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The Candidates on the United Nations

Issue Tracker

Updated: October 31, 2012

Long-standing questions about the United Nations' relevance and role continue to be issues for the 2012 U.S. presidential candidates. In particular, the UN Security Council response to ongoing violence in Syria since March 2011--with Russia and China declining to join the rest of the council in imposing harsher sanctions on the government of President Bashar-al Assad --has re-focused attention on the UN's efficacy.

President Obama is an advocate for the organization, although he cautions that it often fails to honor its ideals. The administration touts stiff sanctions against Iran and North Korea as "dividends of U.S. leadership at the UN." GOP candidate Mitt Romney, however, has criticized the United Nations sharply, threatening to defund the UN Population Fund and to pull out of the UN Human Rights Council.

Editor's Note: Click here for more CFR Issue Trackers and other 2012 campaign resources, which examine the foreign policy and national security dimensions of the presidential race.

Barack Obama

Democratic Incumbent, Running Mate Joe Biden

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President Obama reiterated his support for the mission of the United Nations in his annual addresses to the UN General Assembly in 2009, 2010, and 2011. He also touted the United Nations in his Nobel Prize speech in December 2009.

In his September 2009 UN address, Obama spoke of the "extraordinary good" the United Nations does "feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, mending places that have been broken." But he cautioned that the United Nations "also struggles to enforce its will, and to live up to the ideals of its founding."

In 2010 Obama emphasized the UN's role in advancing human rights and international peacekeeping, and also called for making the institution more accountable. In 2011 he repeated the call for UN support of human rights, saying the UN charter "calls upon us to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security."

Ambassador Joseph M. Torsella laid out Obama's UN agenda based on the four pillars of economy, accountability, integrity, and excellence in January 2012 remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations. The plan calls for reduced spending, improved transparency and oversight, and standing firm against member states that discredit the UN.

The Obama administration, along with the G-8, supported the ultimately unsuccessful six-point plan drawn up by UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan. The plan set out a path for a cease-fire and political transition as a way to end the Syrian conflict that began in March 2011 between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad's government.

In his address to the UN General Assembly in September, the president said, "We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United Nations is to see that we harness that power for peace. Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained."


Mitt Romney

Republican Candidate, Running Mate Paul Ryan

Romney has long been critical of the United Nations, commenting in 2007 that it had been an "extraordinary failure" (USAToday) and suggesting that the United States withdraw from the UN's Human Rights Council. Romney believes the United States should "focus multilateral institutions like the United Nations on achieving the substantive goals of democracy and human rights enshrined in their charters," according to his campaign website. Romney's foreign policy advisers include former UN ambassador John Bolton, a ferocious UN critic.

"Bodies like the United Nations tend to confuse process with substance, prizing the act of negotiating over the outcomes that negotiations can reach," his October 2011 white paper says. In a February 2012 speech, Romney said he would cut off money to the UN Population Fund, which he says supports China's one-child policy.

In May 2012, following a massacre in Houla, Syria, Romney criticized Annan's six-point plan for the country, saying it allowed the Assad regime "time to execute its military onslaught." Romney has also blasted Russia for vetoing UN Security Council votes on Syria sanctions, while also blaming President Obama for weakness. "While Russia and Iran have rushed to support Bashar al-Assad and thousands have been slaughtered, President Obama has abdicated leadership and subcontracted U.S. policy to Kofi Annan and the United Nations," Romney said.

In the third presidential debate on October 22, Romney again criticized the UN and former envoy Kofi Annan for their failure to bring about a ceasefire in Syria.

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