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Obama at the UN: The Burden of the Anti-Bush

Author: Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program
Updated: September 21, 2009

President Barack Obama's trip to the United Nations this week is the most significant by a U.S. president since September 2002. That year, President George W. Bush challenged the world body to prove its continued "relevance," by enforcing its resolutions against Iraq. Many foreign diplomats, meanwhile, advocated a posture of "dual containment"-that is, of Iraq and the United States. The subsequent breakdown of Security Council consensus brought U.S.-UN relations to their lowest point since 1945.

Obama's task today is at once easier and more daunting than Bush's. The new president sails into New York on a wave of global goodwill. Proclaiming an "era of engagement," he has returned the United States to a multilateral path, through steps both symbolic and concrete. He has vowed to rededicate the United States to the international rule of law, engineered U.S. entry into the UN Human Rights Council, reenergized U.S. leadership on climate change, proposed reforms to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime, and declared his intent to submit for Senate ratification long-languishing treaties like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

[Obama's] job is to persuade his rapt global audience that recent improvement in U.S.-UN relations cannot be taken for granted -- and that multilateralism must deliver results that advance U.S. and global security.

Obama does not need to woo his UN audience. As the anti-Bush, he will have them at hello. Bush, after all, was an instinctive unilateralist who approached his annual New York trip with the enthusiasm of a root canal patient. Obama actually believes in multilateralism-and thus may have more to lose if it fails. He arrives in New York with massive global worries, including a sharp economic downturn, a fraying nuclear nonproliferation regime, and a shaky state-building mission in Afghanistan. His job is to persuade his rapt global audience that recent improvement in U.S.-UN relations cannot be taken for granted-and that multilateralism must deliver results that advance U.S. and global security.

A Multilateral Presidency

A premise of Obama's foreign policy is that the United States can advance its national interests best by working within global institutions. Rather than "criticizing from the sidelines," said U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice in a recent speech, the Obama administration will roll up its sleeves and try diplomacy at the United Nations.  It aims to build international political will to tackle tough global challenges, she said, "by setting a tone of decency and mutual respect rather than condescension and contempt ... by abiding by the rules we expect others to follow ... and [by showing itself] willing to listen, respect differences, and consider new ideas."

The president's UN agenda is jammed. Beyond the traditional General Assembly speech, he will chair a special session of the Security Council on nuclear nonproliferation, participate in a summit on climate change, and join a side session on peacekeeping. His unifying theme will likely be the common responsibility of member states-including the United States-to address the world's most pressing problems.

The big question is whether his faith in the UN, and broader multilateral cooperation, is warranted. The balance sheet to date is mixed. At the Security Council, the Obama administration got the Chinese and Russians to agree to a fairly tough resolution on North Korea. On the Human Rights Council, the United States won a continuation of the special rapporteur on Sudan-by one vote. But progress on containing the Iranian nuclear program, on bringing peace and justice to Darfur, and on reaching a major climate change agreement remains elusive.

While this new tack of embracing multilateralism might not work, it is certainly worth a try. The Bush years showed the limits of unilateralism and inflexibility, which did little to arrest Iran's nuclear progress or stop Israel-bashing in the Human Rights Council. "If you think engagement is imperfect," declares U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, "try isolation."

Improved atmospherics are therefore necessary and welcome. But engagement must show results-and soon, because Obama's domestic audience needs to see that his investment in the United Nations actually pays tangible dividends.

Setting a Realistic Agenda at the UN

Obama should use his UN week to begin placing U.S.-UN relations on a realistic footing. For too long, the United States has careened between "overselling or underestimating the United Nations." Liberals have proven Pollyannaish, exaggerating the UN's practical capacity to accomplish tasks in contexts where member states themselves fear to tread. The inevitable result, as President Bill Clinton discovered in Somalia, is UN overextension and U.S. disillusionment. Conservatives, for their part, have painted with their own broad brush, tarring the world body as a font of fecklessness, a den of corruption, and a threat to American ideals and sovereignty. And yet as even President Bush came to realize, from the deployment of peacekeepers in Lebanon to the response to avian influenza, the United Nations retains an unmatched combination of international legitimacy and standing capacity, on which the United States will continue to depend. Fundamentally, Obama is correct: the UN is both imperfect and indispensable.

[F]rom the deployment of peacekeepers in Lebanon to the response to avian influenza, the United Nations retains an unmatched combination of international legitimacy and standing capacity.

The president will be tempted to catalogue the UN's value added across a wide variety of fields, from humanitarian aid to peacekeeping, childhood immunization to environmental protection. But if he is to show a real return on his investment of time and attention, President Obama would be wise to focus on a short list of pressing issue areas, including:

Nonproliferation: On September 24, 2009, Obama will personally chair a special Security Council session on nuclear proliferation. His goal is to bolster the faltering nuclear nonproliferation regime before the Washington Nuclear Summit next March and the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference soon after. Obama's task is three-fold: first, he must signal an unshakeable determination to block the nuclear weapons aspirations of Iran and North Korea; second, he must reaffirm the right of all states to secure sources of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes; third, he must show the United States is willing to reduce reliance on its own nuclear arsenal, building on his Prague speech of April and the treaty signed with Russia in July in Moscow. The administration's recent draft resolution, which would make access to peaceful nuclear energy contingent on meeting NPT standards and foreswear the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, is a good start.

Peacekeeping: Obama can use his side meeting on peacekeeping to highlight one of the UN's great unsung contributions to global security. Today, more than 115,000 "blue helmets" are restoring peace, saving lives, and promoting regional stability in some of the most wretched corners of the world, with U.S. contributions amounting to only a quarter of every dollar spent. The president should insist on more realistic UN peacekeeping mandates-a priority highlighted by the struggling UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and call on all member states to provide greater logistical and financial support to sustain these critical missions.

Human Rights Council: Few things risk discrediting the United Nations in U.S. eyes more than its perceived indifference to violations of fundamental liberties. The administration has chosen to work within the Human Rights Council, but the president should put that body on notice. The United States expects all members of the Council to fulfill their responsibilities, by shining the spotlight on abusers (rather than focusing monomaniacally on Israel), abandoning archaic pattern of bloc voting, and developing serious criteria for Council membership.

UN Security Council Reform: Other UN member states are looking to Washington to see whether the United States is serious about its stated desire to update the composition of the Security Council. No doubt the Obama administration would prefer to sidestep this briar patch, given the intense emotions of aspirant states and their regional rivals. But the issue cannot be put off indefinitely-without undermining the perceived legitimacy of the world body. Without offering a specific formula, the president should declare his general openness to enlargement to include those states that have the will and capacity to help defend international peace and security.

The United Nations is a central pillar of the larger multilateral system, and by following these steps, the president can begin to put U.S.-UN relations on a sounder footing. After blasting Bush for unilateralism, it is now time for other countries to step up to the plate and help this multilaterally inclined president make the United Nations as effective as it can be. The United States' new "era of engagement" will endure only if other nations meet Washington halfway on pressing threats to global peace and security, and if their collective efforts produce tangible results.

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