Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

World to Obama: You can't ignore us

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
January 22, 2013 -- Updated 1615 GMT (0015 HKT)
A Syrian girl rides her bicycle in an almost deserted street in Damascus, Syria on January 3, 2013.
A Syrian girl rides her bicycle in an almost deserted street in Damascus, Syria on January 3, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama devoted nearly all his Inaugural speech to domestic issues
  • Frida Ghitis says there are world crises that will command Obama's attention
  • She says turmoil in Middle East, repression in Russia, tension in Asia are urgent issues

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- President Obama made it very clear: The second term is all about the domestic agenda. If only the world would cooperate.

Obama outlined his goals for the next four years, sketching above all a progressive vision of a country with less inequality and more justice. And, judging by his inaugural speech, he plans to put his shoulder to the wheel. After all, much of the first term was consumed with averting a national economic catastrophe. Now he can get on with building a legacy, reviving that hope and change he promised back during the 2008 campaign.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

But the most subtly striking part of Obama's inauguration speech was how it largely ignored the rest of the globe. In his 20-minute address, he dedicated perhaps one minute to foreign policy.

America, he said, will "try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully." He vowed the country "will remain the anchor of strong alliances" and it will support democracy. He also declared the United States "must be a source of hope for the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice..." and stand for "human dignity and justice."

Opinion: Obama's ringing defense of liberalism

Beyond that, he did not spare a single word for tens of thousands killed by dictators, as they have been in Syria; nothing about the struggle for liberal democratic rights in places like Egypt, which sets the tone for the Middle East. Nothing about repression and thwarting of freedom of expression, the rollback of democratic rights, or the push to destroy existing democracies, statements that could have come as welcome words of encouragement for people who share American values of freedom and justice in places like Egypt, China, Iran, Russia or Mali.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The president should keep in mind that millions around the world yearn to know they have the backing of the most powerful country on Earth. As he surely knows, even his words make a big difference.

And while Obama plans to dedicate his efforts to the domestic agenda, a number of brewing international crises are sure to steal his attention and demand his time. Here are a few of the foreign policy issues that, like it or not, may force Obama to divert his focus from domestic concerns in this new term.

Opinion: Obama finally meets Machiavelli

Syria unraveling: The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have already died in a civil war that the West has, to its shame, done little to keep from spinning out of control. Washington has warned that the use of chemical or biological weapons might force its hand. But the regime may have already used them. The West has failed to nurture a moderate force in the conflict. Now Islamist extremists are growing more powerful within the opposition. The chances are growing that worst-case scenarios will materialize. Washington will not be able to endlessly ignore this dangerous war.

Obama urges nation to 'seize the moment'
Civilians caught in Damascus crossfire
Al-Assad stands firm in televised speech
Richardson: U.S. should engage N. Korea

Egypt and the challenge of democracy: What happens in Egypt strongly influences the rest of the Middle East -- and hence world peace -- which makes it all the more troubling to see liberal democratic forces lose battle after battle for political influence against Islamist parties, and to hear blatantly anti-Semitic speech coming from the mouth of Mohammed Morsy barely two years before he became president.

Iran's nuclear program: Obama took office promising a new, more conciliatory effort to persuade Iran to drop its nuclear enrichment program. Four years later, he has succeeded in implementing international sanctions, but Iran has continued enriching uranium, leading United Nations inspectors to find "credible evidence" that Tehran is working on nuclear weapons. Sooner or later the moment of truth will arrive. If a deal is not reached, Obama will have to decide if he wants to be the president on whose watch a nuclear weapons race was unleashed in the most dangerous and unstable part of the world.

North Africa terrorism: A much-neglected region of the world is becoming increasingly difficult to disregard. In recent days, Islamist extremists took American and other hostages in Algeria and France sent its military to fight advancing Islamist extremists in Mali, a country that once represented optimism for democratic rule in Africa, now overtaken by militants who are potentially turning it into a staging ground for international terrorism.

Russia repression: As Russian President Vladimir Putin succeeds in crushing opposition to his increasingly authoritarian rule, he and his allies are making anti-American words and policies their favorite theme. A recent ban on adoption of Russian orphans by American parents is only the most vile example. But Washington needs Russian cooperation to achieve its goals at the U.N. regarding Iran, Syria and other matters. It is a complicated problem with which Obama will have to wrestle.

A tale of two terms: Unfinished business and battles ahead

Then there are the long-standing challenges that could take a turn for the worse, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama may not want to wade into that morass again, but events may force his hand.

And there are the so-called "black swans," events of low probability and high impact. There is talk that China and Japan could go to war over a cluster of disputed islands.

A war between two of the world's largest economies could prove devastating to the global economy, just as a sudden and dramatic reversal in the fragile Eurozone economy could spell disaster. Japan's is only the hottest of many territorial disputes between China and its Asian neighbors. Then there's North Korea with its nuclear weapons.

We could see regions that have garnered little attention come back to the forefront, such as Latin America, where conflict could arise in a post-Hugo Chavez Venezuela.

Four priorities for the next four years

The president -- and the country -- could also benefit from unexpectedly positive outcomes. Imagine a happy turn of events in Iran, a breakthrough between Israelis and Palestinians, the return of prosperity in Europe, a successful push by liberal democratic forces in the Arab uprising countries, which could create new opportunities, lowering risks around the world, easing trade, restoring confidence and improving the chances for the very agenda Obama described in his inaugural speech.

The aspirations he expressed for America are the ones he should express for our tumultuous planet. Perhaps in his next big speech, the State of the Union, he can remember America's leadership position and devote more attention to those around the world who see it as a source of inspiration and encouragement.

Obama's second-term priorities

After all, in this second term Obama will not be able to devote as small a portion of his attention to foreign policy as he did during his inaugural speech.

International disengagement is not an option. As others before Obama have discovered, history has a habit of toying with the best laid, most well-intentioned plans of American presidents.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT