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Obama Faces Daunting Foreign Policy Challenges


The international reaction to Barack Obama’s presidential election victory last week has been largely enthusiastic. But the foreign policy challenges the President-elect will face are also daunting.


The first and most pressing challenge President-elect Obama will face is an economic crisis at home of major proportions – a crisis that has spread around the world. International journalists are quick to point out that Mr. Obama will also have to confront a sagging American image in much of the rest of the world.

A German Perspective

German journalist Matthias Rueb, Washington bureau chief of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, says the new administration will have to deal with three issues that have been problematic for Europeans – the war in Iraq, the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and U.S. policy on climate. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Rueb says that expectations are high in each of these areas.

In addition, Europeans also expect the new U.S. administration will ask more from them in Afghanistan, which Rueb says will be harder. He suggests that Guantanamo will be the easiest of the challenges. But advisors to the Obama transition team are warning that the new administration may face a host of legal, diplomatic, and logistical challenges to closing the prison.


U.S.-Russian relations represent another sensitive area with Europeans. The day after Mr. Obama’s election victory, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev blamed Washington for the global financial crisis and for the recent fighting in the Caucasus. Nonetheless, Matthias Rueb says Europeans are optimistic about an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations. He says they hope there will be a new era of dialogue between the United States and Russia and that Europe – and especially Germany – will play the role of mediator.

An Arab Perspective

Nadia Bilbassy, senior news correspondent with the Middle East News Center, says the Arab world also has high expectations from Barak Obama. She says for much of the Middle East, the top priority is a desire for the United States to reinvigorate the peace process. But, she adds, the President-elect will also have to deal with other issues in the region. They include Iran and its ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, a determination on how to engage Syria, and the need to plan an exit strategy for Iraq. Bilbassy says the threat from al-Qaida and the war on terror will pose immense challenges to an Obama administration.


Nadia Bilbassy suggests it is beyond the capacity of any one person to deal with so many serious foreign policy challenges simultaneously. She says it would be wise for the new administration to appoint a high-level envoy with substantial Middle East experience, rather than rely principally on the next U.S. Secretary of State.

A South African Perspective

Perhaps nowhere has the Obama election victory been greeted with more enthusiasm than in Africa. But as in the Middle East, Africans are well aware of the complexity of the problems facing a new administration. According to South African journalist Darren Taylor, the so-called “fragile states” will pose special security problems.

Taylor notes there have been various attacks over the years in Kenya, Tanzania, and the East African region. In 1998, for example, when al-Qaida bombed a number of U.S. embassies killing hundreds of people, those attacks were planned in Somalia. Washington still regards Somalia as a place where a major threat to its interests is evolving, Taylor says, and it is complicated by the fact that the country is “completely ungovernable.”

A second priority, Darren Taylor says, will be Zimbabwe, where it looks as if a power-sharing agreement has collapsed. The long-term violence in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo will also confront a new administration. Taylor suggests that in dealing with the multiple conflicts in Africa an Obama administration will need to cooperate far more closely with the African Union. But Taylor says Barak Obama has a unique opportunity to implement real change in Africa because of his unique standing there. Because of his Kenyan roots, Taylor says Mr. Obama is held in such high regard that some see him not only as the U.S President-elect, but in some corners as the “president of Africa” as well.

Optimistic Outlook

German journalist Matthias Rueb says he is convinced that President-elect Barack Obama can make a huge difference in U.S. foreign policy. Even though “structural problems” such as trade, development, the Middle East, and Afghanistan will linger, Rueb says he thinks Mr. Obama will have the chance to usher in a new relationship built more on partnership and traditional alliances than on so-called “coalitions of the willing” that are geared to problems that Washington faces.

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