Barack Obama will make his second address as president to the opening of the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, and engage in the customary ceremonies, social events, and consultations with other heads of government. Twenty months into the tenure of our most multilateral president, what has he accomplished at the U.N.? The short answer: not much.
As with so much of the Obama administration, this U.N. thing isn’t turning out like it was supposed to. Initially, of course, the anticipation in New York was little short of euphoric. The General Assembly’s president, Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, a Marxist priest from Nicaragua, opined: “I didn’t think I would live to see the day when you had such a really reasonable and constructive attitude on the part of [America’s] leadership.” Anticipating the arrival of Susan Rice as Obama’s U.N. ambassador, former deputy secretary general Mark Malloch-Brown said in February 2009: “I detect there is huge excitement about Susan’s arrival, and you know some of the most difficult countries are quite willing to lie on their backs and have their tummies tickled.”
Obama’s September 2009 speeches at the U.N. were certainly full of tummy-tickling. Addressing a General Assembly presided over by former Libyan foreign minister Ali Abdessalam Triki, Obama said, “It is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 — more than at any point in human history — the interests of nations and peoples are shared. . . . We must embrace a new era of engagement.” He went on: “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to control another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.”
Beyond the speech’s boundless egotism (“For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months”), the real message for Turtle Bay was: “We’ve also reengaged the United Nations. . . . And we address our priorities here, in this institution — for instance, through the Security Council meeting that I will chair tomorrow on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.” Of course, that Security Council get-together was a meaningless charade, as French president Nicholas Sarkozy rightly complained, but Obama’s penchant for theater over action is basic to his governance.
On and on Obama’s speech went, but, from the U.N. perspective, he had already made his main point: “We address our priorities here, in this institution.” And with what result?
In matters most directly threatening to America and its allies — the nuclear-weapons programs of Iran and North Korea — the U.N. has performed no better than it did during the Bush administration. Indeed, Obama’s U.N. strategy regarding Iran and North Korea has not been much different from Bush’s in his last two years. Neither has been successful. Under Obama, Security Council sanctions against North Korea were ratcheted up marginally after its second nuclear test in 2009, but the Council has otherwise been invisible on this issue. After a two-year-plus hiatus on Iran, it imposed a fourth round of sanctions in June 2010, but there is no evidence they have materially impeded Iran’s ongoing weapons program.
The main diplomatic fora dealing with the rogue states still lie outside the Security Council, in the “perm five plus one” for Iran and the “six-party talks” for North Korea. Thus, despite Obama’s proclamation about where the United States will address its priorities, the Council gets no more love in the crunch cases from him than it did from Bush’s unilateralist cowboys. To be sure, there is blind faith in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its capacity to preclude, say, spent nuclear fuel at Iran’s Bushehr reactor from being diverted to weapons purposes, and thus greater risk to the United States. But the IAEA is not a central player, and despite Obama’s evident joy at chairing a Security Council meeting, its famous chamber will be dark and empty when the truly important nonproliferation decisions are made.
Perhaps Obama’s most visible embrace of multilateralism was his helter-skelter return to the U.N.’s “human rights” scene. These U.N. activities are much like academic politics, bitter because they mean so little in real-world consequences even though the symbolic stakes are immense. While scientific rigor in international affairs is next to impossible, Obama’s U.N. human-rights policy is the Platonic ideal of a knee-jerk reaction, revealing his ideological proclivity toward unfocused engagement, bereft of strategic or even tactical logic.
Obama’s first mistake was announcing immediately after his inauguration that the United States would join preparations for the 2009 “World Conference Against Racism,” known as “Durban II” after the South African city that hosted its 2001 predecessor. Durban I denounced Israel as racist and was, just below the surface, profoundly anti-American. Then–secretary of state Colin Powell, announcing the withdrawal of the U.S. delegation in protest, rightly stressed that Durban I was “a throwback to the days of ‘Zionism equals racism’” that we would not dignify with our presence. In later years, the U.S. walkout was routinely cited as evidence of Bush-administration unilateralism. Durban II, coming just months after Bush left office, was therefore widely seen as an important signal of how his successor would treat multilateral affairs.
Contradicting Powell, Mary Robinson, Durban II’s secretary general (and former U.N. high commissioner for human rights), said Durban I’s outcome was “remarkably good, including on the issues of the Middle East.” Obama soon realized, however, with Canada withdrawing and several EU nations planning to do the same, that he had been too hasty: Durban II’s planned endorsement of Durban I’s anti-Israel rant wasn’t going to change. Accordingly, with obvious regret, Obama cut his losses, announcing in February 2009 that he was pulling out. The reaction was predictable. High commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay said, “I am shocked and deeply disappointed by the United States’ decision not to attend.” U.S. congresswoman Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, said, “This decision is inconsistent with the administration’s policy of engaging with those we agree with and those we disagree with.”
Recognizing it had stubbed its toe, the Obama administration immediately tried to recover by announcing that the United States would seek election to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC). (In addition, Obama later awarded Mary Robinson the Medal of Freedom.) Created by the General Assembly in March 2006 to replace its utterly discredited predecessor, the HRC in just three years had compiled an odious record fully justifying Bush’s decisions to vote against its creation and then not to join. Ambassador Rice trumpeted: “We believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights,” and in May 2009 Washington won a three-year term.
Obama has subsequently watched Cuba attain the vice chairmanship of the HRC, and Libya become a proud member. Iran has thus far been frustrated in its desire to be elected, but was instead recently rewarded with a seat on the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.
And the anti-Israel bias continues unabated. While Obama was receiving the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, the HRC was voting overwhelmingly to accept the Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 2008–09 Gaza incursion. The report lacerated Israel, concluding chillingly that if Israel and the Palestinian Authority didn’t conduct full investigations, the International Criminal Court should take up the issue. The HRC resolution was even harsher, provoking Goldstone to say he was “saddened” it contained “not a single phrase condemning Hamas as we have done in the report.” Twenty-five of the HRC’s 47 members (including Russia and China) voted in favor of the resolution, and only six (including the United States) voted “No.” Sixteen either abstained or did not vote, including our allies Britain, France, Japan, and South Korea.
The Goldstone pattern was repeated in the wake of the May 31, 2010, Gaza-flotilla confrontation, where the HRC voted two days after the incident to conduct another investigation of Israel. This time the vote was even worse: 32 in favor, three opposed (United States, Italy, Netherlands), and twelve abstaining or not voting (again including Britain, France, Japan, and South Korea). One can easily imagine what this latest report will say. Moreover, even after the Obama administration browbeat Israel into accepting a separate inquiry by a panel appointed by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the HRC investigation continued. That’s what “fair and balanced” means at the U.N.: two panels, one biased, one supposedly not.
Contemporaneously with the Gaza vote, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s pentennial-review conference was wrapping up at U.N. headquarters. Obama’s negotiators agreed to a text that, among other bad ideas, called for a meeting no later than 2012 (i.e., during Obama’s presidency) on eliminating weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East. Innocuous on the surface, the conference’s not-so-hidden agenda will be to demonize Israel for its nuclear-weapons program (long one of the world’s worst-kept secrets). The administration accepted this outcome, but later criticized the anti-Israel passages. Those unfamiliar with arcane U.N. procedures probably missed the point that Obama could have blocked adoption of any language to which he objected. To accept the document but complain about it later is at best hypocritical; “cowardly” would be a more precise description. Of course, standing by Israel, consistently with past administrations Democratic and Republican, would have roiled the review conference’s smooth waters, which explains the ease with which Obama threw our ally to the sharks.
In 2006, one reform being considered was to “audit” candidates for the HRC to help keep known human-rights violators off. That proposal, like many others, disappeared, and was replaced by a requirement that all U.N. members’ human-rights records be subject to quadrennial review and that a country under review file a report on itself. As with Obama’s U.N. speeches, the first U.S. report, submitted in August, reads like an advertisement for his administration: Before Jan. 20, 2009, circumstances were grim, but now, “look, the land is bright.” In fact, even filing such a report abases America in a senseless exercise in moral equivalency, but one typical of the U.N., where, above all else, all nations are “equal.” The right approach would have been to refuse to file the report, just as we never should have sought election to the HRC itself.
Some U.N. events that, at first glance, seem inconsequential or merely silly often mean real trouble ahead. For example, Rice said this April she was “pleased to announce that the United States has decided to review our position” on the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This document could create legal chaos if it were ever translated into binding law, which is why most governments will never take it seriously. But because the United States does take treaties seriously, our risk is far from trivial. Here, we have arduously worked through the rights of Indian tribes and later settlers, and have essentially reached legal certainty. Even if the outcome is unsatisfying, there are democratic ways to debate the issue far superior to feel-good but amorphous treaty phrases that no one fully understands and that could well disadvantage innumerable living Americans no matter who their ancestors. Consider that, a few months later, Secretary Clinton gave approval for members of the Iroquois Confederacy’s “national” lacrosse team to travel to an international playoff in Great Britain using “passports” issued by the Confederacy. Ironically, the team was unable to travel to the tournament because, saving us from ourselves, the British government had the wit to say it recognized passports only from real countries. Perhaps someone could clue the State Department in as it reconsiders our position on the Declaration.
One of Obama’s clearest aims in advancing “global governance” is drawing the United States ever more deeply into the International Criminal Court (ICC). Secretary Clinton lamented last year, as a “great regret,” that “we are not yet a signatory” to the treaty creating the ICC. In Rice’s first Security Council speech, she said the ICC “looks to be an important and credible instrument for trying to hold accountable the senior leadership responsible for atrocities committed in the Congo, Uganda, and Darfur.” More recently, the administration participated in negotiations among ICC members to define the crime of “aggression,” and lost on almost every key point. Despite Obama’s affection for the ICC, fierce congressional opposition still limits his ambition.
Bureaucratically, the administration argues that Rice’s cabinet status indicates its seriousness about the U.N. But having two cabinet officers in the same department is at best a distraction and at times a real problem. There can be confusion within State and the administration generally about the sources of authority, duplicative and perhaps conflicting decision-making channels, and the prospect for confused and divided loyalties. By her own admission, Rice’s rank requires her to spend considerable time in Washington, diverting her both from her New York duties and from the time a U.N. ambassador would in any case legitimately spend in Washington on U.N. policy matters. Her priorities in New York have included participating in a U.N. meeting on the issue of texting while driving, not heretofore considered a major international focus for the U.N., and joining with the Russian ambassador to issue a “global call to end distracted driving.” However, on U.N. reform, an issue of real importance to Congress and taxpayers, Rice and Obama have been AWOL. During the Clinton administration, one of the five ambassadorial positions in the U.S. mission was assigned exclusively to U.N. management and budget issues, an arrangement continued during the Bush administration. Under Obama, however, no one has been successfully nominated to fill that slot for 20 months and counting. This omission alone tells other U.N. members and the secretariat that good management, sound budgeting, and continuing reform are essentially irrelevant to the administration.
U.S. support for anti-corruption activities within the U.N. has evaporated. Inga-Britt Ahlenius, who in July left her post as head of the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), received no public support from the Obama administration. Nothing was done to save the highly successful task force, created in 2006, that uncovered hundreds of millions of dollars in contract fraud. It was defunded in 2009, its investigators let go and its hard-charging leader denied a position within the OIOS, despite vigorous opposition from Ahlenius. The United States stood by and watched it happen.
Moreover, the Obama administration paid the entire U.S. accumulated arrearages of assessed U.N. contributions, and got exactly nothing in exchange. Congress had created these arrearages to exert leverage for reform over the U.N., by showing that the U.N.’s largest funder would not simply acquiesce in continued poor performance, waste, and outright fraud. All of that leverage is now gone. On March 11, 2009, in a meeting with House Foreign Affairs Committee members, Ban Ki-moon called the United States a “deadbeat,” but this caused nary a ripple at the U.S. mission. In fact, it has been Britain, even under Gordon Brown, not the United States, that has recently led the charge for U.N. budget restraint; and Britain and France that have sought to prevent expensive new U.N. peacekeeping forces without exit strategies, stressing political solutions to the underlying conflicts as an alternative to reflexively launched and open-ended troop deployments. Fraud and inefficiency continue, as well as widespread concerns about sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. peacekeepers of the very populations they are sent to protect.
Given this dismal record, what can we expect from Obama’s upcoming U.N. speech, and what lies ahead in the remainder of his presidency?
Obama will undoubtedly trumpet his “New START” arms-control treaty with Russia as a major step toward his “nuclear zero” goal, and repeat his 2009 pledges to negotiate further multilateral arms-control treaties in the U.N. Conference on Disarmament and have the Senate ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. New START, of course, is facing rising Senate opposition, and the other objectives look increasingly remote. Where Obama may try something new is to emphasize his support for an “Arms Trade Treaty,” currently in the initial stages of negotiation, that could dramatically restrict the private ownership of firearms worldwide, despite the clear constitutional protections of our Second Amendment.
Numerous other questions remain. How will Obama try to recover on climate change from the wreckage of last year’s Copenhagen Summit, a failure he in part precipitated by his unrealistic assurances that Congress would pass cap-and-trade legislation beforehand? This proposal is certainly dead for the remainder of 2010, and unlikely to be resurrected thereafter, as is the Law of the Sea Treaty, once an administration priority for Senate ratification this year, and a potential back-door way to justify climate-change regulation. In short, Obama has achieved little to satisfy those seeking massive government intervention and control over the economy on the basis of global warming.
One question consuming Turtle Bay is whether Ban Ki-moon will win a second term as secretary general next year. Although Ban has been rapped for being insufficiently assertive (meaning, in U.N.-speak, insufficiently challenging of Washington), no alternative candidates have emerged. Moreover, there is no sign of the sort of antipathy to Ban that characterized Madeleine Albright’s view of Boutros Boutros-Ghali and resulted in his 1996 ouster by Kofi Annan after one term.
Perhaps the most surprising conclusion about Obama’s U.N. record is how anemic it is. On the other hand, this is consistent with his minimal overall involvement in foreign and national-security policy, except when circumstances such as Iraq and Afghanistan present him with no seemly alternative other than to engage. Whether this pattern of near-disdain for foreign affairs continues could largely depend on the outcome of November’s elections. If Republicans prosper, Obama’s domestic agenda will suffer considerably, at least where new legislation is required. As with many earlier presidents, gridlock at home may motivate him to concentrate on international matters, where he is far less constrained by opposition in Congress. Then, perhaps, we may well see the full-throated U.N. support so many of Obama’s top aides advocate, and that our first post-American president still longs for.
– Mr. Bolton, a former U.S. representative to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.