10 Global Issues Obama Won’t Talk About But Should

Tuesday's State of the Union will most likely be a domestically focused speech. But if his administration is going to get serious about foreign policy, Obama might want to take a look at FP's cheat sheet.

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
<> on January 18, 2011 on the Tohono O'odham Nation, Arizona.

Mexico: Arguably, the most important foreign-policy question to the United States isn’t Iran or Afghanistan or China — but neighboring Mexico, where nearly 35,000 people have died over the last five years as a result of the raging narcowar. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón began his crackdown on drug cartels in 2006, Mexico has been transformed — and not necessarily for the better. The United States is intimately involved in the conflict; American drug users drive demand for the Mexican narcotics trade. Even more directly, 90 percent of the firearms used in the conflict are thought to come from north of the border.

So far, Barack Obama’s administration has focused on managing security challenges along the U.S. border, providing Mexico with military assistance, and helping curb the flow of American guns into the south. Last May, the White House also announced that an additional 1,200 U.S. troops would be sent to monitor the border. Obama has visited Mexico, as has Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was in Mexico on Monday.

Why won’t it come up? Because Mexico is a lightning rod, not just because of drug policy but also immigration, somethign both parties have struggled to tackle in recent years. Obama, who has said he wants comprehensive legislation and considered moving forward with a new policy right after the administration floated health care, warned last fall that he’s unlikely to be able to find the political support to get it passed anytime soon.

U.S. Special Agent Rodney Irby guards marijuana seized on Jan. 18 in the Tohono O’odham Nation, Arizona.
John Moore/Getty Images

The European debt crisis: On the heels of European Union bailouts for Greece and Ireland last year, worries are mounting that a host of other indebted eurozone nations will soon be in need of their own rescue funds. The new sick men of Europe are Portugal, Italy, and Spain. And despite vows from all three countries that they won’t need a bailout, investors are skeptical. Pimco, the bond-trading investment giant, now predicts that France and Germany will have to put even more money into saving the euro than they have already — this despite last May’s creation of a $1 trillion eurozone-wide contingency fund to prevent future debt crises.

Obama is unlikely to speak to this directly, not least because of the unfavorable comparisons that one could draw to the United States’ own indebtedness. But a eurozone default would hurt the American and global economies enormously. Nearly a quarter of all U.S. exports go to Europe. Economists also fear that a euro zone domino effect could hit U.S. banks and send a contagion through the financial system, just as the fall of Lehman brothers did two and a half years ago. Plus, this is no post-WWII world; the United States is not about to come to Europe’s rescue. Instead, it’s China that has offered to help out — buying 6 billion euros of Spanish debt, for example.

Obama will be under enough pressure to talk about the U.S. deficit without mentioning Europe. Newly elected House Republicans have called for big cuts in federal spending — $2.5 trillion over the next 10 years. And even if not everyone agrees about how to do it, public opinion polls show a strong domestic concern over federal debt.

Red flags lay in front of riot policemen after a demonstration against austerity measures in Athens on Dec. 2, 2010.

Kashmir: Even if Obama’s speech mentions relations with (and between) India and Pakistan, it’s unlikely to touch upon Kashmir, the restive mountain region that is the epicenter of tensions between the two nuclear-armed countries. Both nations claim to control the territory, and India has an estimated 350,000 troops stationed there. The debate over just who should control what is a 60-year-long argument, but it’s also critically important for U.S. counterterrorism goals: Pakistan has been reluctant to divert its troops to fighting the Taliban in its northwestern provinces, citing the “Indian threat” on its other borders.

But Kashmir isn’t just a proxy for India-Pakistan conflict. The territory’s 5.4 million people, who are almost entirely Muslim, have grievances of their own. And in recent months, youths — many of them unemployed and unable to find work — have taken to the streets to protest, throwing rocks at Indian soldiers and calling for independence from both India and Pakistan. In 2008, Indian authorities said that some 47,000 people had died in the last two decades of Kashmir turmoil.

So far, the United States has tried to stay out of the Kashmir debate. Washington has done little, and some analysts believe that even earnest attempts to help would be for naught. The contested region was even removed from the portfolio of the late Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Still, Washington has a vested interest in seeing a peaceful, long-term resolution to the Kashmir crisis and will surely be watching when India and Pakistan finally sit down for talks on the matter next month.

Kashmiris watch while activists and supporters of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front march to mark International Human Rights Day in Srinagar on Dec. 10, 2010.

Sudan: On Jan. 9, something incredible happened in Sudan. Six years after a U.S.-brokered peace agreement ended a decades-long civil war, the south voted on whether to secede from the north — a choice that an overwhelming 99 percent of its citizens made, according to preliminary results. What’s almost as incredible as the reality of a new, independent South Sudan is that the referendum took place at all — not to mention on time and without violence. And it had much to do with the full-court diplomatic press that the Obama administration put on the Sudanese government in Khartoum in recent months.

All this, Obama may mention. But what he likely won’t say is that the news is not all good. Before the south declares independence, a whole host of complex details — from the delineation of the border to exact definitions of citizenship — will have to be ironed out between the north and the south. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is an expert at the art of brinkmanship and may push negotiations to the last possible moment to win concessions about sharing oil wealth, for example. There’s also no guarantee that a new, independent south would be more capable of governing itself well than its ex-overlord in the north. But the worst news of all is that Bashir may now seek to tighten his hold over Darfur, the want-away western region that has seen so much suffering in years past, while all international eyes are focused on the south.

Polling officials count ballots in Juba on Jan. 15, in Southern Sudan’s landmark independence vote.

Yemen: A decade after the USS Cole bombing, Yemen is still a hot spot in the middle of a dangerous neighborhood. This tiny country across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, has moved up the list of top concerns for counterterrorism officials in recent years. Weakly governed, internally divided, economically bankrupt, and geographically cursed, Yemen has recently become the unwelcome host to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, including such charismatic figures as the American-born jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki, idolized by the Fort Hood shooter, among others.

Yemen was back in the headlines a year ago, after the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger jet after training in Yemen. And late last year, WikiLeaks cables revealed that the United States has been undertaking airstrikes in the territory to target suspected terrorists. Yet other U.S. military aid, the cables claim, was diverted by the government for unintended purposes — such as keeping opposition rebels at bay. It’s a telltale example of the difficulties of working with imperfect allies in the war on terror, something Obama is understandably loath to mention.

There’s one more reason that Yemen is on the agenda these days: Guantánamo Bay. Obama has come under pressure from his left-leaning base for failing to close the prison by his self-imposed deadline of January 2010 and for restarting military commissions. Many of the detainees in question? They’re Yemeni.

Yemeni army troops take position in the hills overlooking the southern town of Huta on Sept. 27, 2010.
AFP/Getty Images

The dollar: The greenback isn’t as popular as it once was. For the last two years, everyone from the World Bank to the United Nations has warned that the U.S. dollar can’t remain the world’s reserve currency forever. Most recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy brought up the matter with Barack Obama in Washington in January. And during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the White House last week, he described the dollar-denominated system as a “product of the past.”

If the world did eventually diversify its way out of the dollar, it would mean big changes for the United States. Right now, the United States enjoys huge advantages when borrowing on international markets. Its exports don’t face the same currency barriers that confront many other countries, which have to pay a premium to buy dollars in which to trade. Of course, a real move away from the dollar is a long way off. No suitable alternative is yet tempting enough for investors, and central banks are already so technically adept at dealing in dollars that it would take years to make the switch. But neither can the United States take its dollar diplomacy for granted anymore.

For Obama (and every other U.S. politician, regardless of their political stripes), the idea of a new world currency order smells of American declinism. And the message of Tuesday’s speech is likely to be precisely the opposite. As Politico put it, “atmospherics over policy.”

Dollars and yuan notes at a Beijing bank on May 15, 2006.
China Photos/Getty Images

Northern distribution network: Throughout the first half of 2010, NATO convoys heading into Afghanistan — carrying everything from fuel to food — increasingly came under assault as they made their way from Karachi, Pakistan, up to the northern border with Afghanistan. Then, in late September, Pakistan closed the route in protest of civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes, though it was reopened in October. Between the militants and the politics, the U.S. military and its allies have been looking for other ways into Afghanistan.

What they have started to rely on to supplement Pakistan is the so-called northern distribution network, which carries goods into Afghanistan via Russia and Central Asia. The good news was that Moscow — and the governments in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan — have allowed the transit of U.S. cargo. The bad news was that this supply route is also fraught with pitfalls, from arduous delays to bribes and extortion.

The supply-route troubles are yet another sign of the precarious relationships that the United States and its allies must maintain to continue the fight in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s intransigence in combating the Taliban has already been much lamented. Now, the U.S. government has had to get uncomfortably cozy with Central Asian states as well, for example Uzbekistan, led by strongman Islam Karimov and Kyrgyzstan, where bloody unrest unseated ex-Soviet strongman Kurmanbek Bakiyev last year.

Washington has little choice but to grin and bear its unsavory allies; there just aren’t too many other options. As of October 2010, half of all supplies for the battlefield in Afghanistan came through Pakistan, another 30 percent through Central Asia, and 20 percent by air.

Fuel trucks carrying fuel supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan burn following an attack by militants in Baluchistan province, on Oct. 9, 2010.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

WikiLeaks: Much ink has been spilled debating what WikiLeaks means for the Obama administration’s diplomacy efforts worldwide. Many of the cables are embarrassing; others reveal behind-the-scenes dealings with difficult allies such as Yemen and Pakistan that American diplomats surely wish had been kept quiet. There’s certainly a reason that the U.S. government called allies to warn of forthcoming WikiLeaks launches and pre-empt the damage.

Still, the Obama administration has said — at least in public — that WikiLeaks has done no serious harm to its ability to conduct foreign affairs. Defense Secretary Robert Gates summed it up this way: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

That hasn’t stopped the administration from moving forward with attempts to build a case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, however, as well as Bradley Manning, the Army private who is accused of downloading and leaking the diplomatic cables, Iraq files, and Afghanistan files. (Manning is now in detention in the United States; Assange is under house arrest in Britain while he awaits an extradition hearing to face sexual misconduct charges in Sweden.) Yet regardless of the outcome of the cases pending against Assange and Manning, what seems certain is that the WikiLeaks idea — posting government secrets publicly online — will be with us for quite some time. There’s already a world of copycats. So perhaps it’s not the past revealed in the diplomatic cables Obama should talk about, but the future of U.S. relations in a WikiLeaking world.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves a news conference at the Frontline Club in London, on Jan. 17.

Palestine: Middle East peace talks have more often been more ice than thaw over the last decade. But these days, they’re in a deep freeze. U.S. attempts to broker direct talks collapsed so badly last fall that Washington couldn’t bring both sides back to the negotiating table. Now, there are indications that the White House has given up on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a negotiator who actually wants peace. And to make matters worse, Palestinian officials are up in arms over papers leaked to Al Jazeera revealed on Monday that Palestinian negotiators were willing to make deep and potentially unpopular concessions to Israel. Unwillingness or inability to compromise on the Israeli side and fractured politics and weak bargaining on the Palestinian side seem insurmountable obstacles.

Which is why it’s worth taking note of at least one unexpected Middle East drive that has recently gained momentum: Palestine’s push for unilateral recognition of statehood at the United Nations. Earlier this month, Guyana, joined seven other Latin American nations in recognizing Palestine. Russia announced on Jan. 18 that it will also recognize a Palestinian state. Although Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said that Palestine won’t declare independence unilaterally, the debate about a U.N. resolution continues. The White House would be very unlikely to back such a resolution, should it ever come to a vote. And though Obama has committed his administration to the goal of Middle East peace, it’s unlikely that this will be at the top of the agenda as the president gears up for a reelection that’s going to be largely defined by domestic issues.

A Palestinian youth hurls a stone toward Israeli troops in the West Bank village of Nilin on Jan. 14.

South America: When was the last time that you heard an American president utter the words “South America” in a State of the Union address? If you can’t remember, that’s because it’s been awhile — 1998, to be exact.

Since the end of the Cold War, when Washington sniffed Soviet influence in its backyard, U.S.-South American policy has slumped in importance. As Moisés Naím, a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy, explained back in 2006, “Latin America’s weight in the world has been shrinking. It is not an economic powerhouse, a security threat, or a population bomb. Even its tragedies pale in comparison to Africa’s.”

To be fair, certain countries have taken a higher priority here and there. Colombia, for example, where the United States has invested $8 billion over the last decade in combating a narco-trafficking insurgency, got a shout out from Obama in his 2008 address as a top U.S. ally. Still, as a whole, Latin America has fallen off the radar in a world where Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, China, Iran, Europe, and a host of other countries and challenges come first. Even the fiery rhetoric of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez fails these days to catch more than cursory U.S. attention.

So what? One might note that, while the United States has left South America — long its backyard — largely to its own devices, China hasn’t. Not that South America particularly needs much help getting on these days. The region’s economies have been such a huge success story in the post-financial crisis environment that some are calling this the Latin American decade.

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 16, 2010.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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