Global Politics

The year of Obama

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Story by Alex Gallafent, PRI's "The World"

Despite some mixed reviews of the president’s policies, many around the world would still say 2009 was the year of Barack Obama. 

Expectations for the new occupant of the White House was sky high, not least in the Kenyan village where Barack Obama’s father grew up. 

"Obama will help us as a man from this area, and as a man from Kogelo will help us in bringing change, and bringing the development of prosperity into Kenya," said a Kenyan man.

There were those who tried to tamp down such expectations, including some of the new president’s allies abroad. 

Barack Obama doesn’t have a magic wand, so said Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister just a short while before the president’s inauguration. 

A short while into his new job, President Obama scored points with the United Nations. 

"I welcome most heartedly this commitment by President Obama to close Guantanamo.  I hope that it happens soon," said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.

President Obama promised to close Guantanamo within a year.  It hasn’t happened yet.

Around that time, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki suggested that the American president would have a hard time making good on his commitments, in general. He said that Mr. Obama will "face a fossilized and arrogant structure in the American ruling system."

The Obama Administration quickly made engagement a principle plank of its approach to foreign policy. Some supported the idea, others thought it naïve. One example of the new direction was the public resetting of the U.S. relationship with Russia. 

"I hope the U.S. has more than one reset button because there [is] more than one problem [area]," said Dow Sultanzoi, an independent member of Afghanistan’s parliament, speaking early in the year. "And I think many parts of the world where the United States is involved requires to be reset, and the reset requires to be lasting, and also realistic."

America’s war in Afghanistan dominated the foreign policy year, as relative stability in Iraq allowed that conflict to fade from view.  And as the U.S. pursued a military strategy to combat the Taliban in Al Qaeda, it ran up against complaints from a key, if problematic, ally.

Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s President said this about his discussions with Obama officials: "Whenever we had a dialogue with them, we said to them, stop these drones. If a drone kills three criminals, it kills ten civilians, which is unjustified." 

For the Obama Administration, the use of drones remains a critical element of U.S. policy, even though that policy is unpopular among Pakistanis. 

Sayid Mohammed [PH], speaking from South Waziristan, blamed the United States for the violence engulfing his homeland. "The Taliban are against the United States not against Pakistan. They are fighting the Pakistani Army because the army is doing the bidding of America. Once the Americans are out of Afghanistan, there will be peace in the region." 

But by the end of the year, it was the United States' changing relationship with China that was grabbing attention. Midway through the year, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding, which included diplomatic generalities about climate change, energy, and the environment.  But China and the U.S. barely reached any agreement at all in Copenhagen. 

And so the year ends as it began, with some around the world hoping for more from the United States. Only now, the hope has an edge to it. 

"Expectations and then pressure on the United States has raised," said Andreas Carlgren, the Environment Minister from Sweden. "We should expect them to deliver now."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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