The Obama Administration at the UN

The Obama Administration at the UN

The Washington Post has an interesting story in the Sunday, February 22, 2009, edition (A16) by its longtime UN reporter, Colum Lynch, “With Rivals in Key Posts, U.S. Faces Hurdles at U.N.”  The article points out that many key UN posts are occupied by countries, and often individuals, hostile to the United States.  The General Assembly, for example, is headed by Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, a leftist Nicaraguan priest.  Even countries under U.N. sanctions – Iran and Sudan, for example – have 

made their way back to international respectability, securing leadership positions on the board of the United Nations’ top development agency and at the head of the Group of 77 and China, a group that coordinates social policies for Third World countries.

The alignment of these leaders has the potential to restrain U.S. ambitions to pursue initiatives, including stepping up international pressure on Sudan to stem the bloodshed in Darfur, strengthening U.N. oversight of its multibillion-dollar field operations and normalizing the United Nations’ relationship with Israel.

Ordinarily, one would look to the divide between the Security Council and the General Assembly – roughly, the gap between the ‘talking shop of the nations’ and the ‘playpen of the nations’ – to see the difference between the serious, even if highly conflicted, and the unserious.  However, with Libya currently on the Security Council, the Security Council is even more frozen than usual.  Libya last week

blocked a U.S. plan for a Security Council resolution condemning violence against civilians in south Darfur. And d’Escoto has used his position to excoriate Israel’s policies in Gaza.

The question of whether and how the United States can really hope to overcome much of this is presented by Lynch as the question of whether Bush administration unilateralism poisoned the well against the US, in which case the Obama administration is thought to be able to come in and fix things up:

Some U.N. diplomats said the Third World voting blocs have been radicalized by eight years of confrontation with the Bush administration. The test, they say, is whether the Obama administration, buoyed by a reservoir of international goodwill, can moderate or blunt their influence.

“We are coming out of a period where there had been a very fundamentalist confrontation between the United States and many in the G77,” said Mark Malloch-Brown, a minister in the British Foreign Office who oversees U.N. affairs. “The United States chose not to notice, or if it did notice, it dismissed it as typical U.N. antics.”

Malloch-Brown said he doubts the successes of U.N. hard-liners constitute “an insuperable barrier” to U.S. initiatives, noting that some of America’s sternest foes are eager to work with the Obama administration. “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.”

Malloch-Brown, prior to joining the UK foreign ministry, was head of UNDP and then a key advisor and strategist to Kofi Annan.  After leaving the UN, he headed an investment fund within George Soros’ group – Soros had been his landlord, actually, in New York, among many other contacts.  The alternative view is, interestingly, offered by James Traub, the journalist who wrote the excellent book on Kofi Annan and the UN, The Best of Intentions.  I say interestingly, because from all that I understood, Malloch-Brown was not just a key source for Traub, it always seemed to me that Traub more or less channeled Malloch-Brown in his book.  However, Traub says that it is a mistake to get too excited about the possibility that any change of US administration would really change the dynamic of anti-Americanism at the UN:

But others say hard-line leaders will use their posts to promote policies that are hostile to the United States. “I think it’s a fallacy to think the most entrenched ones can be won over,” said James Traub, author of a book on the United Nations. “We have a problem that goes beyond the Bush administration’s unilateralism.”

Traub said the Third World bodies at the United Nations present countries such as Iran, Belarus and Venezuela with an opportunity to exercise influence well beyond their national means. “What makes them powerful out of all proportion to the power they hold in the world is not only their position of authority, but more mysteriously and alarming the fact that their views so often carry the day in the NAM [non-aligned movement],” he said.

Traub goes on to note the peculiar disconnection between how countries behave in the real world and how they vote at the UN.  It is a rare exception to find countries that are part of the NAM ever breaking ranks with it, even when their real-world, outside the UN, policies are tightly linked to US positions.  Traub offers Pakistan and Egypt, but a better case would be a country like Coluombia [thank you Paul!].  You would not know that it is, in the real world, a core US ally, to judge by its UN votes.  

I’ve frequently asked the question why it is that the US does not press countries harder to align with it at the UN.  Diplomats at the UN, the State Department, and at various embassies pretty much tell me the same thing: part of it is lack of coordination between the country embassies and State Department country desks and the UN mission, but a big part of it is the perception that it would cost far more than it is worth in real-world relationships to press countries to join with the US at the UN.  

In any case, I think Traub is right that the positions at the UN are entrenched against the US for reasons that cannot be overcome by any administration, Democrat or Republican.  It is hard to see Susan Rice taking her own words about multilateralism and friendship too seriously; she saw it all in her Clinton DOS years dealing with African conflicts and the inability to get the UN very revved up about genocide and mass atrocity.  Still, soft anti-Americanists – I myself would count Malloch-Brown as one, though I do understand that not everyone would agree – perpetually dangle before credulous Democrats the possibility that if only this, if only that, love and harmony would be on offer, but then it never quite turns out that way, only to dangle the promise of Michel Cluizel chocolates before their eyes once again … it is good to see Traub suggesting that likelihood to the new administration, even if indirectly.  

But I suspect that the Obama administration, like the Clinton administration, sees the UN as largely irrelevant, andthat it thinks, as the Clinton administration did, that Republican administrations get all too worked up over something that is all hat and no cattle.  I think that takes it far too lightly; still, there is something to be said for a reversion to the Clinton administration’s mean of the pious hypocrisy that everyone else undertakes, and quite takes for granted, at the UN.

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Paul Stephan
Paul Stephan


Paul Stephan
Paul Stephan

Many thanks, Ken. I’m sensitive to the spelling since I served as rapporteur at a conference twenty years ago where I made the conventional misspelling repeatedly (but at least consistently!)

Will Fettes
Will Fettes

“I think it’s a fallacy to think the most entrenched ones can be won over,” said James Traub, author of a book on the United Nations. “We have a problem that goes beyond the Bush administration’s unilateralism.” You are taking liberties here and parsing Traub’s careful caveat about a particular sub-set of positions as a general declarative impasse: “positions at the UN are entrenched against the US for reasons that cannot be overcome by any administration.” Traub is not making the point you are making; he is talking about opponents who have the most entrenched positions, whereas you are using sweeping language to create the impression of insurmountable and arbitrary opposition for any hypothetical administration. But clearly Traub, or any fair-minded observer for that matter, would not support your view that US conduct cannot vary the possibility of positive sum gains for US interests at the UN. Traub’s use of language inherently entertains the notion that there are also less entrenched positions that are more amenable to changes in policy and Administration. Obviously those positions are the ones who are said to be welcoming Susan, or at least looking on with interest. Furthermore, once we admit this idea of non-entrenched… Read more »