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The Candidates on the United Nations

September 30, 2008

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Issue Trackers trace the positions of candidates from the 2008 presidential campaign on major issues related to foreign policy.

During George W. Bush’s presidency, the role of the United Nations in U.S. foreign policy has been a matter of much debate. Bush questioned the relevancy of the United Nations amid the heated debate leading up to the Iraq War, which the UN Security Council did not explicitly authorize. But the administration quickly engaged the United Nations in the war’s aftermath and contested efforts by the Republican-led Congress to link U.S. dues to the United Nations with reforms. The reform effort launched by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been a subject of particular controversy, highlighted by Bush’s recess appointment of John Bolton to the United Nations ambassador seat in 2005. The next president’s view of the UN has implications for U.S. foreign policy on issues ranging from UN sanctions on Iran to the management of the crisis in Darfur.

Democratic Ticket on United Nations

Barack Obama
Democratic Party Nominee - President

President Obama has repeatedly said that the United Nations should play a key role in managing crises like Darfur. Obama has also said he wants the United Nations to help bring about peace in Iraq, and says as president he will call on the United Nations to convene a constitutional convention (PDF) "which would not adjourn until Iraq's leaders reach a new accord on reconciliation." He says he may work with the United Nations to create an independent war crimes commission or special investigator to investigate war crimes in Iraq.

As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama voted against the 2005 nomination of John Bolton as UN ambassador. His comments during those hearings provide a sense of his stance on the United Nations, including the need for reform: "Countries such as Zimbabwe and Burma, and others that do not want to see reform take place at the UN, are going to be able to dismiss our efforts at reform by saying: Mr. Bolton is a UN basher, someone who is ideologically opposed to the existence of the UN—thereby using Mr. Bolton's own words and lack of credibility as a shield to prevent the very reforms that need to take place."

Obama introduced the Global Poverty Act of 2007, which would require the president to put the United States on a path toward meeting the Millennium Development Goal of cutting in half the number of people worldwide living on less than one dollar per day. That bill has not reached a vote in Senate.

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Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democratic Party Nominee - Vice President

Sen. Biden (D-DE) has called the United Nations "an essential forum for the advancement of U.S. foreign policy and national security interests." At a speech on the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations in 2005, Biden praised reform efforts, including the establishment of the Human Rights Council to replace the Human Rights Commission, a change which he said would "more effectively advance the rights and freedoms that continue to be denied to far too many." He also praised the creation of the Peacebuilding Commission, aimed at bolstering fragile states.

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Republican Ticket on United Nations

John McCain
Republican Party Nominee - President

Sen. McCain (R-AZ) has generally supported U.S. engagement with the United Nations but has noted the oil-for-food scandal and faulty human rights institutions demonstrate a "crying need for reform."

In a 1999 lecture at Kansas State University, McCain said, "The United Nations, although many of its founding principles were borrowed from our own, can never be an adequate substitute for American leadership. It has its uses, but to confer on that diverse organization, the leading responsibility for international stability, freedom and justice, will quickly render it incapable of any task whatsoever." On the 2004 Congressional National Political Awareness Test, McCain said the United States should continue its financial support for the United Nations, and should contribute troops to UN peacekeeping missions.

McCain has called for the creation of a "League of Democracies," an organization for all the world's democracies that could act "where the UN fails to act, to relieve human suffering in places like Darfur," he said in a May 2008 speech. McCain says the League of Democracies "would not supplant" the United N ations, but rather would "complement them." In a September 2008 presidential debate, McCain said the League of Democracies could also "impose significant, meaningful, painful sanctions on the Iranians."

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Democratic Primary Candidates on United Nations

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Clinton (D-NY) has praised the United Nations, and said in 2002 that “whenever possible we should work through it and strengthen it, for it enables the world to share the risks and burdens of global security and when it acts, it confers a legitimacy that increases the likelihood of long-term success.” But, she said, the United Nations “often lacks the cohesion to enforce its own mandates.” In the period before the Iraq war began, Clinton urged the Bush administration to allow the United Nations to complete weapons inspections before invading. Clinton has criticized Bush’s decision to invade before that point, saying that UN inspectors were “the last line of defense against the possibility that our intelligence was false.” In that February 2005 speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, Clinton also expressed support for then-Secretary General Kofi Annan’s reform efforts.

In February 2008, Clinton called the United Nations "an essential arena for political debate among nations," but, she warned, the UN "we must not let it be misused as a forum for anti-Semitism or incitement against any group." She promised to "resolutely fight all efforts to inject anti-Semitism, hatred and discrimination" into the agenda of the UN Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa scheduled for 2009.

Editor's Note: Sen. Clinton withdrew her candidacy for theDemocratic presidential nomination on June 7, 2008.

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Christopher J. Dodd
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Dodd (D-CT) supports UN reform. He has said that the United Nations “seems at times to be crumbling under the weight of its own imperfections. Since the end of the Cold War, it has become increasingly polarized and less effective.” However, he says, the UN charter itself does not need to be changed. “The authors of the UN Charter were on the right track when they wrote that document,” he says.

Editor's Note: Sen. Dodd withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008.

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John Edwards
Democratic Primary Candidate

On the 2004 Presidential National Political Awareness Test, Edwards wrote, “I support reforms that would allow the UN to be better prepared to support—and where appropriate, lead—peacekeeping efforts. While the U.S. should support and cooperate with UN peacekeeping, U.S. soldiers should always be under American command.”  At a 2005 speech in New Delhi, Edwards said institutions like the United Nations must adapt to remain relevant. “We must all work together to reform the United Nations, and that includes finding a place for India on the Security Council.” At the time, he also said: “I would put the Iraqi Civilian Authority under the control of the United Nations today.” UN representatives, however, have expressed no interest in such a role since the bombing of the UN's Iraq headquarters killed chief UN envoy to Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello in 2003.

Editor's note: Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 30, 2008.

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Mike Gravel
Democratic Primary Candidate

In a 2003 speech, Gravel said, “unfortunately, the UN does not have the power to implement its charter; and its structure is grossly undemocratic. The UN cannot be reformed within itself or by exterior forces dependent on the sovereignty of nation-states.”

Editor's Note: Mike Gravel ended his bid for the Democraticnomination on March 26, 2008. He then ran for the LibertarianParty's presidential nomination before announcing the end ofhis political career on May 25, 2008.

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Dennis Kucinich
Democratic Primary Candidate

In his 12-point plan (PDF) to end the war in Iraq, Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) says the UN’s role is “indispensable” as it is “the only international organization with the ability to mobilize and the legitimacy to authorize troops.” Kucinich voted against the UN Reform Act of 2005, which stipulated the creation of an Independent Oversight Board to assess UN operations and pegged U.S. dues to the UN meeting certain reform benchmarks. He also proposed an amendment to the act that was meant to strengthen the International Labor Organization (ILO). That amendment failed.

Editor's Note: Rep. Kucinich withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 25, 2008.

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Bill Richardson
Democratic Primary Candidate

The former ambassador to the United Nations (1997-98) has adopted a pro-UN stance in his campaign. He said February 2007 that “the United States should build international support for its policies. It should do it at the UN,” and called upon Congress to increase the yearly UN peacekeeping budget (New York Sun). In a January 2008 Foreign Affairs essay, Richardson said the UN Security Council must be expanded to include "Germany, India, Japan, a country from Latin America, and a country from Africa as permanent members."

Richardson has called for the United States to show new leadership in ensuring states meet their UN Millennium goal commitments, which include improving literacy, curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS, and sharply reducing poverty.

Editor's Note: Richardson withdrew his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 10, 2008.

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Republican Primary Candidates on United Nations

Sam Brownback
Republican Primary Candidate

Sen. Brownback (R-KS) advocates UN reform. He supported the National Security Revitalization Act in 1995, which “prohibited U.S. military forces from being placed under UN command and control in most situations” and “provided for the United States to be reimbursed for participation in UN peacekeeping operations.”  Brownback has also said that the United States should pay lower dues, which total about a quarter of general and peacekeeping dues.

Editor's Note: Sen. Brownback withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on October 19, 2007.

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James S. Gilmore
Republican Primary Candidate

Gilmore’s stance on this issue is unknown.

Editor's note: Gilmore withdrew his candidacy for the Republican nomination in July 2007.

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Rudy Giuliani
Republican Primary Candidate

Giuliani has been extremely critical of the United Nations, which, he wrote in a September 2007 Foreign Affairs article, "has proved irrelevant to the resolution of almost every major dispute of the last 50 years." He says the institution's primary capabilities are in humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, but "we should not expect much more of it."

Shortly after 9/11, Giuliani gave a speech before the UN General Assembly appealing for UN member states to fight terrorism. Specifically, he said the United Nations must hold accountable states that support or condone terrorism. “Otherwise, you will fail in your primary mission as peacekeeper,” Giuliani said. “It must ostracize any nation that supports terrorism. It must isolate any nation that remains neutral in the fight against terrorism.”

Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 31, 2008.

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Mike Huckabee
Republican Primary Candidate

Huckabee’s stance on this issue is unknown.

Editor's Note: Huckabee withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on March 4, 2008.

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Duncan Hunter
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Hunter (R-CA) has called the United Nations "an organization of limited value and I would say whose military capability is always exaggerated—whose ability to project security forces in a hostile environment is always over-estimated.” Hunter says the United Nations is useful for "inoculating babies and for operating refugee camps and refugee centers," but, he told Wikinews in January 2008, "they should not be relied upon by the United States for our security." Hunter voted in favor of the United Nations Reform Act of 2005.

The Director of Internet Outreach for Hunter's presidential campaign is Nathan Tabor, author of The Beast on the East River: The U.N. Threat to America's Sovereignty and Security.

Editor's note: Hunter dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 19, 2008.

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Ron Paul
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Paul (R-TX) strongly opposes the United Nations. He introduced the American Sovereignty Restoration Act in 2003, which would withdraw the United States from the United Nations and would "evict the organization from its New York headquarters." That act has never been passed. He argues that the United Nations cannot be reformed and that it "is inherently illegitimate, because supra-national government is an inherently illegitimate concept."

Editor's Note: Rep. Paul withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on June 12, 2008.

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Mitt Romney
Republican Primary Candidate

Romney has been critical of the United Nations. In an April 2007 speech, Romney said, "the failures of the UN are simply astonishing." He cited the United Nations Human Rights Council as an example of these failures. Still, Romney said, neither isolationism nor U.S. unilateralism are sound postures for foreign policy. "America's strength is amplified when it is combined with the strength of other nations."

Editor's note: Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on February 7, 2008.

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Tom Tancredo
Republican Primary Candidate

Tancredo did not address this topic during his campaign, but he voted in favor of the UN Reform Act of 2005.

Editor's Note: Congressman Tancredo formally withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on December 20, 2007.

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Fred Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Thompson is a critic of the United Nations. He has said he is “never particularly surprised when the United Nations seems to oppose human freedom rather than promote it. At least a third of its member nations aren't democratic themselves.”

Thompson has also criticized UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for being “unwilling to blame those who actually gave the orders to commit genocide in Darfur.”

Thompson also spoke out against the recent selection of Zimbabwe as chair of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. However, he says positive, UN-directed humanitarian efforts “like the World Food Program, run by Americans, do much good.”

His specific recommendations for UN reform are unknown.

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 22, 2008.

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Tommy Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Thompson’s stance on the UN is unknown.

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on August 12, 2007.

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