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One Nobel Year Later: It's a Hard World After All

One Nobel Year Later: It's a Hard World After All

By David Paul Kuhn - September 30, 2010

It's been nearly one year since Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel peace prize. The prize was to commemorate his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy." But Obama has little to show for that effort today.

The Democratic co-chairman of the 9-11 commission put the matter plainly to NPR this week. "The Obama foreign policy is still very much a work in progress," Lee Hamilton said. "Iran is still building a nuclear weapon. The North Koreans still have the nuclear weapon. And you kind of go down the list and you see that not an awful lot of progress has been made."

Diplomatic breakthroughs tend to be more marathon than sprint. Obama might still achieve great success. Ronald Reagan's arms talks with the Soviet Union were years off at this point in his presidency. By Jimmy Carter's second September, one could not have predicted his success with Egypt and Israel nor his failure in Iran.

Yet the serious foreign problems of today do remain unabated from Iran to North Korea to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More broadly, Obama's foreign policy stands at a precarious state.

The same day NPR aired its interview with Hamilton, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks risked collapse. Israel's 10-month freeze on West Bank settlement construction expired Monday. It was a fresh reminder that Obama's pressure on Israel has won no concessions. What it has clearly done, thus far, is strain the relationship between the allied nations.

That same day, China was playing chicken with the United States. In literal terms, China announced that it added a tariff on U.S. chicken imports. It was the latest rift in Sino-American relations. China has sought to weaken Iranian sanctions in the U.N. Security Council, challenged the dollar's role as the world's de facto reserve currency, quarreled with Google over internet freedom, protested U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and helped scuttle the Copenhagen climate change talks. As Tom Friedman recently chronicled, China is beginning to assert that it is indeed a "big country."

Obama has, in his own respect, also struggled to remind Americans that they are still a part of the biggest of countries. Obama's presidency began with a series of poorly staged incidents abroad--none more striking than downplaying American exceptionalism overseas, at a time when Americans were especially anxious about their national identity.

Obama has made some notable progress abroad. Obama won Russian assistance with Iran and signed an arms control treaty with Moscow, though the treaty has yet to be ratified. These are signs of improved American-Russian ties.

Obama has also successfully begun the pullout in Iraq. That meets a central promise of his candidacy. Yet it was also a policy set in motion by his predecessor. And that evokes other questions: how different is Obama's foreign policy from Bush's second term?

One place where the difference is clear is Afghanistan. Obama has tripled the U.S. troop footprint and engaged the enemy in Pakistan. But this longest war is  unpopular stateside. And it's unclear what Obama will have to show for his war choices, as deadlines loom. The Afghan pullout is expected to begin next summer. "I can't let this be a war without end, and I can't lose the whole Democratic Party," Obama said in Bob Woodward's new book.

Obama's most significant test remains Iran. Iran ignored Obama's initial carrots. Obama responded with a standard diplomatic stick by winning U.N. sanctions, among other measures. Iran's economy is reportedly strained by the frozen assets and denied credit. But Iran appears as determined as ever, despite setbacks, to attain a nuclear weapon.

"Obama, in his first year, did a great deal to restore American soft power, in speeches in Prague and Cairo and the United Nations," said Harvard's Joseph Nye, who literally wrote the book on soft power. Yet the foreign affairs professor also added, "If you were giving Obama a grade, you'd give him an incomplete."

Those absent results are only underscored by the Nobel expectations that prematurely, if not erroneously, greeted his presidency. Obama is a long way from the idealism of his campaign rhetoric, from his Berlin declaration that he is a "citizen of the world" to his pledge to directly engage American enemies. Obama promised to usher in a new era of American multilateralism. And polls show he has improved views of the United States. But his soft power has yet to show hard results.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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