Tuesday, Jul. 06, 2010

Facing Global Political Challenges

This summer, the 21st century U.S. has at last engaged with the rest of the planet. But the newfound recognition of our nation's ties to other countries and its place in the international order has arisen not from the recent controversy in Afghanistan, from concern over troubled hot spots such as North Korea and Iran or from the G-20 worry over the economic crisis gripping Europe. People in the U.S. suddenly are paying close attention to global matters because of the excitement of World Cup soccer.

Even after the U.S. team was eliminated from the competition, the nation has stayed connected to the action on the pitch and the countries that remain in the hunt. This may scarcely translate into a better awareness of the goings-on beyond our borders — but every little bit helps.

President Barack Obama knew even before he was sworn in that the focus of his Administration would have to be largely domestic, dealing with the U.S. economy, health care and other national priorities. The President purposefully put around him a team of foreign-policy and national-security heavyweights — Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and a slew of special envoys — to travel around and strategize about the globe so he could concentrate on the home front. The Vice President's July 4 trip to Iraq is just the latest case in which Obama has de facto delegated part of his international portfolio to his subordinate, if experienced, crew.

But there are some tasks only a President can do. One of those is dealing person to person with other heads of governments, engaging in the kind of intimate diplomacy that brings to bear the full leverage and power of the U.S. on allies, competitors and foes. Obama has discovered that, for a President, achieving foreign-policy goals is often less bureaucratic than pursuing domestic political objectives, but also that there are clear limits to what a U.S. leader can accomplish overseas.

Obama entered office with very little personal familiarity with his foreign counterparts, and during these first 18 months, he has had to spend much of his time in getting-to-know-you mode. This has hampered his ability to realize tangible progress on many international fronts, and without close bonds to his colleagues around the world, he remains in many ways less influential abroad than perhaps every post–Cold War President before him.

Americans who have used the World Cup to learn a little more about geography, culture and the earth beyond can perhaps benefit by considering these geopolitical brackets showing where President Obama stands with five key nations: