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Posted by on Jan 5, 2010 in Economy, Health, International, Politics, War | 8 comments

The US and the UN: resetting relations

UN_LOGO.jpgAfter nearly 30 years of on and off coolness, the Obama administration is resetting relations with the United Nations because no other organization offers access to dialogue with so many countries. Among other things, Barack Obama wants to be remembered as the President willing to talk sincerely to America’s enemies before imposing sanctions or picking up the gun. In 2010, the UN could be a useful facilitator of that legacy.

Coolness began after Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981 and the UN, led currently by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, has yet to regain Washington’s trust. The first George Bush never quite believed that the UN could help his foreign policy goals. Bill Clinton was a little warmer but the second George Bush treated it with open contempt.

In contrast, President Barack Obama has paid nearly all the dues owed to various UN budgets. He is also trying to more fully use its diplomatic resources to win the hearts and minds of governments around the world.

The UN General Assembly, which is a parliament of almost all nations, remains a bully pulpit for cranks like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the overwhelming majority prefer good relations with Washington provided that they get a fair hearing and are not strong-armed into supporting US policies they think are counter to their national interests.

The international jury is still out on Obama’s first year at the helm of US foreign policy, but there is little doubt that most UN members listen to the US with a much more open mind than during the Bush years. The UN has 192 Member States, including anachronisms like North Korea. It is a key participant in multi-country talks on such stubborn issues as preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The UN system’s tentacles are so far reaching that not much can be done almost anywhere in the world on war, peace and economic, social and human development without its support and participation. The UN does not choose policies because governments take all major decisions through discussions sponsored by various UN forums and agencies. But international implementation to secure peace and build prosperity is next to impossible without the UN system’s involvement.

Since the early days of Israel’s founding, a UN agency provides food, health care and education to millions in Palestinian refugee camps. UN monitors watch the borders with Lebanon, Syria and Egypt while Ban and his officials take part in most decisions although Israel and the US call the shots. Many UN members are hostile to Israel’s interests but all work through UN agencies on humanitarian issues and respect its involvement.

In Iraq, the UN with several of its agencies is the main economic aid group and think tank for issues directly affecting the people other than military security. It continues to promote talks between the US and Iran to stabilize peace in Iraq. UN officials are also present in Syria, Turkey and Jordan to help with the influx of Iraqi refugees.

A UN agency tasked with preventing the illegal conversion of peaceful nuclear energy to nuclear weapons is a key voice in America’s confrontation with Iran over the nuclear issue. Ban is also part of the international group putting pressure on Iran. If new severe sanctions are imposed, the UN will supervision them.

In Afghanistan, the UN is a vital partner of the American-led NATO coalition for most of the nation building aspects of counterinsurgency. It monitors how democracy, health care, education and respect for human rights and women are working in practice despite the on-going war.

On softer issues, the US works with local UN cadres in most countries that receive American aid to alleviate poverty, protect the environment, promote human rights, improve the status of women and protect children. They also work together to handle major health care threats like the H1N1 flu epidemic, the HIV/AIDS pandemic and killer diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. Even fighting economic recession, improving global banking , stabilizing financial flows and creating employment are done with advice and help from UN agencies.

The Bush years created open hostility and distrust with UN member governments and many UN staff because of the short shrift given them. Obama has halted that slide but the two sides are still weaving a cautious waltz to rebuild confidence.

In understanding the UN, it is important to separate its politics from its officials. The self-serving rhetoric of raucous governments dominates the politics but officials are usually well-qualified professionals familiar with the terrain where they work. Because of its democratic and diverse structure, the UN can never be an instrument of US foreign policy but its staff can certainly be effective enablers if the Obama administration learns to push the right buttons.

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  • JSpencer

    I know at least a few libertarians and many “conservatives” (a word I’ve been forced this century into always displaying within quotation marks – although given the current nature of liberals having moved to the right, I should be doing the same with them. . . but I digress 😉 as I was saying, I know these people who have no use for the UN and view it with distrust, perhaps seeing it as somehow a threat to US autonomy (yes, I know how absurd that is) but I think this is because they don’t really understand the vision and purpose of the UN. I’m glad Obama is taking a more mature and constructive approach to the part we play in it, since I’ve always believed the UN to have a great deal more potential for a positive role in the world community than it has so far realized.

  • DaMav

    I’m all for nations being able to meet together to debate and share their views. I’d be willing to spend say, 100 million dollars for a nice big meeting room with interpreters to accomplish that. Nothing more is required of such a body. Everything else can be handled more efficiently and effectively with multinational alliances acting independently.

    I doubt that there is a nation on the planet that does anything they don’t want to do just because the UN has ‘mandated’ it. The concept of giving actual power to this bloated self-serving mega-bureaucracy is not only frightening but ridiculous. The body needs a major budget and ego shrink.

    Ditto the so called “charitable” function of the UN which often suck up American resources, repackage them with the UN, then give them to terrorists like Hamas to redistribute while bashing the very people who shelled out for them in the first place. We’d get a lot more bang for the buck and so would the needy if we eliminated the bloated bureaucracy in the middle.

    It is indeed heartening to see that a growing number of Americans view the performance of the UN with disfavor. This seems to be reaching a bipartisan consensus; in 2009 Gallup found that even 58% of Democrats think the organization is doing a poor job.

    Frankly Mr Kindharia, I could care less what the opinion of UN staff is of the United States. They would be smarter to start worrying more about what Americans think of them. What exactly is the UN going to do if we decide to shrink it? Boycott our dues? Send the UN Army after us? What a joke.

  • JSpencer

    Working within a system to find ways of making it more useful makes a great deal more sense than turning ones back on it and pretending it will improve on it’s own. Guess what? Life ain’t perfect, neither is the UN, neither is the USA, have we forgotten what the purpose of work is?

  • mrmeangenes

    I must confess a certain lack of fondness for the UN; still, I suppose we must continue to deal with it.

  • I make a slight allowance for the ignorant who think of the UN only as the Security Council or General Assembly. But it never surprises me when the abysmally selfish and small minded so-called “conservatives” oppose the many UN programs that save millions of children from death by dehydration, improve sanitation, safe drinking water and food safety, protect endangered species and fight poaching, spearhead AIDS relief, disaster relief and poverty alleviation. These are all “leftie” causes. Of course the morally bankrupt Republicans oppose such efforts.That they try to come off as morally superior (which lots of them do here) is pathetically laughable. Come on. These are warmonger torture proponents who disparage organizations that save helpless children’s lives.

    • DaMav

      The UN does absolutely nothing to ‘save childrens lives’ or feed hungry children. It likes to hide behind those claims. The UN itself produces nothing. No food, no wealth, nothing.

      It takes money from nations, and from people (Trick or Treat for UNICEF), and funnels a large cut into its accountable-to-nobody mobocracy which takes food, stamps it “From the UN”, and distributes what is left. The corruption and misdirection at the UN is legendary and has been exposed many times. But it is almost impossible to get any real change or accountability because of the internal politics, aided and abetted by well meaning people who take it at face value.

      There are numerous private charities, many of them strongly left wing (to appease your delicate sensibilities), who do a far better and more efficient job. They produce detailed reports and are regulated by governments accountable to their home nation, and if they have a problem with corruption it gets cleared up. They also compete for donations, so they have an incentive to operate efficiently and effectively since failure to do so damages their ability to raise funds over time. While not completely scandal-free, they at least operate in a framework which encourages them to be so. And many of these organizations, regardless of their ideological tilt, are filled with salt of the Earth dedicated people sacrificing to feed children.

      The UN competes directly with these private charities. Money going into the UN and its associated “charities” is money which could be donated and spent to feed far more children, and entertain far fewer bureaucrats at lavish “World Conferences on Hunger” in resort cities.

      The UN itself preys on children. There have been numerous cases of UN “peacekeeping” troops selling children as sex slaves. How do you hold these troops responsible when you have to go through a corrupt process and institution to do so?

      The fundamental problem here is this — there is no real accountability at all for UN operations. Any attempts to clean up the corruption are immediately politicized and subverted to overriding issues of the various member states. Even withholding dues produces only a temporary jolt, while fueling a new set of issues. The delegates at the UN are not elected, and are only accountable to their home nation’s government at which what we call corruption may be an accepted way of life. So we get the Mugabes of the world wielding influence and cutting deals for their support — no wonder the place is a bloated tick on world charity. Even in the Security Council where at least some of the members can trace their position back to an electorate, the priorities are not on making sure the books balance in the field and that shady practices are eschewed. Where does the buck stop? Nowhere.

      To propose that people oppose the UN don’t want to feed hungry children is to cynically ignore the actual impact of the UN in taking food out of their hungry little mouths. You are defending a corrupt deacon siphoning money out of the church till whether you wish to face that or not.

  • DLS

    Faith and hope in world government, and subjection of the US most of all, as well as the rest of the West, to it, is naive and child-like at best, and since the 1960s has been often more sinister when not still naive and inept.

  • DLS

    “To propose that people oppose the UN don’t want to feed hungry children ”

    is, as the very kindest, most generous and lenient critics would remind everyone, (merely) illogical.

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