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

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

patrick sep21 p.jpg
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.

Such efforts reached their apogee during the 1990s, when Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) and GOP colleagues in Congress created an arrears crisis that alienated other member states, cast doubt on the benevolence of U.S. global leadership, and undercut practical efforts to make the United Nations more effective.

Obama's unenviable task is twofold: to prevent U.S. diplomatic isolation in the wake of the Palestinian gambit, and to reassure the world that congressional myopia will not derail his administration's productive reengagement with the world body.

U.S. diplomats have labored for months to avoid the looming "train wreck" of Palestinian demands for statehood. In recent days, the Obama administration sought in vain with other members of the Quartet (the European Union, Russia, and UN Secretariat) to jumpstart Arab-Israeli negotiations, in order to defer Palestinian ambitions. Washington also consulted with European allies on the (still problematic) alternative of having Palestine seek "enhanced observer status" within the General Assembly. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected that option on Friday. So Obama must now oppose what he endorsed last year without alienating Arab opinion--or extinguishing any remaining U.S. credibility as an "honest broker" in the Middle East.

The president's Wednesday speech must address these twin challenges. In the face of renewed UN-bashing on the Hill, the weakened president must persuade the UN membership that his administration's constructive engagement with the United Nations is more than a flash in the pan. Simultaneously, he will need to convince his own domestic audience that U.S. national interests require the United States to be fully engaged in the United Nations, despite its flaws.

On Palestine, Obama must acknowledge Palestinian aspirations for statehood and reaffirm that this remains the ultimate goal of the United States. But he should continue to insist that a negotiated settlement come first. Beyond demonstrating fortitude to a U.S. audience staunchly committed to Israel, such a stance will lay the groundwork for intensive diplomacy in the coming weeks. In the Security Council, the issue of Palestinian statehood will not require an immediate, up-or-down UNSC vote--and a lonely U.S. veto.

The diplomatic process will be protracted, involving an exchange of letters as well as weeks (if not months) of consultations. The UNSC route thus contains a silver lining, albeit thin, potentially affording Washington time to reenergize the peace process. This presumes, of course, an Israeli government willing to make some concessions of its own, notably regarding settlements--something the president must insist upon in his speech to make the prospect of negotiations palatable to the Palestinians.

On the broader U.S.-UN relationship, the president must make a forthright case to his international and domestic audiences that sustained U.S. leadership in the United Nations is not optional but inevitable--not charity but self-interest. As the November 2012 election approaches, Obama's opponents are already using the UN for target practice. "We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multilateral debating societies", Texas Governor Rick Perry, a leading GOP presidential candidate, has declared.

Having so vocally asserted the benefits of multilateral "engagement," the president needs to hammer home the countless ways that the United Nations advances U.S. interests and values, from keeping the peace to monitoring disease to providing humanitarian assistance. Finally, he must remind his audiences that true UN reform is the product of sustained involvement, not ceding the field to others.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.