Friday, November 07, 2008

Obama and the UN

Winning back hearts and minds
Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration should use the United Nations to restore America's image all around the world

Comments (19)

Ian Williams, Thursday November 6 2008 18.00 GMT

There is little doubt that, if UN staff and ambassadors could vote, Barack Obama would have won by an even bigger landslide than he achieved. From his speeches they expect him to negotiate where possible, to build consensual international alliances. They may not get all that they want. It may not be the second coming, but to use the eschatological phraseology of the Palins of this world, it is certainly the end of the reign of the anti-Christ.

All the signs are that Obama is of the Teddy Roosevelt, "speak softly
and carry a big stick" school of diplomacy. He may not chase neocon chimeras across the globe, but he will certainly be strong in his defence of concrete American interests. He has surrounded himself with advisers whose centre of gravity leans towards liberal interventionism, as he has shown by his declared policy of boosting troop strength in Afghanistan. His statements on raids into Pakistan also suggest a robust attitude towards rules about sovereignty.

There will certainly be a change of approach and a different discourse, but it there may be less change in actual policy than people think.

A British comedian's tag line used to be "It's the way you tell 'em," and this is true of George Bush's engagement with the United Nations. No previous administration has relied so much on the world organisation to help carry out its foreign policy objectives, but neither has any other administration been as curmudgeonly in its public pronouncements. In its split personality, the White House has pandered to the know-nothings and isolationists on Capitol Hill, while first Colin Powell, then Condoleezza Rice have tried to use charm. But then he undercut their work by sending John Bolton to be UN ambassador.

Of course, from that bleak period, there is a tendency to look back sentimentally towards the Clinton era, but Madeleine Albright was in her way every bit as peremptory and demanding of submission by the UN. She and Bolton could meet and brandish the respective heads of Boutros Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan to prove their machismo.

Obama's team includes many of Albright's ilk, and it will have expectations of the United Nations, and as the world's remaining superpower, albeit somewhat battered by wars and economic crisis, they will expect delivery. They will start with an immense reservoir of good will from across the world, but there will be limits. Even the litmus paper issue of climate change and carbon usage, espoused by Ban Ki Moon as his big issue, is not universally popular in the developing world, where they have reasonable suspicions that it is an attempt by industrialised countries to pull the ladder up after them.

In fact, Ban Ki Moon has a window of opportunity to put some distance between himself and the putrescence of the Washington ducks, and make some rapid appointments while no one is micromanaging.

When the Obama team arrives at the state department, it will have its own agenda for the UN, which may be expressed more subtly, but in the end no less forcefully than its predecessors. Indeed, it may even be more forceful, albeit more in harmony with UN objectives. Obama is clearly more strong-minded than Bill Clinton, and is not haunted by Vietnam-era ghosts that made the latter unwilling to stand up to either the Pentagon or the Jesse Helms on foreign policy issues. And of course, it helps that he will have a clear majority in Congress.

The diplomatic equivalent of winning hearts and minds by attaching
electrodes to testicles is no more effective than its use in sundry CIA rendition centres. If he is subtle about it, Obama can recreate the coalitions that passed the "responsibility to protect" and marshalled African pressure on Sudan, for example. Simply stroking and talking to the Russians would produce beneficial results, as in the glory days when Moscow supported Desert Storm.

But in the end, there will be issues that need resolution, where the real world impinges on the resolution factory on the East River. For example, it will be difficult to secure Russian cooperation in the "near abroad" if Obama continues missile defence programmes in Eastern Europe. There he will have to overcome the Pentagon/aerospace/neocon lobby that wants to build on the $100bn already wasted on Star Wars, but for him it could be a triple whammy. Obama has already expressed scepticism about the programme, which would get diplomatic dividends from Moscow and free resources needed elsewhere in a strapped federal budget.

Of course, the mother of all issues is the Middle East, whose repercussions poison all efforts to uphold the role of the United Nations and international law. Obama's landslide gives him a mandate to back the serious peace forces in Israel, rather than the domestic US Likudnik chorus that overwhelmingly backed Palin and McCain. Serious action on settlements and serious support for a 242-based solution would really transform American ability to use the UN constructively.

At home, Obama could use his mandate to bring the US into line with its allies and the rest of the world with ratification of the various conventions on the international criminal court, the international law of the sea, child soldiers or even on landmines. Above all, he could use his influence to stop the series of loony tune amendments that are leading the US back into arrears on its dues to the UN. Any, or all of these, would establish America's leadership in the organisation.

And of course, and immediate closure of Guantánamo Bay would really show that there was a new United States administration dedicated to the rule of law at home and abroad.

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