Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly today. Whatever he actually says, his critics will argue that he’s failing to defend U.S. sovereignty at the UN.
Conservatives believe that Obama likes diplomacy for its own sake. When the President gave a well-received speech at the UN a year ago, outspoken Republican John Bolton declared that talk of international cooperation was a “symbol of American weakness.”
Attacks like these may excite the Tea Party, but they show little understanding of Obama’s foreign policy. The President believes in multilateral cooperation in theory. But it’s an open secret in Washington that he finds international conferences very boring.
While American diplomats have made huge efforts to improve their image at the UN, the Obama administration has taken an extremely pragmatic approach to the organisation. It has pressed hard for support on its main priorities, most obviously new sanctions on Iran.
Yet Obama’s team has proved ready to sideline or simply ignore the UN when necessary.
On issues from the financial crisis to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Obama and his team have largely avoided working through the UN system. Administration officials are fascinated by the potential of the G20 – which only gained prominence in the financial crisis – as a forum for dealing with China and India. The UN seems dull by comparison.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the UN the “single most important global institution” but added that “we are constantly reminded of its limitations.” The administration has not forgotten the near-total disaster of last December’s UN-coordinated talks on climate change in Copenhagen.
U.S. officials have also been frustrated by the weaknesses of the UN’s peacekeeping forces in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which have suffered crisis after crisis in 2010. The Pentagon has resisted proposals to expand U.S. support to UN operations, arguing that they cannot spare resources from the campaign in Afghanistan.
This doesn’t mean that the UN isn’t useful to America. Since January’s earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. has made huge efforts to reinforce the UN peacekeeping mission there. Obama’s advisers, and especially Vice-President Joe Biden, have been impressed by the UN’s work in Iraq, which includes mediating between Kurdish and Arab leaders.
The UN also plays an important part in one of the President’s single biggest foreign policy initiatives – trying to lay the groundwork for eventual global nuclear disarmament.
Yet there is a strong sense among diplomats and analysts in New York that the U.S. takes an instrumentalist approach to the UN, only turning to the organisation when it needs it.
Perhaps as a result, there has not been a radical “Obama effect” at the UN. Russia and China continue to take a tough line on issues like Kosovo and Sudan in New York. When the U.S. proposed a statement condemning Iran’s political repression at the Human Rights Council in Geneva this summer, just 56 of the UN’s 192 members signed on.
This is a disappointment for those who hoped that Obama would revitalize the UN.
Outsiders may conclude that this reflects deep-seated U.S. distrust of multilateralism, but that is unfair. A recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 54% of Americans want a stronger UN. 64% even like the idea of a global peacekeeping army.
So why does President Obama continue to have an ambiguous approach to the UN?
One answer is that he has had other priorities. The General Assembly was never going to be a useful place for discussing the financial crisis, unlike the G20. Complicating matters, the U.S. faces difficult diplomatic dynamics across the UN. While China and Russia assert their strength in the Security Council, emerging powers like Brazil and India are also willing to challenge the West regularly. Brazil and Turkey irritated Washington by refusing to vote for new sanctions on Iran in the Security Council in June.
The Iran crisis is likely to dominate UN diplomacy for the rest of President Obama’s current term in office. If, as seems likely, Israel pushes for military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2011 or 2012, the U.S. will face a dilemma. Should it try to win Security Council resolution for the use of force? Or would this be doomed to rejection?
If the U.S. were to strike Iran without UN approval, it would not only bring back memories of the fierce Iraq debates in 2003 but wreck the Security Council’s credibility.
Nonetheless, if tensions with Iran continue to escalate, the President may decide that force is the only option. Barack Obama could end up acting without Security Council approval – just as Bill Clinton did on Kosovo and George W. Bush did over Iraq.
The administration urgently wants to avert this scenario. Yet, as world leaders listen to Mr. Obama’s speech today, they should remember that he is not an unconditional believer in the UN. The U.S. can, and will, still act forcefully and unilaterally if necessary.
This piece was originally published in Spanish in Publico.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.