surfaced that rocked the traditionally calm
corridors of the United Nations secretariat,
while at the same time highlighting the
depths of the problems faced by the UN
secretary-general. Spineless, ineffectual,
lacking in charisma and above all “conspic-
uous in [his] absence at critical moments,”
the memo from the distinguished deputy
chief of mission of Norway only highlighted
publicly what many had known for some
time: Ban Ki-moon is in deep trouble.
At the same time that Obama appears to
have his own problems with Congress and
America’s worsening economic problems,
the UN chief is faced with having to find
his own way out of a wilderness.
It is now almost axiomatic to say that
the election of Barack Obama inspired
hopes for a new American relationship
with the United Nations. Not only did
Obama campaign for the White House on
a platform of renewed American multi-
lateralism, but in his first year in office,
he pressed for dramatic changes in U.S.
policy at the United Nations and sought a
deepening American involvement in the
world’s only universal security organization.
But, after the initial engagement period,
the close U.S.-UN partnership, which many
observers had expected and hoped for
after the contentious relationship of the
George W.Bush presidency, has not
In fact, though Washington has
arranged its priorities more along the lines
of the UN’s own agendas, there is now an
unacknowledged but discordant note in the
Obama administration’s dealings with the
United Nations. In his recent speeches,
Obama rarely mentions the organization.
While he has met the secretary-general in a
few private get-togethers, the relationship is
cordial but not personal. Furthermore, in
the White House’s pursuit of its overseas
policies, especially on the critical issues of
Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Iran
and North Korea (except for sanctions), and
on other matters like global warming and
terrorism, the administration has, for the
most part, sidelined the United Nations.
Admittedly, President Obama has been
preoccupied by a series of domestic issues—
above all, the economic crisis and health
care reform, not to mention his sagging
popularity. But beyond those priorities,
American disenchantment with the United
Nations seems to stem from a more general
feeling that the body is simply not acting as
forcefully as it should be in the global arena.
Obama clearly desires a UN leadership he
can work with, along the lines of President
Stephen Schlesinger is a fellow at the Century Foundation and the former director of the World Policy Institute.
He is the author of
about the U.S. coup in Guatemala;
Act of Creation
2003) about the founding of the United Nations; and coeditor of
Journals 1952–2000, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.