America and Others at the UN

Opinio Juris’ Ken Anderson reads Colum Lynch’s article in Sunday’s Post well, and poses a good question about why it seems like the United States has more allies outside the UN (at least in terms of countries willing to receive American aid) than within (where the U.S. too often has found itself with few friends in lopsided, 188-4 type votes). This is the very problem that Lynch dissects in his piece — how the Obama Administration, which has recommitted to international diplomacy through the UN, can overcome or work around what seems to be the entrenched presence and exaggerated power of countries eager to frustrate American objectives.

Anderson, along with New York Times Magazine journalist James Traub, whom Lynch quotes, is skeptical of the extent to which repudiating the unilateralist tendencies of the Bush Administration can make significant inroads at solving what they see as a more endemic problem. While this is true, in that the history and the bureaucracy of the UN have created a system that hews to certain unfortunate consistencies, it’s equally fallacious to take the UN out of the context of the past eight years, which, after all, have shaped the current dynamics in the body as much as the forces that led to the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a frequent opponent of American policies.

And this is where change may come. A shift in attitude and a willingness to engage will undoubtedly improve America’s reputation both at Turtle Bay and in the world, but the more substantive changes in policy will have a perhaps greater effect in bringing the politics of the “real world,” as Anderson, with the eye of a political realist, characterizes it, in line with those in the UN. States will continue to pursue their own interests, in the UN as in this real(politik) world, and contrary to some assertions by gleeful skeptics and disappointed supporters alike, Obama’s policies will differ substantially from those of his predecessor. This is not to say that countries will line up to agree with the United States, that states like Iran will abandon “anti-American” agendas, or that Israel has any reason to fear being alone in opposing measures hurtful to its interests, but promulgating policies that show greater respect and possibly even resemblance to those of the rest of the world, could go a long way in taking wind out of the sails of the extremists that seem to have such a strong hold on many large UN bodies.

I have to at least disagree with Anderson’s conclusion:

But I suspect that the Obama administration, like the Clinton administration, sees the UN as largely irrelevant, andthat it thinks, as the Clinton administration did, that Republican administrations get all too worked up over something that is all hat and no cattle. I think that takes it far too lightly; still, there is something to be said for a reversion to the Clinton administration’s mean of the pious hypocrisy that everyone else undertakes, and quite takes for granted, at the UN.

I understand the roots of Anderson’s term, “pious hypocrisy,” in that most countries will uphold the value of the UN (at least when it’s in their interests to do so) in the abstract, but renege on their support when it comes down to “real” policies. I think this is far too cynical, however. I see no sign that Obama would characterize the UN as “largely irrelevant;” on the contrary, it seems he has gone out of his way — reinstating the position of UN ambassador to the Cabinet, to take a symbolic example — to make clear that he will work with the UN, that he respects its functions, but that he also acknowledges its flaws and recognizes the importance of reform. More, by exuding the sort of unhelpful antagonism that Anderson glimpses, the Obama Administration would merely make it that much harder for itself to reform the UN and to heighten the U.S.’s position within it.

What Anderson, and many of the countries that espouse such an attitude toward the UN, are taking for granted seems to be the UN itself, not the strategy to circumvent it.