Obama's Big Task: Save Troubled U.S.-UN Relations

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The president will need to prevent U.S. diplomatic isolation in the wake of the Palestinian statehood bid and reassure the world that congressional myopia will not derail reengagement with the world body

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Obama walks to a high-level meeting on Libya at the United Nations in New York / Reuters

When President Barack Obama takes the podium September 21 at the opening session of the sixty-sixth United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the love-fest of 2009 will be a distant memory. Instead, the president will face landmines both foreign and domestic. The Palestinian Authority will be submitting an application to the UN Security Council (UNSC) this week for full UN membership. This poses an excruciating dilemma for Obama, who declared his hope for a two-state solution last year at the same podium. Undersecretary of State Wendy Chamberlain has made it clear that the United States will veto any such resolution, on the grounds that a negotiated settlement must come first. This stance puts Washington on a collision course with most UN members--and threatens to alienate the Arab world.

Meanwhile, the president is fighting another fire at home: congressional critics who are seeking to slash funding for--and micro-manage U.S. relations with--the world body. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, GOP chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced legislation that would unilaterally halve U.S. assessed contributions for the UN's regular and peacekeeping budgets unless the UN shifts to an entirely "voluntary" funding scheme. This à la carte approach would allow the United States to cherry-pick UN programs. It is also an invitation to chaos that would undercut U.S. national interests, as other countries mimic U.S. behavior and un-fund U.S. priorities.

To be sure, the annual UN summit is always a bit of a circus--and all too reminiscent of a Star Wars bar scene (as U.S. envoy to the UN Susan E. Rice jocularly told Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert). With Muammar al-Qaddafi indisposed, at least one character will be missing. But the UNGA din will be louder than ever, thanks to the explosive issue of Palestine.

As Neil MacFarquhar reports in the New York Times, the UN's failure to shepherd a two-state solution for Jews and Arabs in the late 1940s is the world body's original sin. With Harry Truman's strong backing, Israel gained full UN admission in 1949. But Palestinian claims to statehood have gone unrequited for more than six decades, thanks in part to self-inflicted wounds. More than any other issue, the Palestinian question has poisoned the diplomatic atmosphere at the United Nations. It has also isolated the United States--Israel's staunchest and loneliest defender--from the mass of postcolonial, developing countries.

It has repeatedly sidetracked the agendas of UN bodies like the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and the Human Rights Council, resulting in an endless stream of anti-Israeli resolutions. This monomaniacal focus led former U.S. envoy to the United Nations Daniel Patrick Moynihan--and so many U.S. officials since--to regard the UN as "a dangerous place."

Resolving the Palestinian question would immediately place the U.S.-UN relationship on a healthier and more sustainable footing--helping to get these UN bodies back on track and removing one of the prime objections of UN bashers in the United States.

The second persistent thorn in U.S.-UN relations has been misguided congressional efforts to impose "reform" on the world body. The United States, of course, has always had an ambivalent and selective attitude toward the United Nations. Congress possesses valuable oversight over U.S. engagement with the United Nations, in addition to ultimate control over budgetary outlays and international treaties. But what has repeatedly proven counterproductive are legislative efforts to impose management and budgetary reforms on the United Nations by threatening or actually withholding assessed U.S. contributions, which the United States has lawfully assumed.

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Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he writes the blog  The Internationalist) and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance.

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