President Barack Obama gave his eighth and final address to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday morning. The tone was reminiscent of past speeches in a number of ways, both good and bad.
The rhetoric was soaring in parts and it was well delivered. However, his characterization of the world and his successes tended toward the Pollyannaish and the president’s irritating tendency to focus on himself and air domestic political grievances in international venues detracted from his remarks. At times the president also crossed the line from urging others to see his vision into condescension and lecturing.
As expected, the president touted his accomplishments since first addressing the United Nations in 2009. The White House summarized them thusly:
The end of two wars in the Middle East. A historic nuclear agreement that will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. A global agreement to combat climate change. A normalization of relations with Cuba, Burma, and Laos. An advance of relations with Vietnam. A global coalition to degrade and defeat ISIL. The death of Osama bin Laden. The largest investment by any nation to put an AIDS-free generation well within reach.
These accomplishments are at turns exaggerated (ending wars in the Middle East), delusional (that the agreement will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon), incomplete (the extent of climate change is uncertain and the agreement does not do what alarmists say is necessary to mitigate it), hollow (restored relations with Cuba has not changed the regime), irresolute (the ISIL coalition is, at best, fractured), and ungracious (failing to acknowledge the role of the George W. Bush administration in establishing America’s premier AIDs program). Although, to be fair, Osama bin Laden is dead.
Obama has been most active in the U.N. when it offered an opportunity to advance his policies that lack broad support among the American public.
The Obama administration has expressed strong rhetorical support for the U.N. and the president echoed those sentiments frequently in his speech.
However, the past eight years is a record of selective engagement.
This is partially dictated by political reality. Russia’s veto has blocked substantive U.N. Security Council action on Syria or Ukraine. Likewise, China’s power on the Security Council has impeded efforts to effectively bring pressure to bear on North Korea.
However, flaws and weaknesses of the U.N. itself have forced the U.S. to explore alternative options at times. To be blunt, finding consensus among 193 nations is often difficult even for administrations inclined to work through the U.N.
Even where consensus is found, there can be tragic unintended consequences, as illustrated by the U.N. presence in Haiti leading to cholera and U.N. peacekeepers abusing the vulnerable populations they are supposed to protect, that should lead the U.S. and other nations to question whether the U.N. is the best option to address problems.
Unfortunately, the president has been most active in the U.N. when it offered an opportunity to advance his policies that lack broad support among the American public. Most particularly, he has demonstrated a penchant for going to the U.N. to circumvent opposition in Congress. Consider the following:
- The Libyan intervention. Obama bypassed Congress and sought U.N., NATO, and Arab League support for the intervention in Libya. The subsequent destabilization and neglect has been a disaster. Libyan weapons have spread across the Sahel and into the arms of extremist groups in Mali, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and other nations. Meanwhile, Libya itself has become a breeding ground for Islamist terrorism.
- Iran nuclear agreement. When it became apparent that congressional opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was substantial, the Obama administration decided to seek United Nations Security Council approval of the deal before allowing Congress a chance to vet it. More than a year later, it is becoming ever clearer that the Iranian nuclear agreement was sold on false promises and poses risks to regional security.
- Climate change. Obama has been a dogged advocate for strong U.S. and international action to address climate change. Nonetheless, he has failed to rally public and congressional support for his efforts. To overcome this resistance, the Obama administration worked through the U.N. system to negotiate an agreement and refused to submit it to the Senate for advice and consent. As noted by my colleague Steve Groves, “The Paris Agreement is in form, in substance, and in the nature of its commitments a treaty as opposed to a sole executive agreement and should be submitted to the Senate. The executive branch has shown contempt for the U.S. treaty-making process and the role of Congress, particularly the Senate. The president is attempting to achieve through executive fiat that which he could not accomplish through the democratic process … The president’s actions in connection with the Paris Agreement evince an unprecedented level of executive unilateralism which Congress should oppose by any and all means.”
- Nuclear test ban. Obama has supported a ban on nuclear testing since his earliest days in office, but has been unable to rally support for ratification of a nuclear test ban treaty in the U.S. Senate. Frustrated with this opposition and facing the end of his second term, the administration will reportedly bypass Congress and seek a United Nations Security Council resolution that “would call for an end to nuclear testing.” The timing of the resolution is unknown, as is the level of support for the resolution in the Security Council, but The Wall Street Journal has seen a draft resolution that could serve as the basis for a resolution this fall.
While the president frequently blames congressional resistance for “forcing” the administration to pursue these options, it is he who has failed to convince Congress and the American people of their merits.
But the strategy might have an unintended victim: the U.N.
The willingness of the U.N. to play along with these partisan games will redound negatively on the U.N. Already, it has increased skepticism and disapproval of the U.N. among conservatives and supporters of congressional prerogatives.
According to Gallup, a strong majority of the U.S. public sees the U.N. as doing a “poor job.” By enmeshing the U.N. in U.S. partisan politics, Obama may be entrenching this perspective. Further undermining U.S. support for the U.N. may end up being one of Obama’s more lasting legacies