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of common hope and values coupled with a warning that the great body faced irrelevance if it continued to "bicker about outdated grievances."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.

Until 1991 there were two major sources of friction: the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Where the U.S. kept faith with the U.N. before the collapse of the Soviet Union, even as the U.N. dithered and refused to take sides, it has often lost its patience over the body's longtime hostility to Israeli military retaliation to acts of terrorism, which the world would attribute to the way Israel has treated Palestinian refugees. Twice, under Republican presidents, the U.S. refused to pay its dues. Twice, under Democratic presidents, were the dues restored, and the tone modified, and the U.N. reengaged. Often, the U.S. has used its financial leverage over the U.N. to shape debates where it can.

Even as there has been a partisan divide in the way U.S. presidents deal with the U.N., there has been a remarkably consistent tone in their speeches. Virtually every presidential speech since 1945 has called for world behavior appropriate to an "era of interdependence" (Ford, 1974), a "global community in the sense that we face common problems" (Carter, 1977), the endorsement of a "resort to force reluctantly and only when they must" (Reagan, 1982), and the call for a "welcome shift from polemics to peacekeeping" (Bush, 1989).

U.S. presidents praise the U.N.--and then bury it with responsibility and warnings of its irrelevance if it refuses to act. Ronald Reagan noted in 1982 that the U.N. charter's "influence has weakened" because it refused to take sides against the Soviet Union's "ruthless repression" and proxy wars across the globe. "In these times when more and more lawless acts are going unpunished--as some members of this very body show a growing disregard for the U.N. charter ... let us finally make the charter live."

George W. Bush made it clear that "other multilateral institutions" were speaking up where the U.N. wasn't, a direct challenge to the body's regard for itself. Internally, his administration found the U.N. impossible to deal with, believing it to be a colossal collection of sinecures for do-gooders whose expiration date had long since passed. But so did Barack Obama, in his first address to the U.N., when he called for a future "forged by deeds, and not simply words." While noting that the U.S. once again was fully participating in the United Nations' more symbolic endeavors and had fully paid its dues, "We can be remembered as a generation that chose to drag the arguments of the 20th century into the 21st, that put off hard choices, refused to look ahead, failed to keep pace because we defined ourselves by what we were against instead of what we were for." Or, he said, the U.N. can finally give "meaning to the promise embedded in the name given to this institution: the United Nations."

The U.S.'s legacy of hectoring, however, is predicated on the U.S.'s being able to lead. Obama's first speech promised that the U.S. was well on its way toward comprehensive energy reform, a promise he abandoned--or was forced to abandon--when the economy collapsed. He said he would work quickly to bring Israel and Palestinians back to the bargaining table directly, and has failed to do so.

As much as the legitimacy of the United Nations is at stake when it fails to fulfill the vision of its charter, the U.S.'s influence is limited when it cannot make good on its own promises.

Image credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP