f_0018906_16167 - Stephen Schlesinger is a fellow at the...

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Last summer a remarkable secret memo 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 developed. 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 Bitter Fruit (Doubleday, 1982) , about the U.S. coup in Guatemala; Act of Creation (Westview, 2003) about the founding of the United Nations; and coeditor of Journals 1952–2000, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
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