Why U.S. Presidents Lecture the UN

American leaders consistently hector the global body, challenging it to live up to its charter

Obama UN - Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP - banner.jpg

So here was the main protocol problem the United States faced on Sept. 23, 2009: President Barack Obama was set to give his inaugural speech before the United Nations General Assembly, a ringing endorsement of common hope and values coupled with a warning that the great body faced irrelevance if it continued to "bicker about outdated grievances."

Waiting just offstage, where Obama would have to walk after he finished speaking, was Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi clad in his red frock, yellow hand-written papers in hand. There was no way to avoid an interaction between the despotic self-proclaimed King of Africa, who was making his first appearance at the U.N. in 40 years, and the American president.

Then the U.N. team had an idea. Whether they coordinated it with President Obama's Secret Service detail or advance team is unknown. Right off the floor, the president of the General Assembly had an office. For some reason--probably security, but no one really knew--it could be locked from the outside. As Obama began to speak, Qaddafi was ushered into the room. It was a ... a gesture of respect, recalls one person who was there. The Libyan strongman could then watch the speech in private, in comfort.

A few minutes before Obama was finished speaking, the outside lock mechanism was triggered. Obama took his time greeting his admirers inside the hall, and then quickly departed, brushing right past the locked door. As soon as he was in his limousine, the lock opened, and Qaddafi was let out of his confinement, along with profuse apologies. This year, Obama was more than happy to meet with the Libyan delegation, as its mere existence represents a foreign-policy triumph for him, for NATO, and indeed, for the United Nations, under whose authority the president and his European counterparts launched a miltary campaign to help the rebels overthrow the Qaddafi regime. As far as Libya is concerned, the U.N. is suddenly relevant again.


In his address to the inaugural United Nations General Assembly, President Harry S. Truman called the U.N. "a world organization for the enforcement of peace." Whether it is serving that mission now is one of the great perennials of global debate.

President George W. Bush didn't think so, and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, pursued the ideals that the U.N. was chartered to reflect unilaterally, often at the point of a gun. He, and President Reagan before him, treated the world body as an uncle in the attic--someone they had to feed from time to time but generally found annoying and whose contributions to the whole of the world family were minimal.

One reason why Obama appointed his close friend, Susan Rice, to be his ambassador there is because he agreed with Bush's conclusion about the U.N.'s effectiveness but not with his prescription. Rice's main charge has been to light a fire under the world body, to push it to live the values its charter represents. This reflects Obama's view that the U.S. cannot solve all the world's problems by itself, and by holding other large countries to account for their own promises, the U.N. could become more proactive and less reactive. Implicitly, the United States wants to check--or at least shape--the growing influence of China on world affairs. Obama thinks the U.S. can do so through strong and enforceable U.N. resolutions.

The U.N. has of course been an effective vehicle to organize the collective global response to famine, and to AIDS, and to educational disparities. But when the U.S. has acted as a steward, and not as combatant, it has become an instrument of U.S. power--a way for the U.S. to pursue its own geopolitical goals while distributing responsibility for enforcing them. Being the only superpower on the Security Council can be an enormous source of power for the United States, as China has long recognized.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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