from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

U.S. Priorities at the UN General Assembly

September 19, 2012

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Next week, Obama will deliver his fourth (and perhaps last) speech from the podium in the Great Hall of the United Nations General Assembly. Given elections on November 6, the intended audience will, of course, be as much domestic as international.

The overall message of his address will be that “engagement” has paid off in spades, that the United States has restored its standing and good working relationships in New York, and that the hard work of retail diplomacy—of rolling up your sleeves and negotiating—has paid off. The message will be that engagement pays much greater dividends than—as Susan Rice memorably said at the start of the administration—simply “criticizing from the sidelines.” The accomplishments he is likely to enumerate include: the successful UN-authorized intervention in Libya; the U.S.-UN partnership in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has allowed gradual U.S. withdrawal from both countries; the successful conclusion of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference and the two Nuclear Security Summits; the toughest sanctions regimes ever imposed on North Korea and Iran; and the transformation of the Human Rights Council from a den of abusers into a group that is actually beginning to call them to account.

Given the GOP’s recent focus on “American exceptionalism” as the cornerstone of a Republican foreign policy, the president is almost certain to rebut GOP appropriation and definition of that term. He will agree that the United States remains an “exceptional” nation, but that what makes it truly exceptional is not that it goes its own way, throws its weight around, or hunkers down in an isolationist crouch with the misguided idea that the UN somehow threatens its “sovereignty.” Instead, the United States has been exceptional because it understands that leaders require followers, and that it alone has the power to build and promote strong and effective international institutions that serve both American and global interests. It recognizes the reality of interdependence—that countries are “all in this together”—and that few global problems can be solved without multilateral cooperation. Engagement with the UN rarely narrows U.S. sovereign options—it typically expands them.

The U.S. delegation has outlined four big-picture goals for the upcoming General Assembly:

  • International peace and security. Nuclear proliferation, atrocity prevention, and counterterrorism remain among the highest U.S. priorities. Likely to feature prominently in Obama’s speech will be rhetoric to keep the pressure on Iran, especially in the wake of new International Atomic Energy Agency revelations about Iranian enrichment activities and increased saber-rattling from Israel. Obama has previously said the United States will not accept a nuclear Iran. Is he prepared to issue a stronger warning, shortly before the election? And, while the president probably would like to tout the creation of the U.S. Atrocity Prevention Board, this will be a tricky subject given the ongoing mass attacks on civilians in Syria. He will no doubt frame it as the consequences of Russian-Chinese obstructionism on the Security Council. But the question is: Will President Obama signal that the United States and its allies are prepared to act militarily outside UNSC auspices if the Security Council remains paralyzed—or arm rebels? Given the approaching election and the president’s innate caution, this seems unlikely. Lastly, the U.S. delegation will attempt to expand and improve upon the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy—including the appointment of a UN Counterterrorism Coordinator—but it may be an uphill battle since terrorism is a low priority for most non-Western states.

  • Human Rights and the Rule of Law:  In addition to a high-level meeting on the rule of law—where the United States will seek greater adherence to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime—the president will tout tangible progress within the much-maligned Human Rights Council (HRC). The United States is seeking reelection to that body, which is by no means guaranteed. Since the HRC is hugely controversial domestically and attracts withering criticism from the GOP, expect Obama to laud the benefits of U.S. membership and its accomplishments, including an increase in country-specific resolutions, not least the first UN condemnations of  atrocities committed by Qaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria, as well as the appointment of the first special rapporteur on human rights crimes in Iran. The U.S. delegation will also plug the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review process, as a way to shed light on despotic regimes. At the same time, Obama will stress that the HRC remains flawed—retaining a disproportionate focus on Israel and lacking rigorous criteria for Council membership. The president’s  trickiest task, given recent explosions in the Muslim world over a crude video made mocking the prophet Mohammed, will be to defend freedom of speech as a fundamental human right, when much of his audience will be baying for new international restrictions on the “defamation of religions.”

  • Combating poverty and advancing inclusive development. The scope and content of the post-2015 successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) remain a high priority for many UN member states. The UNGA session will seek to achieve  consensus on a new set of “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) designed to infuse development with ecological considerations.  But UN member states remain sharply divided on how any new targets should be set, and how they should balance the goals of poverty alleviation and environmental protection. The failure of the Rio Plus Twenty conference in June (Greenpeace called the final communiqué “the longest suicide note in human history”) testified to these divisions, as well as to the determination of developing countries to wrest the negotiating process from mega-conferences dominated by NGOs and return them to the UN General Assembly, where sovereign states clearly dominate.

  • Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the United Nations. Every U.S. administration has met frustration in trying to reform the United Nations. Following Republican mid-term gains in 2010, Congress became increasingly vocal about alleged waste, fraud, and abuse. GOP legislators in the House have proposed that the United States shift to a more “voluntary” form of funding for UN activities, including the legally binding, assessed contributions to the UN’s regular and peacekeeping budgets. This would be a unilateral effort to develop an “a la carte” approach whereby the United States could reward good performers by funding them, and starve inefficient or outdated bodies of resources. The problem, of course, is that such a cherry-picking approach would not only alienate other members but could easily be replicated, resulting in de-funding of programs that benefit core U.S. national interests. Attempting to inoculate itself against Republican charges, the U.S. representative to the United Nations for management and reform has listed four administration priorities, including thrift (budget discipline and pay freezes), accountability (including strengthening the office of internal oversight), integrity (to promote competitive elections), and excellence (improved coordination and qualified staff).

Meanwhile, the Palestinian quest for UN membership may distract from the official agenda. Last year the Palestinians narrowly failed to gain UNSC support for UN membership. This year, Palestinian Authority president Mohammed Abbas has pledged to seek UNGA endorsement of enhanced status for the PA as a “non-member observer state.” Given solid support from the 120-member Non-Aligned Nations bloc, Abbas should easily secure the needed majority support within the 193-member General Assembly. Beyond this step, Abbas could also seek Palestinian membership in a variety of UN specialized agencies, just as he did with UNESCO last year. In principle, the PA could run the table on the United States, by seeking membership in important entities like WIPO, WHO, IAEA, and even conceivably the international financial institutions—forcing the U.S. to defund such agencies unless it gets a congressional waiver.  Given voluble GOP criticism that he has already “thrown Israel under the bus”, and snubbed Prime Minister Netanyahu by declining to meet with him in New York, look for President Obama to place enormous pressure on the PA not to go down this road.