LONDON — President-elect Barack Obama assumes power (Tuesday) at a time when the United States faces huge problems at home and abroad. Americans and people all around the world are looking to him for leadership and a return to the ideals set out in the U.S. Constitution.
The problems he faces are so numerous and difficult that it is inevitable that some of his supporters will be disappointed. Even the president of the world’s only superpower has limited authority. Congress will need to be convinced that his proposals are appropriate.
His first task will be to kick-start the economy. His initial proposals are ambitious, but may not be enough and Congress will not be rushed. International confidence in the dollar and U.S. Treasury bonds has so far remained reasonably stable not least because there are doubts about the strength of alternatives. Recovery of the U.S. economy will be crucial to America’s ability to deal effectively with the challenges facing the country abroad.
If U.S. unemployment and corporate bankruptcies continue to increase, protectionist pressures are bound to grow, leading inevitably to trade friction.
Foreigners hope the new U.S. president will refurbish the American democratic image and ensure that America is again seen as the champion of freedom and human rights. This means closing the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and ensuring that unconstitutional practices end and that perpetrators are punished. The worthy aim of halting terrorism never justifies torture.
The appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state was bold, but in the primaries she criticized Obama on foreign policy. If they cannot agree on specific issues, the U.S. ability to exercise a decisive role will be reduced.
The first issue for the new administration will be how to stop the fighting in Gaza. Obama so far has been reticent on foreign policy issues, but on Jan. 11 he expressed dismay over the human suffering in Gaza and said his first priority on taking office would be to seek a way to end the conflict.
Israeli actions are generally viewed in Europe as disproportionate, and there is much sympathy in the West for the sufferings of the Palestinian population. Yet, Israel was sorely provoked by rockets fired at Israeli towns and by the intransigence of Hamas leaders, who still demand the destruction of Israel.
The new administration may be more willing than the Bush administration was to put pressure on Israel to accept compromises essential to concluding any settlement. The new president and secretary of state cannot renege on assurances of U.S. support for Israel. Nor can they accept Hamas’ intransigence over the future of Israel.
Obama may choose to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Since the handover of power to the Iraqi administration at the end of 2008 and the apparent success of the U.S. troop “surge” implemented by the Bush administration, the main issue has been the timing of withdrawal.
Obama wants to see a surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a move that has been anticipated by the Bush administration. The biggest problems will be instability in Pakistan and the continuing friction between Pakistan and India, particularly over terrorism and Kashmir. Major changes in U.S. policy in this area are unlikely.
Iran’s threat to develop nuclear weapons poses particular problems. Obama has said he is willing to open a dialogue with Iran, but he won’t start that unless a realistic chance exists that Iran can be persuaded to drop its call for the destruction of Israel and agree to adequate safeguards against the development of nuclear weapons.
Relations with China will be high on the agenda. The Chinese economy may still be growing, but the pace has slackened and the fall in demand for Chinese manufactured goods has led to factory closures and increased unemployment, which could cause social unrest.
Relations with Taiwan could become a flash point while Chinese treatment of Tibet and regions in central Asia could increase friction over human rights.
Japan will be particularly interested in the new administration’s policies toward North Korea. It is unlikely that there will be sudden policy changes with regard to Northeast Asia or to security policy, but we can expect scrutiny of all aspects of U.S. interests in the Far East.
In Europe the first priority is likely to be relations with Russia and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This will involve not only energy supplies but also the U.S. nuclear shield in Eastern Europe as well as NATO policies toward Ukraine and Georgia.
Kenya and Indonesia will be much on Obama’s mind because of his family ties. Africa will be a priority because of concerns about regional conflicts such as those in the Sudan, Somalia and Central Africa and about poverty in developing countries.
Obama cannot afford to neglect America’s neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean. Policy toward Cuba and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela remain problematic. Narcotics policy needs to be rethought.
We must all wish Obama well in the difficult tasks he faces.
Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.