The second Obama Administration faces a series of foreign policy challenges from war to hunger to terrorism to trade and aid. From the South China Sea to Somalia to Mali to Nigeria to Venezuela the usual culprits are at play: nationalism, ethnic hatred, religious zeal, overpopulation, climate change, pandemic disease, hunger, water, greed, and lust for power.
I’ve written often about such challenges – war in Sri Lanka and Cambodia, terrorists in Pakistan, refugees and drought and tsunamis for newspapers and magazines over 30 years as a correspondent.
When I entered government in 2003, I learned that many bureaucrats and political appointees see the enemy as the rival U.S. government agencies – not Osama bin Laden and his ilk, hunger or other conflict. Instead, the people who have the chance to change things and solve world problems are more concerned with getting rival agencies kicked off the podium at ribbon cuttings. Defense, State, USAID and Treasury all claimed to run U.S. foreign policy. Some two dozen other U.S. agencies have staff in U.S. embassies abroad: Trade, Drug Enforcement, Health, Commerce, Justice, Immigration, Labor and more.
One agency chief told me, when I mentioned all the in-fighting going on: “Ben – We are in an imperial capital and the knives are always out.”
But being inside government for a number of years made me understand that you cannot simply use the obvious solution to solve foreign policy issues. If you fight for human rights it undermines U.S. business groups that sell abroad. If you condemn cruel dictators, it turns out that they supply rare earths or petroleum or assist U.S. policy in conflict zones.
So it’s "back off buster" before you get to first base.
Well, I’m taking this moment to get back in everyone’s face and make a few obvious proposals to solve America’s major foreign policy problems – especially those expected to hit critical mass in the coming months.
Let’s start a similar outreach to the North Koreans. They are cruel masters over a suffering population. And they know we know how they operate. So let’s give the rhetoric of blame a break and challenge them to a few games of ping pong. Nothing else has worked.
To move ahead, Israel needs to remove internal checkpoints between West Bank cities and stop all settlement expansion. It should seek full annexation of the narrow band of neighborhoods along the old 1967 border, the Green Line, and offer equal land areas in exchange. Israel should ease access by Palestinian farmers and manufacturers to Israeli ports for exports to the lucrative European market. In the past, trucks laden with peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers from Jordan Valley hothouses have rotted while waiting for permits to enter Israel and reach the ports. Goodwill breeds good will.
But, he needs to find out how to reinforce U.S. ties to Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia without poking a finger in the eye of China. Beijing needs to agree on a set of multilateral rules to work out conflicts in the Sea. The United States must find out how to do this and what concessions China will demand in return. It’s too late for ping-pong here. Maybe joint outer space ventures, global warming talks, or cooperation on developing Africa and other needy regions would engage both sides in constructive ways.
Today, our aid taints those we assist. We need to launder our aid through international groups such as the Red Cross, World Bank, EU and the United Nations. And the grey shadowy concern about missiles and nuclear weapons must remain in the shadows, especially since Putin dropped out of the Nunn-Lugar system of recycling and safeguarding excess weapons fuel. Despite the nationalistic, chest-thumping value of nukes, Russians will soon discover they are costly, rapidly outdated, corroding, at risk of theft and serve no purpose.
We learned in Cuba that all our efforts proved unable to dislodge Castro. In Venezuela, a similar standoff remains in effect. Perhaps the best we can accomplish in the coming months is to try a more live-and-let-live policy. Maybe even ping pong.
Foreign policy challenges on a broader and longer scale include: slowing the population explosion so the planet reaches equilibrium of deaths and births at far less than the worst prediction of 15 billion people in 2075; providing food and medicine for everyone; creating jobs for the millions of Americans made jobless by Chinese labor; halting the cutting of forests and burning of coal and other fuels that are melting the polar ice and raising sea levels; and finding a way to deal with the inexorable flow of migrants from the poor countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America to the wealthy nations of North America and Europe.
Mr. Obama – good luck. It may be time to practice ping pong and other confidence-building measures to bypass some of the ossified discussions that have failed so far to resolve some of the challenges listed above.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in early 2013 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.