In anticipation of President Obama’s second address to the United Nations this week, the White House has published a lengthy press release titled “Advancing U.S. Interests at the United Nations” that lists the achievements of the administration at the United Nations. The motivation behind the press release is that those achievements are not being given their due in the eyes of the White House. This is, however, entirely fitting because the achievements are themselves not really notable. In brief, the administration’s list of claimed U.N. accomplishments includes:

  • U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran and North Korea and the Final Document of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that “advances a realistic path towards achievement … of a world without nuclear weapons.”
  • Supporting U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • Strengthening U.N. peacekeeping and bolstering conflict prevention efforts in Haiti, Sudan, Congo, Liberia, Somalia, Eritrea, and Sri Lanka.
  • Promoting human rights by joining the Human Rights Council, signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and securing General Assembly resolutions condemning human rights violations in North Korea, Burma, and Iran.
  • Advancing U.N. reform by supporting a new U.N. agency called U.N. Women, paying U.S. arrears to the U.N., pressing the issue of U.N. efficiency and accountability, working to “contain the growth of the UN budget”, and negotiating in 2009 “an agreement that held constant the share of U.S. assessed contributions to the United Nations.”

In an effort to sift the legitimate accomplishments from the bromides and the failures dressed up as successes let’s go point by point:

  • The sanctions on Iran and North Korea are welcome, but have been too weak or poorly designed to have the intended deterrent effect. As Ambassador John Bolton notes, “Obama’s U.N. strategy regarding Iran and North Korea has not been much different from Bush’s in his last two years. Neither has been successful.” As for the NPT, no one should confuse a consensus declaration with concrete action.
  • U.N. support of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq is welcome, but we should not lose sight of the fact that only U.S. willingness to use military force – sometimes in the face of strong U.N. opposition – has created the opportunity for those nations to move beyond oppression.
  • U.N. peacekeepers often do good work, but U.N. peacekeeping has serious problems and weaknesses. The U.S. has been pressing for serious reforms on U.N. peacekeeping for years with seemingly little effect. Despite the administration’s more conciliatory engagement, they have been even less successful than the Bush administration in pressing for peacekeeping reform. Meanwhile, problems persist.
  • Signing Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities means little without Senate advice and consent as the advocates for Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (the U.S. signed CEDAW in 1980) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the U.S. signed the CRC in 1995) are all too aware.
  • The Obama administration did get General Assembly condemnations of human rights violations in North Korea, Burma, and Iran. But then so did the Bush Administration.
  • Getting the U.N. General Assembly to create a new, lavishly funded body like U.N. Women is about as difficult as convincing children to eat ice cream. But what can we honestly expect from U.N. Women considering the U.N. General Assembly elected Iran (which recently sentenced a woman to be stoned death for adultery) earlier this year to U.N. Commission on the Status of Women?
  • As for pressing for U.N. accountability and oversight, where was the U.S. when Inga-Britt Ahlenius, former undersecretary-general of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), was being sabotaged at every turn by the U.N. bureaucracy in her efforts to hire competent experts to make U.N. more transparent and accountable?

Even giving full credit to the administration’s claims, which is generous to a fault, are they really notable? Are they really the harvest expected by President Obama when he promised “new era of engagement” with the United Nations to facilitate “a global response to global challenges”?

In a word, no. Some of the “accomplishments” are welcome, but none are truly consequential. Many resemble or simply repeat policy’s of the unilateralist Bush administration. The reform claims are simply wishful thinking.

This paltry record of accomplishment has to be galling to an administration that entered office ready to partner with other countries at the U.N. and eschew the generally frank approach of the Bush administration. Indeed, one wonders if the administration is feeling jilted by their prospective multilateral partner.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a major foreign policy speech at the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this month which included this fascinating observation, “The UN was never intended to tackle every challenge, nor should it.  So when appropriate, we are working with our partners to establish new venues and organizations to focus on specific problems.”

This is a welcome acknowledgement. The United Nations is a political body and many of the other member states are opposed to key U.S. policies and objectives. They use the institution to undermine those policies and are not shy about voicing disagreements and aspersions loudly and frequently. They weaken or block U.N. Security Council actions to sanction human right abuses or to enforce anti-proliferation efforts. Countries like Libya, China, and Cuba get elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council by huge majorities. The U.N. is as good as its membership allows it to be and engagement will not change this reality.

By making engagement and good relations the primary goal and soft-pedaling disagreements and problems, the administration is pursuing a policy of unilateral diplomatic disarmament. Nearly two years in, could the Obama administration finally be realizing that America is not the reason why the U.N. so often fails to live up to expectations? Well, at least we can hope for change.