September 22, 2010

Obama’s U.N. Record
From NR's October 4 issue.

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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 the way 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 deputy foreign minister Ali Abdelsalam 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 Nicolas 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 Pyongyang’s second nuclear test in 2009, but the Security 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 that 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, in the crunch cases the Security Council gets no more love 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.

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