Obama At U.N. To Remind World Of His Policy Goals But the president has run into some foreign policy roadblocks since his debut speech to the U.N. General Assembly last year. A look at his successes and failures as he prepares to address the world body again.
NPR logo Obama At U.N. To Remind World Of His Policy Goals

Obama At U.N. To Remind World Of His Policy Goals

President Obama delivers his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 23, 2009.  One year later, he has a mixed record on foreign policy goals. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Mario Tama/Getty Images

President Obama returns to the U.N. today and Thursday, delivering two speeches to address efforts to combat global poverty and other foreign policy issues, including nuclear disarmament and the Middle East.

When Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly last year, the new president sought to establish a new tone for U.S. relations with the rest of the world.

In his first major address as president to the global body last September, Obama called for "a new era of engagement" and said he wanted to repair the "skepticism and mistrust" he said had accumulated during the George W. Bush years.

A year later, he'll be measured less by the cooperative tone he sets and more by how much real progress he made on the ambitious foreign policy agenda he set out before the General Assembly last year.

That agenda included cutting worldwide poverty, reducing the world's arsenal of nuclear bombs and achieving peace in the Middle East.

Analysts say the scorecard for Obama's foreign policy agenda shows some progress and even success, along with some rebuffs.

Wars In Iraq, Afghanistan: Last year at the U.N., Obama addressed the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying "in Iraq, we are responsibly ending a war." He repeated his deadline to move all combat brigades from Iraq territory by the end of August, a deadline that was met last month.

But about 50,000 American troops remain in Iraq, many of them from combat units that have been repurposed as trainers and advisers to the Iraqi security forces. Iraq has not been able to form a government since the elections in March, and there has been an upsurge in insurgent violence.

Nuclear Arms: The president also spoke of his "comprehensive agenda to seek the goal of a world without nuclear weapons." That effort saw progress last week, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the new START, a nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia.

The treaty must still be approved by the full Senate, and that will require the votes of at least some Republicans. GOP leaders have complained that the treaty could limit U.S. defense options.

Iran, North Korea: William Tobey, an expert on nuclear non-proliferation at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, says Obama's record has been "good to great" on certain fronts but that "success has eluded him" on the "hard cases -- Iran and North Korea."

"A year, frankly, has been wasted" on efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program, Tobey says. He maintains that the Obama administration started off well with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's call for "crippling sanctions" on Iran but ultimately gave in to much narrower sanctions proposed by Russia and China.

Tobey also argues that the U.S. should do more to work with China to end North Korea's nuclear program, especially in light of the prospect that North Korea's regime is under stress.

Israeli-Palestinian Peace: Obama also spoke last year about his efforts to restart the Middle East peace process, an effort that has only recently begun to bear fruit. Early this month, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority began their first direct talks in two years.

They met for a second time just last week, but the Palestinians have threatened to walk out if Israel allows a moratorium to expire on construction in Jewish settlements at the end of this month.

Shuttering Gitmo: One of the president's highest-profile initiatives stalled this year: closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

In May, the House Armed Services Committee prohibited the government from opening any replacement facilities for the Guantanamo prison in the United States. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, "We know how the American people feel about it. Correctly, they don't want [detainees] in their neighborhoods."

David Cole, a professor at Georgetown Law School who has written extensively about terrorism, calls that part of "a 'national not-in-my-backyard campaign.' It's very shortsighted," says Cole. "Every day we keep [Guantanamo] open, we give al-Qaida recruitment fodder. Obama understands that. George W. Bush understood that."

But Cole says the issue is not just closing the prison. "It's about addressing the individuals we have there and dealing with them justly." Cole says he thinks the biggest challenge the president will face on Guantanamo is dealing with an international perception that the process is unjust.

Addressing Global Warming: The president's climate change legislation died in the Senate in July, even after Obama made a last-ditch effort to link passage of the bill to widespread outrage over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The House passed a "cap-and-trade" bill that would have limited greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, but oil and gas industry groups argued that it would destroy jobs along with any hope for economic recovery. The Senate decided to not even take it up.

Millennium Development Goals: Obama's address at the U.N. today will support efforts to recharge the U.N. efforts to solve the world's most serious and fundamental problems, when an emphasis on fighting poverty.

He said last year that "we have fully embraced the Millennium Development Goals" -- eight targets ranging from ending the most dire poverty to improving child and maternal health.

But experts say the U.S. and other countries have not committed enough foreign aid to address the problems and meet the 2015 deadline.

Rajiv Shah, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the Obama administration is committed to raising the U.S. foreign-aid budget from around $25 billion to $52 billion.