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David A. Andelman: State of the Nation, But What About the World?

It was quite clear by the time President Obama got to the end of his State of the Union speech last night that it was very much—the state of America, not the state of the world.  Barely 10 minutes—roughly 900 of 7,500 words—were devoted in his hour-long address to global issues, a passing nod, an odd rhetorical flourish, a vague threat to America’s enemies—North Korea and Iran, al-Qaeda and the Taliban (not even by name, in the latter’s case). Controlling global warming? Good. Withdrawal from Iraq? Leaving behind a democratic government? Well, we shall see in the wake of the coming elections. Among the few accomplishments he cited? Thirty thousand more troops to Afghanistan and a big multilateral conference opening in London today to prop up the government of President Hamid Karzai. But within hours, this latter president undercut Obama’s whole message, suggesting it would be five to ten years before his nation could stand on its own against its many enemies, foreign and domestic. No route home soon for those 30,000 additional men and women apparently.  So what was on the agenda of the American president, and what was not?   Certainly not the Middle East. Despite his stem-winding speech in Cairo nearly a year ago, and the appointment of a master envoy, George Mitchell, Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart as ever. “If we had anticipated some of [the] political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high,” Obama admitted to Time’s Joe Klein last week.   A quick laughline over global warming. (“I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change....”) But no mention of the buzz-saw he walked into in Copenhagen which all but collapsed, leaving environmentalists puzzled at best, bitter at least.   Global trade? A pledge to double U.S. exports in the next five years—and move toward some Doha accord. Hardly a message many of America’s trading partners would like to hear. And especially those who were somehow left out of the message entirely:   “And that's why we'll continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia."  What happened to China? India? Brazil? Clearly straw men, purely passing cautionary tales: "China is not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting.”   Look out America, the world is out there breathing down our backs, waiting to steal our first-place position:   “These nations aren't playing for second place. They're putting more emphasis on math and science. They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America. (Applause.)”   Nuclear disarmament? “The United States and Russia are completing negotiations on the farthest-reaching arms control treaty in nearly two decades.” When? No deadline. When they’re finished.
  And Iran?  “As Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise. (Applause.)” Which consequences, when and who will accompany us? Empty rhetoric does not go a very long way in Tehran or Qom.


And before his peroration reaffirming America’s “ideals and values,” there was a final summary of his global agenda:

“That's the leadership that we are providing—engagement that advances the common security and prosperity of all people. We're working through the G20 to sustain a lasting global recovery. [The only suggestion in the speech that our economic melt-down, which we helped touch off, is a global problem needing global solutions.] We're working with Muslim communities around the world to promote science and education and innovation. We have gone from a bystander to a leader in the fight against climate change. We're helping developing countries to feed themselves, and continuing the fight against HIV/AIDS. And we are launching a new initiative that will give us the capacity to respond faster and more effectively to bioterrorism or an infectious disease—a plan that will counter threats at home and strengthen public health abroad. As we have for over 60 years, America takes these actions because our destiny is connected to those beyond our shores.”

Last week, I was asked on the PBS broadcast WorldFocus to sum up the president’s first year in international relations. He has, I replied, substantially improved our global image. We are, in many parts of the world, no longer a pariah nation. But concrete results, real accomplishments, changing the course of history or even peoples’ lives? Not much yet. As the anchor Martin Savidge observed, great progress in the most deeply divided regions, particularly the Middle East, is only rarely achieved without the undivided focus and attention of the president of the United States—a president who is now more than ever distracted by a packed domestic agenda.

Where the president has weighed in, it is only in the form of a quick fly-through in Copenhagen, a one-off speech in Cairo, a brief stopover in the chairman’s chair at a UN disarmament session. Then he’s gone. Whoosh. Another item on his daily agenda ticked off and then on to his next stop.

The world, led by Americans who are globally engaged, is still waiting for results, and focus. He has the innate talent, the prayers of the world, all the good will imaginable. Now, in his second year, the debut, as he so quite rightly observed, of a bright new decade, it is time to buckle down and deliver on at least a few of his brightest promises.

David A. Andelman is the editor of World Policy Journal and The World Policy Blog. A veteran domestic and foreign correspondent and editor of The New York Times, CBS News, and most recently Forbes.com, he is the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today. 

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