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Obama Will Play A Major Role at UN General Assembly

Interviewee: Thomas Miller, President and CEO, UN Association of the United States of America
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 14, 2009

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Thomas J. Miller, a veteran U.S. diplomat, says that President Barack Obama's maiden appearance at the United Nations later this month will attract considerable attention. Obama has "talked very much about working cooperatively with other countries and about multilateral diplomacy and the importance of it," Miller says, and "people are going to be looking very carefully to what he has to say." Obama will speak at a special summit meeting on climate control on September 22, address the General Assembly on September 23, and chair a special Security Council meeting on arms control and nonproliferation on September 24. He will then go to Pittsburgh for a G-20 meeting focused on economic issues. Miller says that Obama will have to cover "the waterfront" in his main UN speech, including such issues as the north-south tensions in Sudan.

The sixty-fourth annual UN General Assembly meeting will convene in the middle of September. This year there will be particular focus on what President Barack Obama will have to say. Since the United States is the president of the UN Security Council this month, he will be chairing a session on arms control and nonproliferation issues. How important do you think Obama's appearance at the UN is?

It's very important for a couple of reasons. This is the first appearance of a new president who has talked very much about working cooperatively with other countries, about multilateral diplomacy, and the importance of it. People are going to be looking very carefully to what he has to say along those lines generally, and I'm sure there will be a lot of contrast drawn with the past administration. The two big issues that are going to be highlighted are disarmament and nonproliferation. That is very significant. And obviously climate change as well.

Talk a bit about climate change. There's going to be a special summit chaired by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon which will be preparatory to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December.  What can we expect?

Copenhagen is the meeting everyone's aiming toward and expecting to see if they can get some meaningful results out of it. The real work gets done before Copenhagen. These are very difficult issues, and they are issues that ultimately have to be decided by heads of state. And there are obviously trade-offs. The trade-offs are apparent but difficult. When the secretary-general brings people together on September 22, there will be some real opportunities for exchanges that frankly can't get done at lower levels.

There are several options that could come out of this meeting. There could be a simple reaffirmation of the Kyoto Protocol or a brand new statement. It's too early to say what will actually happen out of Copenhagen, right?

It's too early. There's going to be a lot of scrambling around. People whom I have been talking to--who've been very close to this--are talking very guardedly, as I used to when I worked for the State Department. It's like a three-ring circus. There are discussions going on in our government between the administration and Congress on these issues as well. Everyone's looking to us to take leadership. Where we come out on the legislation, particularly on the bill passed in the House that the Senate will be considering, will be looked at by the rest of the world.

We've been pressing countries like China and India to be more forthcoming, right?

We've been pressing them, and many of the developing countries have been saying two things: Give us money if you want us to become more forthcoming; and by the way you've caused most of this, so you should compensate us for the damage done. This has particularly come out of the African countries. They're saying our practices have resulted in desertification and the extremes you're seeing in weather.

So they want more aid?

That's right.

A perennial issue at the UN is the Middle East--not so much in the debates, but on the side. There's been speculation that the talks that special Middle East negotiator George J. Mitchell has been having in the region may culminate in a kind of mini summit between Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestine Authority. Do you think that's likely?

Sure, it's possible. It doesn't mask the hard slog that goes on behind the scenes to make real progress. Someone like George Mitchell, who is phenomenally good and gifted as a negotiator, understands what has to be done. Today I saw that at the ministerial level they're sitting down for the first time in a while to talk about important economic issues. Before the big peace process, there are a lot of little steps, and if there's some value that comes out the symbolism of a summit, so be it. That's great. But it can sometimes be negative: you raise expectations, and if you don't have the substance to back it up, sometimes it's better not to have done it at all.

If you were an adviser to Obama on what he should say at the General Assembly, what elements would you put in his speech?

I would advise a couple of things. I talk a lot about the value of multilateral diplomacy and how it can serve U.S. interests in certain instances. I'll give you an example. Ambassador Susan Rice, the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, has actually used this figure. We can't be the world's policeman. There are all kinds of bad things happening in the world. We can't be sending U.S. troops everywhere, and we don't. The UN now has between 115,000 and 118,000 blue helmets around the world on fifteen peacekeeping missions. That, by the way, is done at about one-eighth the cost of what it costs to send U.S. peacekeepers.

I would talk about the value of the UN. It's a place to bring people together. I love this quote by former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, and somehow if I were Obama's speechwriter I'd work it in: "The UN was not created to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell." That kind of sums it up. This is a president who's very realistic, who knows that you can't just make one big leap and somehow solve all of the world's problems. He's not doing too much. He's trying to highlight two things here, which are nuclear disarmament and proliferation and climate change. There is a lot of other stuff going on. He's going to the G-20 economic conference in Pittsburgh on September 25, but that doesn't mean the UN doesn't have a role in global economics. Obama should limit the message to make sure the elements he wants get out. He should focus on multilateral diplomacy.

This is a president who's very realistic, who knows that you can't just make one big leap and somehow solve all of the world's problems. He's not doing too much. He's trying to highlight two things here, which are nuclear disarmament and proliferation and climate change.

[But] clearly, the president has to cover the waterfront in the speech. He can't just talk about nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation and climate change. He has to cover the whole waterfront, and it's always a challenge. The other thing that I'd mention is that there's a historic contradiction between what the United States does and what it says. We don't sign treaties or conventions. There are some exceptions, but they are very rare. This isn't just a criticism of the Bush administration, because it goes back through many administrations. Whether it's the International Criminal Court, whether it's the Law at the Sea or the convention on women or disabilities, we haven't signed or ratified most of these. The president just signed the disabilities convention, but a lot of them we haven't ratified. There is a convention on the rights of the child, passed in the late 1980s. There are two countries in the world that haven't signed it: Somalia and the United States. When I was heading the children's NGO Plan International, it was a big deal, because other countries do pay a lot of attention to these things. I would love to see the president say something about [the United States] putting its pen where its mouth is.

Darfur isn't such a burning issue right now. What's the U.S. role there now?

We have a really good special envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Major General Jonathan Scott Gration, whom I know. He was early on in the Obama campaign, so he has a good relationship with the president. The U.S. role is to try to keep a focus on Darfur to also make sure that the world and the UN are aware of the real potential for unbelievably bad outbreak of hostilities, or the exacerbation of hostilities, between the north and the south. That's what everyone's watching. Darfur has no question been a genocide, but the fighting there has diminished somewhat in the last year or year and a half. That doesn't mean people should take their eyes off Darfur. There were three million people killed if I have my figures right.

I didn't realize the north-south problem had heated up again.

The north-south problem is very serious. It is heating up again. You've got a couple of benchmarks there. First of all, the north-south divide sits astride Sudan's oil. Number two, from the agreement that former Senator John Danforth negotiated in 2005, you've got a plebiscite coming up in 2011, which could give the south independent national status. The oil makes this very serious. The killings that have been done between the north and south over the years dwarf Darfur, but it's important not to forget Darfur, [which] has been genocide.  I'm glad we had an administration that was willing to utter the word. It's a humanitarian disaster. I headed Plan International, a big children's nongovernmental organization after I retired from the State Department, and I visited Darfur.  The place is hell on earth. It's an unbelievable humanitarian disaster, and there's still a lot of assistance needed. The president has to mention Darfur, and he should mention the north-south situation when he mentions Sudan.

At the General Assembly, you'll have President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran there, along with such varied world players as President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and the Libyan leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi. Should the president try to meet with Ahmadinejad without some formal answer from the Iranians on the proposal put forth to Iran on suspending its nuclear program?

Everyone has different views on that. My own views have always been that we don't diminish the currency by meeting with people we don't like. Negotiations are most useful with the people we don't like. But I wouldn't do it just to get a photo op. If it would lead to something on the nuclear issue, and shaking his hand would be useful, then I'd advise you do it. Ahmadinejad is giving his speech on September 23, later that afternoon, after Obama speaks.

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