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For Which It Stands: Worldview

Opinion: Obama faces a daunting list of foreign policy challenges

(Kristin Groener/

NEW YORK — Of all the lists drawn up over the past few months – Barack Obama's cabinet picks, auto industry plant shutdowns, New Year’s resolutions and so on — none will prove as fateful, full of surprises or difficult as the list of international challenges facing the new U.S. administration.
It is easy to tally a half dozen or so trouble spots that will require serious, sustained attention from the new president and his international policy team. A list double that size would perhaps better reflect reality, and that's not taking into consideration sudden, unwelcome events, like Russia’s summer war with Georgia or Israel’s more recent tangle with Hamas.
Each of these challenges is complicated by America’s waning ability to set the global agenda, not merely a consequence of the huge U.S. deficits piling up as industry after industry is saved from its own mismanagement.
Then there is the enormous discredit that Washington brought upon itself in the first decade of this century with two of the most poisonous exports ever from our shores: a paranoid, arrogant reaction to 9/11, and an equally arrogant insistence that America’s financial titans had the wisdom and moral fiber to shape global economic policy.
As GlobalPost correspondents around the world weigh in on the particular challenges, in the series “For Which it Stands,” I launch this column with a look at what I consider to be the seven biggest challenges facing the Obama administration.
Click here to go to the For Which It Stands Complete Guide
Global Economic Crisis: Nothing will underscore the downward trajectory of American influence like the reordering of international economic institutions looming in 2009. America remains the world’s linchpin economy, but its future has been mortgaged to China. Not to mention a host of smaller, export-oriented nations whose trade surpluses have created the cash mountains, known as “Sovereign Wealth Funds,” that underwrote U.S. profligacy in recent years. Swooning oil prices cut some of these newly rich states off at the knees (Russia, Venezuela and Iran, in particular). But China, India, Brazil, and older export powerhouses, such as the E.U., South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Japan, will no longer accept Washington’s veto on matters of trade and development policy (at the World Bank and IMF), or currency regulations. Republicans will cry foul, but economic sovereignty follows economic competence, and America will be forced to ante up in the coming year in exchange for continued Chinese investments in the U.S. economy. In the broader sense, America can restore some of its reputation by resisting narrow national interests in this crisis, particularly when it comes to the nations of the developing world. As always, no matter how hard it gets here, it’s the poor who will suffer most.

China and America: No other relationship has the potential to do so much to benefit or harm humanity as the one between Washington and Beijing. For one, this partnership will be decisive in determining the length and depth of the global recession. In the longer term, these two governments hold the power to make or break reforms of global markets and trade practices, efforts to reduce carbon emissions, schemes to curb proliferation of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons technology, enforcement of human rights in the developing world, and the restructuring of the U.N. Security Council. Most of all, they need to establish the kind of dialogue that allows cool heads to prevail during times of tension over Tibet or Taiwan, or unforeseen incidents like the accidental downing of the American spy plane in 2001. America's recklessness in pursuit of material wealth has lessened its ability to lecture China. Even when Washington is on the right side of the argument, it now simply lacks the leverage. In the circumstances, it is essential that these giants from their focus on the big picture: restoring global economic growth and preventing conflict.

The Wars of 9/11 (Iraq, Afghanistan): Military officers hope the twin strategy that brought down levels of violence in Iraq – the “Anbar” model of paying insurgents to switch sides, combined with a “surge” in western troop levels – will work in Afghanistan, too.