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UPDATED: February 5, 2010 NO. 6 FEBRUARY 11, 2010
Change to Believe In?
One year after taking office, U.S. President Barack Obama still needs to make good on his promises

Diplomatic overhaul

Besides dealing with the financial crisis, repairing his predecessor's disastrous diplomatic legacy is another urgent task for Obama.

Following nearly a decade of unilateral actions and policies based on narrow self-interest—from the Iraq War to ignoring international conventions on climate change—the Bush White House has left the world a far more divided and dangerous place than at any other time in recent history.

U.S.-Russian relations grew strained over the conflict with Georgia, for example, while Washington's alliance with the majority of its European partners all but disintegrated after the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

More recently, amid gains by the Taliban, the situation in Afghanistan—largely neglected because of the fighting in Iraq—deteriorated as well. Elsewhere, uncertainties have prevailed regarding nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran.

Faced with so many problems, Obama realized it was urgent for him to improve relations with the world through dialogue and cooperation. He clearly expressed this intention in his inaugural speech.

Then, in a landmark speech in Cairo in June 2009, Obama extended a much-needed olive branch to the Muslim world, voicing respect and goodwill toward Islamic civilization.

In addition, Obama made strengthening the traditional relations with Japan and the EU a diplomatic priority. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made Tokyo the first stop in her trip to Asia, highlighting Japan as a cornerstone of the U.S. Asian strategy.

Obama aimed to adopt this in exchange for Japan's greater responsibility in the global economic stimulus plan. Meanwhile, at the NATO summit, Obama reiterated his new Afghan strategy in a bid to persuade his European allies to increase troops in Afghanistan.

In addition to repairing relations with traditional allies, Obama also set about strengthening relations with major countries such as China and Russia.

In the arena of relations with Russia, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Clinton pressed the "restart" button of bilateral relations. Obama held his first meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London, ushering in new progress for U.S.-Russian relations.

At the same time, Obama has viewed Sino-U.S. relations as the most important bilateral relations in the world. In November, he visited both Beijing and Shanghai over the course of a seven-day trip to Asia. His visit led to positive cooperation between China and the United States in stabilizing the financial turbulence, as well as dealing with climate change and developing new energy among other regional and global issues.

While Obama's brand of diplomacy tried its best to present the benefits of "soft power," the worldwide specter of terrorism left by Bush has remained consistently severe. With Obama declaring the focus of antiterrorism as shifting, many U.S. troops have withdrawn from Iraq. Still, more than 30,000 more U.S. soldiers have been deployed to Afghanistan instead with the escalation of the conflict there.

Obama has tried his best to avoid using the term "war" in the context of terrorism in his public speeches. But the fight is far from over. Indeed, a plane would have been blown from the sky had fellow passengers not thwarted a terrorist with an explosive device on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 en route to Detroit in December 2009.

A year ago, looking to the Lincoln Memorial across from the podium of Capitol Hill, Obama said Lincoln's ideal was finally echoed in the White House. His words came from the pride of being the first African-American president, while expressing his determination to set Lincoln as his model of wisdom.

As a great president, Lincoln left behind a multitude of brilliant speeches. Obama's speeches have been also impressive. He is, without a doubt, one of the best orators in the history of modern American politics. However, a truly great politician needs to transfer his words and ambitions into reality.

Lincoln's greatness is not that he left behind the slogans like "of the people, by the people, for the people," but that he managed to unify the United States from the ashes of its Civil War—one of the bloodiest conflicts America has ever seen. Lincoln also maintained the unity and integrity of the federation, thus opening the way for the freedom of African-Americans.

Until now, Obama has proven a skilled speaker, whose ideas and political strength have won him the Nobel Prize for Peace. But his challenge is a considerable one—one that is the distance between the ideal and the reality.

For instance, on climate change, he once strongly proposed emissions reduction, but at the Copenhagen conference, he actually abandoned his slogan, faced with the domestic economic realities and political pressure.

Obama brought forward the proposal of a nuclear-free world more ambitiously in his speech in Prague on April 5, 2009. However, this proved to be a "utopia," which can never be realized. The global nuclear security summit, scheduled for April 2010, has quietly replaced the ideal as the nuclear non-proliferation objective.

The past year, in ways, has been dreamlike for Obama. His brilliant beginning has won accolades both at home and abroad. But after the applause, people have come to realize that politics is far more than brilliant speeches and lofty ideals.

The author is an associate professor with the School of International Studies at Peking University

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