On the anniversary of the November 2008 election, it seems appropriate to assess the impact of the Administration on America’s relationship with the United Nations. After all, one of President Obama’s sharpest criticisms of the Bush Administration was its supposed resistance to multilateral efforts—particularly U.N.-led multilateral efforts—to resolve international problems.

Well, we can’t say we weren’t warned. In its first 9 months, the Obama administration has sought to purchase goodwill at the U.N. by conceding U.S. policy positions, downplaying the U.N.’s many problems, and seeking to engage with the U.N. on a host of priorities in which is unlikely to prove a capable partner.

Shortly after the election, Obama described the United Nations as “an indispensable and imperfect forum” that was vital to U.S. interests. While he acknowledged the need to reform the body, his comments clearly indicated that he was far more interested in seeking to make the U.N. a “more effective … venue for collective action” than in fixing the problems facing the organization.

The trend has been particularly striking in the past two months. As Obama explained in his first address to the U.N. General Assembly, his administration has spent the months since his inauguration weakening or reversing U.S. policies that have traditionally caused heartburn at the U.N. and reframing others to sound as though they were new and different. He listed the actions he has taken:

  • prohibiting “the use of torture by the United States of America” (as though the U.S. did intentionally and as a matter of policy use torture before he became president);
  • closing Guantanamo (although his predecessor had also said the U.S. aimed to do so);
  • quickly ending the U.S. engagement in Iraq (again a goal of the Bush Administration);
  • putting American support behind “a world without nuclear weapons”(something even President Reagan sought to do);
  • supporting the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (which the Senate rejected in 1999);
  • addressing global warming multilaterally (despite the abject failure of the Kyoto treaty to address that issue);
  • joining the Human Rights Council (which has continued to serve as an anti-Israel forum despite new membership by the U.S. under President Obama);
  • supporting the Millennium Development Goals (widely acknowledged to be unattainable); and
  • ending America’s “selective” support of democracy (which apparently means ignoring abuses committed in Iran during this summer’s election while strong-arming constitutional efforts to preserve the rule of law in Honduras).

The administration has joined with the majority in Congress to pay nearly a billion dollars in U.S. “arrears” to U.N. peacekeeping—predominantly resulting from the failure of the U.N. to reduce the U.S. peacekeeping assessment to 25 percent of the total budget as it had agreed to do—without demanding a single reform in exchange. Meanwhile, U.N. peacekeeping suffers from a serious lack of oversight and U.N. peacekeepers continue to go unpunished for grave misconduct on a regular basis.

As we speak, plans are afoot to “resynchronize” U.S. payments to the U.N. so that the U.S. pays its share of the U.N. budget at the beginning of the year rather than at the end as is the current practice (the U.S. began doing this in the early 1980s). In the abstract this is a good idea. But, when America is running trillion dollar deficits, is borrowing an extra $1.3 billion just to spare the U.N. the discomfort of a nine month delay in payments really a priority? Of course, Congress and the Administration are not asking the U.N. to actually do anything in return for resynchronizing its payment to the U.N.

This is tragic, because the U.N. has proven to be susceptible to corruption, mismanagement, and abuse with distressing frequency and the reforms agreed to in past years have either stalled or been severely weakened.

President Obama, however, is eager to defer to U.N. leadership on a number of critical issues. In his General Assembly speech, he announced four U.S. “pillars” as priorities at the U.N.: non-proliferation and disarmament; promoting peace and security; addressing global warming; and a “global economy that advances opportunity for all people.” In just the past few weeks, however, we’ve seen:

  • The effort to bring pressure through the U.N. on Iran to end its nuclear enrichment program defused; and
  • The U.N. Human Rights Council’s biased resolution on Israel’s actions in Gaza earlier this year, which has undermined the Administration’s effort to forge a Middle East peace agreement.

This is the “indispensable” organization in which the Obama administration wishes to vest so much responsibility? No wonder that, according to a September 2009 poll by Rasmussen, so many Americans hold a poor opinion of the U.N.

That the U.N. has proven a poor vehicle for advancing these issues comes as no surprise to the authors in ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives. They noted that the U.N. was particularly ill-suited to addressing disarmament, international security, international environmental issues, and economic development for a host of reasons.

For a group that prides itself on knowledge and mastery of multilateral diplomacy, the Obama administration was unprepared for the tough and combative environment at the U.N. Goodwill and symbolic concessions by the Obama administration will not translate into support for U.S. policies. Most U.N. member states consider these concessions their due. They will pocket them and stand firm to defend their interests in the U.N. Cooperation will be on their terms, on issues they wish to pursue.
President Obama is right in one thing—it is time to rethink and reshape U.S. engagement with the United Nations so that it better serves both American interests and the organization’s own stated purposes.

Unfortunately, President Obama appears to sees the U.S. rather than the U.N. or most of its member states as the primary problem. Accommodation and encouragement does not advance U.S. interests in the U.N. nor does it advance the lofty principles in the U.N. Charter. It simply opens the door for more inaction, disappointment, ineffectiveness, and mismanagement at the U.N.

It would be ironic if, through their actions in “support” of the U.N., the U.N. devotees populating the Obama administration end up further diminishing its reputation and hobbling its ability to act effectively at all.