ending decades of embargo and enmity. Colombia's government wants to know if human rights concerns regularly raised about the country's anti-narcotics tactics will spoil the privileged relationship President Alvaro Uribe has enjoyed with Washington since the Clinton years. Syria, too, will be looking for signs a new page is being turned over in Washington. North Korea, already, has shown itself to be consistently inconsistent, rebuffing the outgoing Bush administration's efforts to cut an enforceable denuclearization deal in its final weeks.

In Darfur, harried civilians hope Obama's rhetoric will have the power to do more than bring tears to the eyes when it comes to Sudan's conduct there. Many nations wonder if foreign aid will plummet and if the Bush administration's AIDS funding pledges will be maintained or even exceeded. And in countless less fortunate corners of the planet — Congo, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and Georgia, just to name a few — there are hopes and fears about the way Obama will throw America's still considerable weight around. As the new president said in his speech, America may or may not be in decline right now. But it remains the world's Gulliver, and no Lilliputian can afford to ignore where its foot falls.