U-Turn at the UN? President Obama Reveals an Unconventional Approach to Troubled World Body

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Mr. Milojevic is a PhD Student in History at American University in Washington D.C.

In his first address to the United Nations Barack Obama tried something that none of his predecessors had ever contemplated; he spoke to the General Assembly as President of the United States, and not as the leader of the free world. Political leanings aside, American presidents from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush have used the United Nations as a platform from which to project national power and ensure the continuity of the ‘American way’ in international affairs.  A bedrock principle in America’s relations with the United Nations, there has been more than one way that presidents have pursued this goal.  Some have assumed leadership through intimidation, others by avoiding responsibility, and there have also been optimistic presidents who placed an unreasonable amount of political capital in the world body.  President Obama’s address reflected none of these philosophies.

Prominent critics, such as former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, have charged that Obama’s address sponsors an idealistic and naive foreign policy. “Hope,” of course did come into a play a few times, it would not have been an Obama speech without it. However, this was not solely an attempt to enhance the organization’s international profile, as did Jimmy Carter so often during his presidency.  Carter’s public enthusiasm and respect for the United Nations improved America’s relations with the Third World by leaps and bounds, but in the process he lost the American voters who were more concerned with ‘stagflation’ at home.  Obama faces a similar constituency today, and that is why he emphasized early on and unequivocally that his primary responsibility is to the American people and their interests. 

That being said, Obama took a calculated political risk in laying out his administration’s extensive efforts to prohibit the use of torture, close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and responsibly withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.  There was no defeatism here though, nor was there an attempt to apologize for the Bush administration’s transgressions.  Rather, Obama urged General Assembly members to accept a collective responsibility in solving the world’s problems. U.S. presidents have rarely entertained such a notion, preferring instead to focus the blame elsewhere while maintaining the righteousness of America’s cause. This mindset resulted in much of the international deadlock that plagued UN initiatives in the 1950s and 1960s.

As President of the United States, Obama also made sure to introduce, and not unilaterally declare, this “new era of engagement.” No ultimatums were issued, nor were there threats of vanquishing the United Nations into irrelevance if America’s ideas were not universally embraced.  In a stark contrast to President George W. Bush’s domineering style, Obama assumed the familiar role of university professor, clearly and concisely analyzing the present state of the world, advocating common sense, and an inward and collective honesty among the delegates.

With the Bush administration as the most recent point of comparison, it is not at all surprising that Obama’s address has been viewed as a sharp reversal in American-UN relations.  In actuality, the address suggests more than that.  At this point in his presidency Obama has managed to retain much of his international popularity. He could easily have ridden that wave of support to the General Assembly podium, and resumed an American centered approach to international relations.  Instead, he came as a leader and citizen of one nation, and as a concerned parent.  This is an approach Americans have never witnessed, but it may actually make sense.

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John D. Beatty - 9/28/2009

The US provides over half of the UN's operating budget. To whom would this "new approach" of subservience to some tinpot dictators who pay practically nothing at all make sense?