Obama Gets Good Grades at the United Nations

Barack Obama promised throughout his presidential campaign to reengage with the United Nations. And he has. He's compiled an extraordinary list of accomplishments already at the UN building. Let's begin with his decision to appoint a new ambassador, Susan Rice, who actually believes in the UN and has made her commitment clear. Next, his early meeting with Ban Ki Moon at the White House in his seventh week of his presidency, which demonstrated in a public way Obama's determination to link America up again with the UN.

Then his early decision to pay up our annual dues and peacekeeping arrears, estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and to switch our payment schedules to coincide with the UN's own budgetary calendar rather than our Congressional one; his choice to increase American military and civilian support to UN peacekeeping missions; his willingness to rejoin the Human Rights Council; his public declaration to recommit the US to ending climate change; his renewal of US funding support for family planning programs and reproductive health services at the UN's Population Fund; his desire to strengthen American backing of UNICEF and UNESCO; his endorsement of such UN inspired treaties as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; his backing of the UN General Assembly statement opposing violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation; his public citing of the ICC and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women; his push for a pact to end the production of fissile nuclear materials and his pledge for a vigorous US participation in the 2010 UN review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; his support of the UN's Millennium Development goals; his desire to reform the UN Security Council, including possibly adding more countries to its roster; and his support to complete the UN's internal reforms, the Peacebuilding Commission, the Democracy Fund, management changes and the new Responsibility to Protect provision (in the Security Council). All of this represents a 180 degree change of course from the George W. Bush years.

And then when Obama visited the UN for the first time in September, he made a number of remarkable moves. First, he addressed a special UN Security Council summit on climate change; then he hosted a luncheon for 43 sub-Saharan African heads of state; he arranged meeting with a dozen nations who are the top troop contributors to UN peacekeeping operations; and he chaired a special UN Security Council meeting on non-proliferation and disarmament -- something no American president has ever done. And then he dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the end of September to lead a UN meeting to press for the implementation of a previous UN resolution condemning sexual violence against women.

In his formal address to the UN during that visit, Obama uttered these key sentences:

Cooperative effort of the whole world - those words ring even more true today. ... No one nation can or should try to dominate other nations. No world order that elevates one nation or group over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold... We can be remembered as a generation that ... comes together to serve the common interests of human beings and finally gives meaning to the promise embedded in the name given to the institution, the United Nations.

Now, as you know, Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month. The Nobel committee spokesman, Thorbjorn Jagland, later said that one of the main reasons the committee gave Obama the award was Obama's emphasis on the primacy of the United Nations.

Indeed the changes in atmospherics are really astounding. I spoke with one member of the US Mission to the UN earlier this week. He told me that in his area of expertise -- peacekeeping -- the ways that Obama has already altered the US approach -- e.g., paying up our arrears, meeting with peacekeeping contributors, emphasizing the importance of these UN endeavors -- have left many delegates almost dumb-founded. They really don't know how to deal with a US that says "yes" rather than "no" or says it will listen rather than lecture.

Now, of course, Obama is not prefect at the UN. He has not been out in front on some UN issues. He ducked out of the Durban conference on racism, he has not submitted the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the Senate, he has not yet joined the International Criminal Court, he has so far low-keyed the Darfur crisis and recently pushed off consideration of the Goldstone report on Gaza. Nor does he talk enough about the UN in his speeches. But I call his first year a great success from the point of view of international engagement and a robust commitment to multilateralism. His is an example of a dynamic presidency, not a passive one, and of a progressive vision, not a retrograde or neglectful one.