United Nations Archive 1

President Obama and the UN

By Bill Miller

President Barack Obama’s “inbox” certainly is not suffering from a paucity of suggestions on how to deal with both domestic and international crises. Undoubtedly, the most important challenge is how to get the US economy out of the recession, which could conceivably become a depression. The Obama Administration has developed an ambitious and comprehensive series of proposals — some critics say too many --- dealing with many of these issues.

Focusing on the international side of the coin, a recent Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll indicated that in 15 of the 17 countries (with the exceptions of Japan and Russia) polled, majorities believed that the Barack Obama’s election would lead to improved relations with the rest of the world. Obama is mobilizing to make the polls a self-fulfilling prophecy. For starters, he nominated Susan Rice, a highly-competent career diplomat, US Permanent Representative to the UN, and elevated the position to Cabinet-level status. Being a member of the President’s Cabinet is extremely important because UN issues would be basically on-par with the others and should not get lumped in with, filtered or sublimated under other issues.

Ms. Rice is off to a good start by emphasizing Obama’s pledge to strengthen the relationship between the US and the UN. In a spirit of bipartisanship and a recognition of the UN’s importance, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) encouraged Rice to be a vocal advocate for the UN to the American public and Congress. Ambassador Rice also stressed the US paying its legal UN dues in full and on-time. The US will soon be $1.6 billion in arrears to the UN, as was pointed out by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during a recent visit on Capitol Hill. The US is in danger of reverting to its unflattering moniker of the 1980s and 90s of being an “international deadbeat” by not paying its legal financial obligations.

Arguably, the US benefits more overall from the UN than probably any other country. For example, the UN blue helmets, operating in 18 dangerous areas around the world, work to bring peace and security, reduce violence, and help people resume their normal lives. UN peacekeeping missions operate without US troops on the ground, the financial burden is spread among several of the 192 UN member states, and the US has veto authority to approve each mission.

Other facts highlight the UN’s value in these operations. For example:

-- A Rand Think Tank Report shows that when the UN can conduct a peacekeeping mission, it is more successful than when the US military takes on a unilateral peacekeeping assignment. The US plans to aid the UN to deploy and manage future complex peace operations even more effectively.

-- A US Government Accountability Office (GAO) study indicated that UN peacekeeping costs US taxpayers only one-eighth of what a US military mission would cost.

The Obama Administration views the UN as an imperfect, but necessary, institution. To improve its overall operation, one major thrust will be a renewal of the international body to make it more effective and efficient, which includes improvements in management, financial accountability, transparency, ethics, internal oversight and program effectiveness. The UN has improved its internal management quite dramatically over the past 8 years. Ironically, although the UN should continue internal reforms, many UN programs are more cost-effective, less wasteful and more efficient than some US Government programs, such as FEMA’s mismanagement in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the bloated Defense Department budget with cost overruns, and the Iraqi Economic Assistance Project where tens of billions of dollars were misappropriated or stolen.

Three other areas of emphases by President Obama are to:

1. Strengthen global nonproliferation and the disarmament regime. The US can play a substantive role in 2010 during the review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by emphasizing the commitments made -- by both the nuclear and non-nuclear countries -- to make sure they adhere to their original agreements. Emphasis should be on commitments made by nuclear powers to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in their arsenal and the by non-nuclear states to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes only.

Obama should also halt the herd-like stampede by some military advisers to rapidly install an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic. This system will not achieve its goals, will alienate the Russians, and will cost close to $9-13 billion, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office study. For 24 years, the US has invested over $100 billion in a US missile defense shield that does not work. The US should secure the help of the Russians in dealing with Iran and completely halt funding a failed system that is projected to cost close to $1 trillion if implemented worldwide—and still not be effective.

Congress should be encouraged to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The recent civil unrest in Pakistan emphasizes the frightening scenario that could occur if Al-Qaeda or the Taliban got access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Arms reduction at all levels should be a high priority.

2. Support the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to reduce abject poverty affecting 2 billion people, reverse the AIDs epidemic and other diseases, secure universal primary education, reduce child and female mortality rates, battle environmental degradation, empower women, and cooperate internationally to achieve these goals. These are logical, quantifiable, and agreed upon goals that may be achieved if the 192 UN member states, in conjunction with the private sector and non-governmental organizations, provide the necessary political and financial support, With the recent economic downturn, many countries are reneging on their pledges to work towards these laudable goals. The US should forcefully support the MDGs and play a leadership role in rallying international support for them.

3. Play an active role in helping draft the follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012 that will confront the ill-effects of global warming and climate change. As a run-up to the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December of 2009, both UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and President Obama, at a recent White House meeting, stressed that 2009 would be the year for climate change and agreed that climate change is an “existential threat” to the world. Once the financial crisis is averted, climate change should move into the number one slot as the major problem confronting the world at large

To its credit, the Obama Administration recently restored US support for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) by contributing $50 million to promote safe pregnancies and childbirths, as well as HIV/AIDs prevention and gender equality in over 150 countries and territories around the world. The Bush Administration withheld a total of nearly $250 million over a seven year period. According to UNFPA, every $34 million available prevents 2 million unwanted pregnancies and 800,000 abortions. By withholding for seven years, the US contributed to approximately 14 million pregnancies and 5.6 million abortions. According to its bylaws, UNFPA does not encourage or fund abortions.

What should President Obama do in the immediate future?

-- The US should seek a seat on the Human Rights Council (HRC) in the upcoming HRC election of May 2009. The HRC which, according to many UN watchers, is not reaching its potential, must have more hands-on leadership to broaden the agenda dominated by a handful of countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Cuba, that often violate the human rights of people within their boarders and want to focus exclusively (albeit there is much to criticize) on Israeli transgressions against the Palestinians. The US, now that it is moving to improve its own human rights problems with the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay atrocities, can be more of a moral compass for the HRC.

--The US Congress should bring up for discussion and ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Law of the Sea Treaty, (CLOST) which interestingly is supported by business and military groups. CEDAW and CRC both inculcate major human rights provisions that are extended to everyone in the US and guaranteed by the Constitution. The US is only one of a few countries, such as Somalia, that has not signed on to these treaties.

-- The US should join the International Criminal Court that pursues individuals who have committed genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity. The concept of “complementarity,” which allows a national court to deal with any of its citizens accused of these crimes, negates the bogus argument that US troops who inadvertently committed some crime would be hauled before the ICC.

President Obama sent a powerful message when his first official visit was to the US State Department, as opposed to the Defense Department. He signaled that diplomacy and working with other countries would take precedence over the “Neoconservative shoot first and ask questions later, might-makes-right philosophy” that led to several disastrous actions by the Bush Administration, which attempted to create a quasi-Cold War mentality of “with us or against us.” Arguably, the most disastrous action was the ill-fated invasion of Iraq which today is widely viewed as unnecessary, illegal, damaging to US and Middle Eastern interests and the worst foreign policy blunder in US history.

The White House reported that President Obama, after taking office, telephoned 37 world leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI and the Palestinian Authority President Abbas, before he contacted UN SG Ban Ki-moon. As all American presidents have learned, some quicker than others, that one of the first calls Mr. Obama will make in the future will probably be to the UN.

With massive problems worldwide such as the economic meltdown; explosive conditions in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran; negative, climactic changes; social unrest in Italy, Pakistan, Ukraine, Iceland, Ireland and dozens of other countries, as a few examples, it will take a multilateral forum and many countries’ involvement at the UN to bring the key players and resources together to confront these challenges. As former Secretary of State Madeline Albright said, “The UN is indispensable…and even superpowers needs friends.” No one country can deal with these massive problems by itself.

For the past 63 years since the founding of the UN, public opinion polls have consistently shown that the vast majority (a recent Better World Campaign poll was at 75%) of the US public wants the American government to work through international bodies, primarily the UN, in dealing with the myriad of intractable international issues and problems. These problems range from combating terrorism, drugs and climate change; promoting peace and security; eliminating diseases such as AIDs and polio; reducing poverty, hunger and illiteracy; and helping move aircraft, ships, mail and weather information safely around the globe, to mention just a few.

Dealing with a cumbersome UN bureaucracy and oft-times obstinate member states will be frustrating and challenging but absolutely necessary to overcome the grave problems confronting the US and the world. During the campaign, candidate Obama said, “No country has a greater stake in a strong United Nations than the United States.” That phrase is even more accurate and more timely today than it was a year ago.


Bill Miller, former Chair of the UN Association of the USA's Council of Chapter and Division Presidents, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN and is the Producer/Moderator of “Global Connections Television.”