U.N. Relationship Should Be a Priority, Say Foreign Policy Figures

by Michael AbramowitzThe Washington Post
November 19th, 2008

A high-powered group of foreign policy figures from both parties are urging President-elect Barack Obama to revitalize the U.S. relationship with the United Nations as one of his early priorities on the international front.

"The U.N. cannot succeed without strong U.S. leadership and support," the group writes in an open letter to be published later this week. "The next President has a unique opportunity to revitalize the U.S.-U.N. relationship as a symbol of America's commitment to constructive international cooperation. This investment will pay off substantially by helping to enhance our standing internationally and strengthen our ability to keep America safe and strong."

The group includes a bevy of the foreign policy establishment's biggest names, including former defense secretaries Harold Brown and William Perry, former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher, and former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft, Sandy Berger and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Along with Scowcroft, other Republicans signing the letter include former senators Howard Baker, Nancy Kassebaum Baker and Alan Simpson, former New Jersey governors Thomas Kean and Christine Todd Whitman, and former deputy secretary of state John Whitehead.

"Obama is a different face around the word, and the U.N. is the right place for exactly the kind of multilateralism Obama is talking about," said former Democratic senator Tim Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation, one of the organizers of the letter. The other group is the Partnership for a Secure America, which is dedicated to trying to foster bipartisan solutions to foreign policy challenges.

The Bush administration has had a rocky relationship with the United Nations, owing mostly to the decision to go to war in Iraq without formal U.N. authorization, as well as the decision to appoint John Bolton, a fierce critic of the U.N., as the U.S. ambassador there for a time. While the relationship has improved in recent years, several of the signatories to the letter said in interviews they wanted Obama to make an early sign of commitment to the U.N. as way of signaling a new era at the international body.

"We wanted to take the curse away that was introduced in part by the last administration with the Bolton appointment and in part by some of the attacks on the U.N.," said Thomas Pickering, a former senior State Department official whose many ambassadorships included a stint at the United Nations. "The U.N. can't succeed without the U.S. playing a significant leadership role."

Bolton rejected the criticism from the letter-writers. "The U.S. did play a leadership role at the U.N. -- look at the Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on North Korea, demanding that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program, creating a UN peacekeeping force for Darfur, and putting Burma on the Council agenda for the first time," he said. "What this report is really complaining about is that we didn't worship at the U.N. altar while achieving these objectives."

The letter-writers have a range of suggestions for what the United States ought to do under Obama, from paying debts to the U.N. on time and obtaining a seat on the "faltering" U.N. Human Rights Council to engaging more aggressively with the international body on issues like climate change, development and non-proliferation.

Nancy Soderberg, who served at the United Nations as an ambassador under the Clinton administration, said Obama will be naturally focused on a raft of other issues, foreign and domestic, in his first few months, but the rest of the world will be looking for U.S. leadership on many of the issues typically handled by the U.N.

"The most important thing is an early sign of putting the U.N in the first tier of things," Soderberg said.