This is historical material “frozen in time”. The website is no longer updated and links to external websites and some internal pages may not work.

Search form

A Year Taking on Unprecedented Challenges Abroad

Ben Rhodes, who is with the National Security Council, looks over the last year in foreign policy.

Ed. Note: Join Ben Rhodes for the next in our series of online video chats, which will be at 3:00 PM EST today. Watch the chats here at, or join the discussion through Facebook.

President Obama inherited unprecedented challenges at home and abroad. Facing a global economic crisis, two wars, and diminished American standing in the world, the President immediately went to work refocusing our efforts against al Qaeda, restoring our alliances, renewing our moral leadership, and reinvigorating our efforts to address challenges like nuclear proliferation and climate change.

A year later, America is stronger because of the President’s leadership. The global economy has been pulled back from the brink of catastrophe. We are responsibly winding down the war in Iraq, and increasing our focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have increased the pressure on al Qaeda and struck blows against its leaders and affiliates. The world is more united in addressing the threat from nuclear proliferation, including Iran and North Korea. Important progress has been made in enlisting nations to address the threat of climate change. And the President has strengthened our armed forces, our enduring alliances and our standing in the world.

There is much more work to be done. Difficult challenges remain, and many of the initiatives that have been launched will take years to fulfill. But we have moved forward on a number of fronts since January 20, 2009, and are poised to make more progress in the years to come.

The Global Economy

The President has played a leading role in securing unprecedented global coordination through the G-20, which has helped pull the global economy back from the brink of catastrophe. At Summits in London and Pittsburgh, he worked together with other nations to provide stimulus to the global economy; to coordinate efforts to prevent another crisis from occurring again; and to lay the groundwork for job-creating growth that can be balanced and sustained. And to ensure that there is a broader base for prosperity and development, the United States has helped launch an ambitious new food security initiative that helps combat hunger abroad, while giving people around the world the increased capacity to feed themselves over time.


As a candidate, President Obama pledged to responsibly end the war in Iraq. Shortly after taking office, he put forward a plan to remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of August 2010, while transitioning responsibility to the Iraqis for security and governance. That plan is being implemented, with US troops already pulled back from Iraqi cities, a reduction in the total number of US troops in the country, and preparations that are in place for Iraqi elections early this year. There is much work to be done in Iraq, and there will be difficult days ahead. But thanks to the extraordinary service of our troops and civilians, we are leaving Iraq to its people.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

When the President took office, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan had grown increasingly perilous. Despite being the launching point for the 9/11 attacks, our effort had been under-resourced, and al Qaeda and its extremist allies posed a growing threat. The President’s review of our policy resulted in a new strategy with the goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies. The President recently ordered the deployment of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan who will target the insurgency, break its momentum, train Afghan Security Forces, and begin a transition to the Afghans in July 2011. The President has also reached out to our NATO allies, who have provided more than 7,000 additional troops to support this international effort. In Pakistan, we have strengthened our partnership with the Pakistani people and government, which recently launched its biggest offensive against the violent extremists within its borders in years. Huge challenges remain, and our troops are bearing a remarkable burden. But we have a strategy in place that provides the resources that this urgent challenge demands.

Pressuring Al Qaeda Worldwide

President Obama has also intensified our efforts against al Qaeda worldwide. Our increased partnerships in South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa have degraded al Qaeda’s leadership. By prohibiting torture and working to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, we are denying al Qaeda a recruiting tool. At home, thanks to the work of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies, plots have been disrupted and terrorists have been apprehended. Yet as we learned over Christmas, more work has to be done. And in the wake of the recent attempted attack over Detroit, the President has ordered specific improvements to strengthen intelligence and aviation security, and he has made it clear that he will insist upon accountability.


President Obama has reinvigorated global efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and to prevent them from being used by terrorists. In April, the President delivered a landmark speech in Prague where he stated America's commitment to seek the security of a world without nuclear weapons. He has restored a relationship with Russia that had become adrift, and signed a Framework Understanding with President Medvedev to reach a new treaty to reduce our nuclear stockpiles and delivery vehicles. As the first American president to chair a meeting of the UN Security Council, his leadership resulted in a unanimous resolution to take a range of steps to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. And he has taken action to meet the ambitious goal of securing all loose nuclear materials around the world within four years, so they cannot fall into the hands of terrorists.

Iran and North Korea

President Obama’s policy of engagement has strengthened our efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and to seek a denuclearized Korean peninsula. When he took office, the international community was not united, and Iran was in a strong position in the region. After a year of American engagement, the international community is more united than ever before in calling on Iran to live up to its obligations, while Iran is more isolated. Meanwhile, the United States secured the strongest UN Security Council Resolution to date to prevent North Korea’s proliferation activities. In both cases, President Obama continues to present a clear choice: if nations abide by their obligations, the door is open to a better relationship with the international community; if they don’t, they will be isolated.

Energy Security and Climate Change

Through the largest investment in clean and renewable energies in American history, President Obama has begun to reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil, while also beginning to create the clean energy jobs of tomorrow. He has also jumpstarted American leadership to confront global climate change. At the G-20, agreement was reached to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. In Copenhagen, for the first time in history, all major economies embraced their responsibility to reduce emissions, and to stand behind their commitments in a transparent manner. This breakthrough was made possible by steady diplomacy throughout the year with countries like China and India.

Restore our Alliances and Standing 

The President believes that America needs strong alliances and partnerships to meet the challenges of the 21st century. To build a new basis for cooperation that lessens the burden on the American people, he has renewed our transatlantic and Asian alliances, pursued more cooperative relations with countries like China, India and Russia, and sought new partnerships from Latin America to Africa. And to restore America’s standing, he has engaged the peoples of the world directly. In a major address in Egypt and a town hall with students in Turkey, the President advanced a new beginning with Muslim communities around the world, which has been followed up with specific partnerships to combat disease and advance opportunity. In a major speech in Ghana, he initiated a new partnership with Africa focused on strengthening African capacity. And in an unprecedented town hall in China, he took questions via the internet and promoted an open internet and society.  Around each of these stops, the Administration amplified the President’s message with technology, from online video to social networks to text messaging, connecting with people using the means of communication they use most.

This progress represents the beginning of the Administration’s efforts – not the end. For as the President often says – he has no greater responsibility than the safety and security of the American people. Each of these steps is dedicated to advancing that goal, while supporting the prosperity upon which our security depends.

Ben Rhodes is with the National Security Council