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POLITICS: U.N. Hopes for “New Multilateralism” Under Obama

Wolfgang Kerler

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 5 2008 (IPS) - With the election of Democratic Senator Barack Obama as the next president of the United States, many observers and diplomats believe the United Nations can look forward to stronger cooperation with Washington – after eight years of often contentious relations with the George W. Bush administration.

“I think we will see a greater engagement of the U.S. with the U.N.,” James Paul, executive director of Global Policy Forum, told IPS.

Compared to the Bush years, when relations between the U.S. and the U.N. were “extremely strained” – mainly because of the controversial war in Iraq – Obama’s presidency “is likely to be an improvement”, Paul said.

Congratulating the president-elect, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed that he was “very optimistic that we will have a very strong relationship” and a “renewed partnership under his administration”.

He expressed his expectation of “a new multilateralism”, based on statements Obama made during his campaign regarding “a new era of global partnership” and of building “bridges of cooperation with the U.N. and other nations.”

The secretary-general recounted his first and thus far only encounter with Barack Obama – a coincidental meeting on an airplane shuttle from Washington to New York early last year.

“We spent more than half an hour on the airplane sitting together, discussing many issues,” Ban said. “He was very engaged and he knew a lot about the United Nations, and I was very much encouraged.”

Ban also congratulated his “good friend” Senator Joe Biden – the future vice president – with whom he worked during Biden’s years on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Apart from official statements, an informal survey among more than two dozen U.N. staff members and foreign delegates released by the Washington Post on Oct. 26 showed overwhelming support for Obama – and little for his opponent, Republican Sen. John McCain.

One of McCain’s proposals might have contributed to the U.N.’s clear preference for Obama – to create a “League of Democracies” to promote freedom and democracy in the world.

“It could have damaged the U.N. if some countries put their energy in the League, not in the U.N.,” Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told IPS. “But there has been so little support for the idea outside the U.S., anyway.”

Now that Obama has been elected in a landslide, Carothers sees “the chance for a fresh start” – as did Peter Maurer, Switzerland’s ambassador to the U.N., in an interview with The Nation.

“The new administration will find a kind of window of opportunity because there is enormous goodwill around the U.N. to see and to hear some new voices,” Maurer said.

In a letter to the U.N. Association of the U.S. (UNA-USA), Obama clarified his positions on some issues that have been “pending or somehow troublesome between the U.S. and the U.N.”, William Luers, president of UNA-USA, told IPS.

“His intention would be to work closer together with the U.N. in peacekeeping and humanitarian relief,” Luers said.

Obama also named arms control, the problem of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and the payment of the U.S. debt to the U.N. as fields where conflicts could be resolved.

Luers expects Obama to recognise the fact that “every challenge we face in foreign policies – apart from the economic issue – are under some form of U.N. mandate.” As examples he mentioned nuclear weapons, climate change, and the planned withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

Still, all the experts who spoke with IPS warned of overly high expectations for an Obama administration.

First, U.S.-U.N. cooperation has not always been better under Democratic presidents than under Republicans, as James Paul noted. “Under Democrat Bill Clinton, relations were never very cozy,” he said.

On the contrary, “George Bush senior had a very good relationship with the U.N.,” as William Luers said.

Secondly, during his campaign “Obama said very little about the United Nations”, Paul said, “and his approach to governing the U.S. will still be influenced by conservative forces in Washington and Wall Street, but also by more progressive forces in the world.”

“It remains to be seen how all this will play out at the U.N.,” Paul said.

Thirdly, some basic problems in U.S.-U.N. relations are likely to endure, as Thomas Carothers said, one of them being the U.S. “desire to protect sovereignty” and therefore its “hesitation over giving great power to international instruments and multilateral agreements.”

“And we cannot expect any real honeymoon of the Security Council,” Carothers added.

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