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Obama Falls Short Again at U.N.


Pres. Barack Obama’s second address to the United Nations General Assembly in many ways echoed his speech last year. In that speech, he took pains to assure the assembled heads of state that his administration would be more accommodating and conciliatory than the Bush administration. He also focused on “four pillars…fundamental to the future that we want for our children: non-proliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and security; the preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people.”

These themes populated the early part of the president’s speech today. But he presented them in a curiously defensive manner.

Almost as if he were on the campaign trail, he began ticking off his accomplishments: U.S. financial reform, check; making the G-20 the primary international economic forum, check; reducing U.S. troop presence in Iraq, check; working toward withdrawal in Afghanistan, check; nuclear treaty with Russia, check; dedication to a world without nuclear weapons, check; commitment to a new treaty on global warming, check; humanitarian assistance to Pakistan and Haiti, check.

Considering his plummeting popularity at home, President Obama may wish the U.N. delegates could vote in U.S. elections. But one has to wonder if Obama would even carry this constituency. His speech elicited only two applause lines — one for the call for an independent Palestinian state, the other for the creation of a new U.N. bureaucracy called U.N. Women. Hardly surprising: One is a U.N. sacred cow, the other an expansion of the U.N. accompanied by new, well-paying jobs for citizens in developing countries.

The speech, also typical of the president, was egocentric. He mentioned the words “I,” “me,” or “my” 34 times.

There were some bizarre moments as well. One was the offensive moral equivalence the president drew between Saddam’s brutal rule of Iraq and government by a “foreign power” — the U.S., of course. Does Obama really see these two situations as parallels?

The president made his effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a major focus of the speech, and was dismissive of his skeptics. While optimism is a requirement for such efforts, his argument came across as Pollyannaish. As one BBC commentator observed:

Mr Obama’s speech reads more like a plea to keep negotiations going than a blueprint to the future. Ever since he took office he has expressed his commitment to making peace in the Middle East … He refers to the direct talks that are going on between the Palestinians and Israelis. So far they are all the Obama administration has to show for a year-and-a-half of hard work. There’s a real chance though that they may fail soon…

Despite the president’s disdain, skeptics have history on their side. The current negotiations inspire very little basis for optimism.

Unfortunately, continuing a theme, the issue of U.N. reform received only cursory mention:

It’s time to reinvigorate U.N. peacekeeping, so that missions have the resources necessary to succeed, and so atrocities like sexual violence are prevented and justice is enforced… And it’s time to make this institution more accountable as well, because the challenges of a new century demand new ways of serving our common interests.

No specific agenda was broached or referenced. This indifference to U.N. reform matches the administration’s failure to press for U.N. reform through public statements, using U.S. financial leverage, or even nominating a U.S. Representative for Management and Reform to the United Nations. It also makes it very unlikely that the president’s call for countries by next year to “bring specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement; to leverage new technologies so that we strengthen the foundations of freedom in our own countries, while living up to the ideals that can light the world” will be met.

If the U.S. administration isn’t willing to fight for those reforms in the U.N., what are the odds that governments will be willing to offer them up for their own countries?

However, this year’s speech was better in some areas, particularly human rights. President Obama repeatedly endorsed democracy and open economies as the model for progress and development. Startlingly, he condemned North Korea as a repressive, tyrannical government “that enslaves its own people.” Like many Bush administration officials, he highlighted the comparison between South Korea and North Korea as an example of the virtues of freedom. He stated in no uncertain terms, “The common thread of progress is the principle that government is accountable to its citizens,” and that “it’s time for every member state to open its elections to international monitors.” This focus by the president, who delayed his condemnation of the Iranian crackdown on dissidents and put off a meeting with the Dalai Lama for fear of angering China, is welcome and overdue at the U.N.

He also made a strong and sound case for promoting and protecting human rights. Surprisingly, he called on countries like South Africa, which struggled for freedom and human rights, by name to be more assertive in confronting countries that abuse or deny human rights in the United Nations.

I appeal to those nations who emerged from tyranny and inspired the world in the second half of the last century — from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to South America. Don’t stand idly by, don’t be silent, when dissidents elsewhere are imprisoned and protesters are beaten. Recall your own history. Because part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.

This is a needed barb. Complacency and indifference by these countries has helped undermine the effectiveness of bodies like the U.N. Human Rights Council.

— 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.