As U.N. Assembles, U.S. Seeks New Role

President Obama i

President Obama is likely to be well received at the annual gathering of world leaders this week for the U.N. General Assembly session. The Obama administration has been making efforts to engage with the U.N. after years of sometimes turbulent relations under the Bush administration. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images
President Obama

President Obama is likely to be well received at the annual gathering of world leaders this week for the U.N. General Assembly session. The Obama administration has been making efforts to engage with the U.N. after years of sometimes turbulent relations under the Bush administration.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When world leaders gather in New York this week for the U.N. General Assembly session, President Obama is likely to be well received. After years of sometimes prickly relations between the U.S. and the United Nations during the Bush era, the Obama administration has been trying to mend fences with the world body.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, says the United States has paid a price for stiff-arming the institution.

"Many countries viewed the United States as being more inclined to act unilaterally and not to seek common solutions to shared global problems. The Obama administration is changing that approach rather dramatically — both in principle and practice — because we understand that the nature of the challenges we face in the 21st century are fundamentally global," Rice told NPR.

Rice says the U.N. is the only truly global forum and she's been working hard on issues like nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran and violence in Congo and Somalia.

The Obama administration has joined the U.N.'s Human Rights Council, reversing a decision by the Bush administration. The council, created in 2006, lacked credibility in the eyes of critics, including the Bush administration, after countries with dismal rights records such as Sudan and Zimbabwe were allowed to join.

Critics also say the council devotes too much attention to alleged rights abuses by Israel, while failing to focus on places such as Darfur and Sri Lanka.

Rolling Up Its Sleeves

Rice has described the council as a poster child for what ails the U.N. But she says it is important for the United States to engage with the rights council.

"The Obama administration thinks it's vitally important for the United States to roll up its sleeves and engage to push back against the hostile rhetoric and hostile actions that have been often directed by the Human Rights Council at Israel, to focus the work of the human rights council on the most egregious human rights abuses in places like Burma, Zimbabwe and Sudan," Rice says.

But Kim Holmes, who handled U.N. affairs at the State Department during the Bush administration, says there are so many human rights violators on the 47-member council that the numbers are stacked against the U.S.

He and other critics are concerned that by joining the council, the Obama administration may end up legitimizing it.

"The onus is now on them to produce something and to make that rejoining worthwhile," says Holmes, now a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself — what difference does it make for the U.S.?

Holmes says the Obama administration is working off what he describes as a false premise that U.S. challenges at the U.N. were the result of the Bush administration's unilateral approach.

"The real problem is that we have fundamental disagreements with some of these countries like Iran and North Korea and that is true whether it is Obama or Bush in the White House," Holmes says.

A Struggle Ahead

The Obama administration will face some of the same dynamics in the U.N. Security Council that the Bush administration did, according to David Bosco, author of Five to Rule Them All: The U.N. Security Council and the Making of the Modern World . He says the Obama administration will still struggle to get Russia and China on board for tougher sanctions and he's worried the U.S. could get frustrated.

"Those who are most favorable to the institution and most ideologically inclined to work through the institution can be disillusioned sometimes even more quickly than others," Bosco says.

A new feature this year at the U.N. is a special Security Council meeting on nuclear nonproliferation, to be led by President Obama. Bosco says that the draft resolution the U.S. is circulating shows that the Obama administration is trying to address the concerns of some member states: that the U.N. is riddled with inequalities.

"They are trying to acknowledge that by talking about the responsibility of the nuclear powers to really take seriously negotiations to restrain — and hopefully eliminate — their own nuclear arsenal. So again, this is part of the changed atmospherics — a willingness to acknowledge the feelings that there are double standards in the international system," he says.

It will be the first time a U.S. president has chaired the Security Council.

"So it will be a historic session and we are very much looking forward to the outcome of that session giving concrete impetus to other very important upcoming negotiations," Rice says.

That includes the nonproliferation treaty review conference next year — "the president's own summit which he's called in Washington next March to deal with the problem of lose nuclear material," Rice notes.

The Security Council meeting could be awkward though, because Libya is currently a member and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is making his U.N. debut this year, 40 years after taking office.

Rice says that this is just a fact of life for big U.N. meetings and the president will stay focused on his agenda.

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