Alexandra Spieldoch, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
In some ways, it is difficult to critique the new administration without feeling like one is blowing the wind out of the sails at a time when the "global" boat needs support to stay afloat. The Bush administration's unilateral approach to foreign relations isolated the U.S. and made it difficult to work with the global community to solve some of our most difficult challenges. To assess the Obama administration's efforts to re-engage with the world, we will consider four areas where global leadership is urgently needed: reinvigorating the United Nations, climate change, the food crisis, and trade.
One of President Obama's first actions was to appoint a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and to give her cabinet-level status. The U.S. also announced that it would seek a seat on the Human Rights Council. Both of these moves are a direct statement to the world that the U.S. is back at the U.N. and ready for global dialogue. These are important symbolic gestures. Yet the administration has not pushed for the ratification of any important treaties or conventions, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, that most other countries around the world have approved.
The Obama administration has made great strides by publicly recognizing that a climate change agreement is needed. However, this isn't enough. As climate talks proceed, the U.N. Secretary General has indicated that the world cannot wait for the United States. The U.S., as the largest emitter in the world, must act in bold ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But the administration has not been forceful enough at the domestic and international levels in pushing for an approach that sets a real cap for polluters, resulting in real greenhouse gas reductions. The administration has yet to sign the Kyoto Treaty, and it is still sorting out its policy agenda in Congress. So far, its proposed emissions cuts are lower than what other countries are promising. The U.S. has made no commitments to provide funds to least-developed, small island, and land-locked developing nations--countries that are urgently preparing for climate change.
In its response to the food crisis, the administration pledged to double its long-term agricultural development assistance to more than $1 billion this year alone. Yet much of this money is earmarked for new technology to increase food production in developing countries instead of addressing the real problems: the need for more access to food and investment in sustainable production methods. President Obama has not come out in support of food reserves--either in the form of a strategic grain reserve in the U.S. or global and regional reserves to address hunger. Meanwhile, the crisis grows.
The U.S. trade agenda is mostly stalled so President Obama is slightly off the hook--for now--although at this point, his trade agenda appears not much different than that of the Bush administration. During the election campaign, Obama expressed support for the renegotiation of NAFTA but has since backed away from this position. He is also working to expand so-called free trade by finalizing the Panama and Colombia FTAs, as well as completing the controversial Doha talks at the World Trade Organization.
In a nutshell, one of the more encouraging aspects of the new administration is that it acknowledges the need to work together at the global level on a variety of fronts. However, beyond the rhetoric, the Obama administration has much work to do to change its relationship with the world. This is the crux of the matter.