Editor's Note: Stewart Patrick is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security.
This Wednesday, world leaders gather in Manhattan for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). As always, the most anticipated moment will be when the U.S. President steps to the podium. With little doubt, Barack Obama's third annual UNGA speech will also be his most challenging.
In September 2009, the president had it easy. After eight years of fractious U.S.-UN relations under George W. Bush, UN member states yearned for a new start. Promising a “new era of engagement,” Obama had his audience at hello. His 2010 speech was also straightforward. It celebrated the fruits of enhanced cooperation on terrorism, financial instability, and other global problems, while imploring the UN to live up to its mandate to promote human rights, global development, and collective security.
This week the President is in the hot seat, confronting Palestinian demands for statehood and a rising tide of anti-UN sentiment in the U.S. Congress. By pushing a UN Security Council vote on statehood—supported by a supermajority of UN member states—the Palestinian Authority (PA) has put Washington on the defensive. The United States will surely veto the resolution, which it considers a threat to Israel and a distraction from the peace process. But doing so will be excruciatingly awkward. Just last year, the president told the world body that he looked forward to the day Palestine would take its seat as a full UN member. By casting its veto,Washington will isolate itself from European allies, to say nothing of the UN's broader membership, and raise doubts about whether it can ever be an honest broker in the Middle East.
The United States has worked hard to try to head off this diplomatic “train wreck.” In past weeks, it has sought to hold off the PA by reenergizing the peace process through the Middle East “Quartet” (the United States,European Union,Russia and the UN Secretariat). More recently, European diplomats have explored whether the PA might be willing to forgo the UNSC route and instead pursue a less confrontational UNGA resolution. This would enhancePalestine's UN representation to “observer” status, allowing the PA to seek representation on multiple UN bodies, committees, agencies, and programs. The United States would be free to vote against the motion, but the diplomatic fallout would be far less than a UNSC veto.
Still, U.S.(and of course Israeli) officials worry that Palestinians would exploit these settings to delegitimize and attack Israel in multiple forums, such as the UN Human Rights Council. Most worrisome is the very real possibility that the PA will use their elevated status to seek prosecution of Israeli officials or soldiers by the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, members of congress from both parties have warned that any of Palestine move toward statehood prior to a final peace agreement will result in an abrupt end to U.S. financial support for the PA—and reprisals against UN agencies that afford the PA elevated status.
Meanwhile, Obama confronts a rebellion against the United Nations on Capitol Hill, making international observers wonder whether the brief U.S.-UN honeymoon is over. Anti-UN sentiments are strongest in the Tea Party flavored, GOP-controlled House. Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced draconian legislation to curtail UN funding that will bring a smile to the shade of Jesse Helms. The most egregious provision of this bill—the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011—would slash by 50% America's legally binding assessed contributions to the UN's regular and peacekeeping budgets—unless the United Nations shifts to an entirely voluntary funding system.
Such a shift to a la carte UN budgeting—with different countries “cherry picking” those items they wish to fund—would be an invitation to chaos. It would encourage other countries to follow theU.S. irresponsible lead, crippling the UN's ability to provide global public goods on which the United States and other countries depend—from peace operations to global health surveillance to counterterrorism cooperation. More generally, the bill if it became law would return U.S.-UN relations to the protracted arrears crisis of the 1990s, whenU.S. unwillingness to pay its dues poisoned the atmosphere at the United Nations and undercutAmerica's image as an enlightened global leader.
The President thus faces a daunting two-fold challenge on Wednesday morning when he addresses the UN General Assembly. First, he must persuade a skeptical General Assembly that the United States remains committed to the goal of a Palestinian state, but believes that the route to that objective must be final status negotiations in which the Palestinians acceptIsrael's right to exist within secure borders. The President should caution Palestinians against using enhanced UN status to pursue Israel in the ICC, while giving them hope that a rejuvenated “peace process” can actually get somewhere.
Second, the President must make it clear to both UN member states that the United States is no fair-weather partner with the United Nations—and that the enormous strides his administration has made to reengage the world body over the past three years will not be derailed by misguided legislative activism in Congress. He needs to frame this message in a way that resonates with the American people, too. He can remind his countrymen of the multiple ways the United States benefits from the United Nations every day: how more than 100,000 blue helmets are keeping the peace around the world; how WHO scientists are monitoring the globe for the next outbreak of a global pandemic; how U.S. leadership has helped make the Human Rights Council begin to hold abusers to account; and how at a time of U.S. fiscal crisis, the UN remains a great deal for U.S. taxpayers—leveraging a dollar of effort for every quarter the United States spends.
A short time ago, President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress was widely regarded as his last opportunity to shore-up confidence in his administration's ability to help weather the Great Recession and create jobs. This week, he faces a starkly similar moment in reassuring a troubled ally, while also defending a mutually-reinforcing U.S-UN relationship. Good luck, Mr. President.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Stewart Patrick.
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