If there are any of us who still doubt that the world has shrunk, that we all are linked and dependent on one another, this has been the year that proved us wrong. The evidence is all around us. Early this year, homeowners in Wichita, Kan., and Fuquay Varina, N.C. (among 1,000 other places) defaulted on their mortgages. And so it began.

This month, Chile, Russia and France were teetering on the edge of recession. Japan, China and Brazil were proposing major fiscal-stimulus plans to stave off economic disaster. Iceland’s financial sector virtually collapsed. Latvia pleaded for an emergency loan from the European Union. Cambodia offered to contribute $150 million to a regional emergency fund. A credit freeze in Poland suffocated the housing market.

Our housing crisis swept the globe. Another example: Over the last few months, much of the world watched, transfixed, as Somali pirates – can you believe it, pirates! – attacked 40 ships in the Gulf of Aden. With little coordination and even less prompting, Malaysia, the United States, Britain, China, Denmark, Russia, France and Greece, among others, all sent warships to the gulf. Less surprising, perhaps, but still inspiring: After Barack Obama won the election last month, congratulations poured in from every corner of the globe. That’s not so odd. But for many of these countries, the congratulations were not pro forma. The reaction was actually jubilation.

Looking across the sweep of the year just ending, in many ways it was bleak. North Korea made a deal to end its nuclear weapons program, and then as soon as the other nations fulfilled their parts of the bargain, Pyongyang reneged. Robert Mugabe apparently lost re-election, but rather than accept defeat he dragged his nation down with him – until conditions deteriorated so far that Zimbabwe contracted a cholera epidemic.

Russia descended farther back toward autocracy. This month, the government put forward a new law that would label its critics traitors.

Congo and Somalia plunged deeper into the dismal abyss of anarchy, despair and death. In Afghanistan, the Taliban began launching attacks just outside Kabul, the capital. Iran continued stiff-arming the United Nations and much of the world, refusing to end its nuclear program.

Venezuela and Bolivia kicked out their U.S. ambassadors and, along with Nicaragua, Ecuador and Cuba, formed a noxious anti-American front. And the United Nations Human Rights Council, once headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, passed resolutions curtailing freedom of speech.

But even as the world tries to stave off a global recession, many people hold a new sense of hope. With President Bush leaving office, and Barack Obama taking his place, across the planet many people are hoping for a fresh start. Obama is a smart, talented man. But he is also a politician – subject to the same limitations, frustrations and foibles that burden every president. Still, here are a few suggestions that could give American foreign policy a new face.

– Back off on Iran. Pushed into a corner, the mullahs are not going to do anything but dig in their heels. Instead of insisting that Iran end its nuclear program, call their bluff: If, as Iran insists, its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, then surely Iran will not object to an expansive, unrestricted inspection program.

– Drop the Cuba embargo. Obama has already said he will lift family travel restrictions. But a bold move to end the embargo would carry few electoral risks – given the evolutionary change in the Cuban-American community – and stun Latin America.

– In Zimbabwe, promote a multi-nation military solution to remove Mugabe from power. A U.S. government commission just published an important report on preventing genocide. Here’s a new case that should test our resolve.

– Open an interest section in North Korea. How can you influence a regime if you don’t talk to its leaders? North Korea seems most interested in obtaining recognition and respect. Perhaps, with a permanent presence there, President Kim Jong-il might be persuaded to behave rationally now and then.

– Pick up the Middle East peace process early and push the parties hard. Presidents usually don’t get involved with Israel and the Palestinians until their second term. But the groundwork has been laid, and the issue seems ripe for progress. No single act would do more to improve America’s standing in the Islamic world – while also removing one of al-Qaeda’s favorite rhetorical justifications for its terror attacks. Going it alone the last eight years, America lost its way. Obama will best succeed if he accepts that the world is connected. Wisdom does not reside only in Washington.

Joel Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University. Readers may send him e-mail at: brinkleyforeign-matters.com


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