World leaders descend on the United Nations (UN) next week for the annual opening of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The confab gets off to a bang on what might be called “Super Monday,” with addresses in rapid succession from U.S. President Barack Obama (who by tradition speaks second), Chinese President Xi Jinping (fourth), Russian President Vladimir Putin (sixth), and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (eighth). Given U.S. tensions with all three nations, the crowded morning offers ample opportunities for fireworks. The sequencing poses a particular predicament for President Obama, who (on this day at least) won’t get the last word. If he’s too tough on any of the three, he risks verbal retaliation from the podium. If he’s too conciliatory, his legion of domestic critics will depict him as an invertebrate. The trick for the president is to show sufficient spine on fundamental issues but signal willingness to compromise on details.
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama famously promised to “extend a hand” to U.S. adversaries. As president, his open hand has often been met with a mailed fist. The “reset” with Russia never materialized. Moscow instead seized Crimea, launched a proxy invasion of Ukraine, and shielded Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from UN Security Council (UNSC) action to end his atrocities. Meanwhile, the administration’s much-ballyhooed “pivot” to Asia failed to dissuade China from aggressive policies ranging from state-sponsored cyberattacks to outrageous territorial claims in the South China Sea. Similarly, early U.S. overtures to Teheran were met by political repression, Iranian meddling in the Middle East, and pursuit of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.
After a rocky start, the Obama administration has found its footing. It has tightened sanctions with the EU on Russia, pushed back on Chinese cyberespionage and maritime sea-grabs, and painstakingly negotiated an agreement that (if enforced) will end the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Obama arrives in New York in a far stronger diplomatic position than any of his erstwhile rivals, bolstered by the unmatched military, economic, and technological dominance of the United States, its unequalled network of global alliances and partnerships, and the enviable vibrancy and dynamism of its free, democratic society. The president’s task on Monday is to leverage these strengths to get Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran to play by the rules and meet their commitments, while also signaling flexibility in a few particulars.
A few words on Obama’s opposite numbers. Monday marks Xi’s first appearance before the General Assembly. Having consolidated power at home to a degree unknown since the days of Deng Xiaoping, Xi has reason to feel triumphant. He arrives in New York following a state dinner at the White House, and on the heels of a Seattle summit with U.S. technology leaders intended to underscore U.S. commercial dependence on China. Behind this gilded façade, however, cracks have appeared in China’s economic and political model, casting doubt on its continued, meteoric rise. At UNGA, expect Xi to outline China’s vision of a more egalitarian (i.e., less-Western dominated) world order, as well as herald Chinese contributions to mitigating climate change and supporting UN peace operations.
Putin returns to UNGA after a decade’s absence, in full swagger. The Russian strongman shows no sign of backing off on intervention in eastern Ukraine, much less reversing the annexation of Crimea, despite the country’s bleak economic fortunes. Putin has also doubled down on Assad, airlifting additional Russian troops and engineers to Syria with the intent of preserving that country as a bastion of Russian influence in the Middle East. Most recently, the Kremlin has floated the notion of a “grand coalition,” including Russia, Iran and the United States, to crush their common enemy, the self-declared Islamic State. The Russian proposal creates a quandary for President Obama, who long ago tied himself to the principle that “Assad must go”—and would face a revolt among the Gulf States as well as U.S. conservatives should he align the United States explicitly with Tehran in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, Obama needs Putin’s continued cooperation on the Iran nuclear deal, of which Moscow was a chief architect.
Finally, there is Rouhani, whose remarks will be scrutinized both for tone and substance. Will the Iranian leader depart from the Islamic Republic’s traditional anti-American (and anti-Israeli) rhetoric, adopting a tone of rapprochement and conciliation? More substantively, will Rouhani signal a firm commitment to abide by the IAEA monitoring and verification provisions to which Iranian negotiators have agreed, or rather introduce further ambiguity and conditionality into its obligations? Finally, is there anything Rouhani can possibly do from the podium to persuade critics that the ultimate course of Iranian conduct—both toward nuclear (dis)armament and regional (in)stability—depends not on what the Iranian president himself says, but upon the whims of Supreme Leader Khamenei?
These circumstances place Obama in an unenviable position. The United States can certainly find much to protest in the behavior of China, Russia, and Iran, but the president cannot afford to make enemies of Xi, Putin, and Rouhani at the UN. That’s why Obama needs to explicitly call out transgressions of international rules while emphasizing that there is still room for cooperation among erstwhile adversaries.
With reference to China, Obama should reiterate that land reclamation in the South China Sea is counterproductive, and that state-sponsored cyberespionage is harmful not only to U.S. economic interests, but also the future of the bilateral relationship. Xi’s recent commitment to work with the United States to tackle cybercrime is a good starting point. At the UN, Obama should call on Xi to make good on that pledge.
On Iran, Obama needs to walk a tightrope between commendation and condemnation. On the one hand, Obama should convey his high hopes for the Iran nuclear accord while maintaining that the United States will, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “trust but verify” that Iran complies. On the other hand, the president should emphasize that the United States continues to take issue with Iran’s destabilizing regional behavior and egregious human rights record.
Russia may present the biggest dilemma. For all its disagreements with Russia in Ukraine, the United States still needs Moscow’s cooperation on a range of issues, including the Iran nuclear deal and combatting the Islamic State in Syria. Even so, the convergence of U.S. and Russian interests in these specific areas doesn’t mean that Obama should give Putin a free pass at the UN. The president needs to signal that Russian incursions in eastern Ukraine are blatant violations of international order, and that U.S.-Russia rapprochement will require a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Obama and Putin are scheduled to meet one-on-one on the sidelines of UNGA next week. Although the two presidents will likely use the time to discuss Russia’s military buildup in Syria, Obama should seize this opportunity to make headway on the Ukraine crisis, as well.
The trickiest issue may be with respect to Syria, where Secretary Kerry recently held out the hope that Russia may yet be part of any diplomatic solution. As painful as it is to contemplate, Obama may wish to signal some flexibility on at least a transitional role for Assad, particularly given the unending human suffering and migration crisis that the grinding Syrian conflict has generated.