Pres. Barack Obama’s first address to the United Nations was, as expected, warmly received. The contrast between this reaction and the hostility that generally greeted Pres. George W. Bush was stark. At its core, the difference is based on how each president challenged the U.N.
President Bush famously asked, “Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?” He challenged the U.N. to address the misconduct of its member states and to actually follow through on its founding principles — promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms, confronting threats to international peace and security with action, and promoting economic prosperity and social progress. Bush also pointed out where the U.N. has fallen short, and challenged member states to fix the body.
These are tough issues for the U.N. because they go to the heart of differences between the U.S. and most U.N. member states, and they would require those member states to confront the aberrant actors among their colleagues.
In contrast to President Bush, President Obama clearly sees the U.S. as the source of U.S.–U.N. friction. He may have intended his speech to come across as earnest and humble, but it instead came across as if he were trying to justify America’s worthiness to be a member of the U.N. Giving the impression that the U.S. should aspire to be worthy of acceptance by the likes of Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Russia, China, Cuba, and other repressive regimes is appalling.
Obama’s willingness to accommodate anti-American views at the U.N. was offensive. It was particularly rich to hear him say:
This body has often become a forum for sowing discord instead of forging common ground; a venue for playing politics and exploiting grievances rather than solving problems. After all, it is easy to walk up to this podium and to point fingers and stoke division. Nothing is easier than blaming others for our troubles, and absolving ourselves of responsibility for our choices and our actions. Anyone can do that.
This, just minutes after pointing his finger squarely at the previous administration:
I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust. Part of this was due to misperceptions and misinformation about my country. Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others. This has fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for our collective inaction.
He noted that his administration has spent the months since his inauguration weakening or reversing U.S. policies that have traditionally caused heartburn at the U.N. He went on to list the steps he has taken to correct the actions that might lead people to “question the character and cause” of America: prohibiting torture, closing Guantanamo, ending the war in Iraq, putting American support behind “a world without nuclear weapons,” supporting the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, addressing global warming, working cooperatively with other nations, joining the Human Rights Council, signing the Disabilities Convention, supporting the Millennium Development Goals, ending America’s “selective” support of democracy, and paying America’s arrears to the U.N.
Such changes are no great sacrifice to him. After all, American liberals generally opposed the Bush administration on these policies. But Susan Rice, Obama’s ambassador to the U.N., expressed the thought behind this strategy: “Others will likely shoulder a greater share of the global burden if the U.S. leads by example, acknowledges mistakes, corrects course when necessary, forges strategies in partnership and treats others with respect.” The Obama administration clearly believes that throwing the Bush administration under the bus will yield a harvest of pro-Americanism that will result in support for its policies.
But what did Obama ask of other nations?
*Support for initiatives that his administration wants to pursue anyway — such as global warming and disarmament — in a forum virtually guaranteed to put the U.S. on the defensive.
*Support for human rights, but with the full knowledge that U.N. member states that violate human rights face little repercussion in the U.N. for their actions.
*Opposition to terrorism, but without a demand that the U.N. define what terrorism is (the lack of such a definition makes it very difficult for the world body to address terrorism effectively).
*Support for development, even though Obama realizes this will simply result in the U.N.’s hectoring developed countries to provide more assistance.
The other U.N. member states must be beside themselves with glee. President Obama gave them virtually everything they could ask for without demanding anything in return that was not already on the agenda (and which they are prepared to twist to their advantage). He did not even ask them to support more accountability, transparency, or efficiency in the U.N.
The Obama administration probably thinks that its actions and this speech have purchased it the goodwill that will translate into support for U.S. policies. The administration is setting itself up for disappointment.
The political nature of the U.N. is combative and tough. Most member states consider these concessions their due. They will pocket them and stand firm to defend their interests. Cooperation will be on their terms, on issues they wish to pursue. The naïveté of the speech was staggering.
– Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at the Heritage Foundation and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives.