EDITOR'S NOTE: President Obama should use this week's United Nations summit to set "realistic" goals on nuclear proliferation, climate change and other issues, writes Stewart M. Patrick, senior fellow and director of the Council on Foreign Relations program on international institutions and global governance. For his full brief, please visit the council's Web site. A few excerpts:
Obama's task today is at once easier and more daunting than Bush's. The new president sails into New York on a wave of global goodwill. Proclaiming an "era of engagement," he has returned the United States to a multilateral path, through steps both symbolic and concrete. He has vowed to rededicate the United States to the international rule of law, engineered U.S. entry into the UN Human Rights Council, reenergized U.S. leadership on climate change, proposed reforms to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime, and declared his intent to submit for Senate ratification long-languishing treaties like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
A multilateral presidency
The president's UN agenda is jammed. Beyond the traditional General Assembly speech, he will chair a special session of the Security Council on nuclear nonproliferation, participate in a summit on climate change, and join a side session on peacekeeping. His unifying theme will likely be the common responsibility of member states-including the United States-to address the world's most pressing problems.
The big question is whether his faith in the UN, and broader multilateral cooperation, is warranted. The balance sheet to date is mixed. At the Security Council, the Obama administration got the Chinese and Russians to agree to a fairly tough resolution on North Korea. On the Human Rights Council, the United States won a continuation of the special rapporteur on Sudan-by one vote. But progress on containing the Iranian nuclear program, on bringing peace and justice to Darfur, and on reaching a major climate change agreement remains elusive.
Setting a realistic agenda at the UN
The president will be tempted to catalogue the UN's value added across a wide variety of fields, from humanitarian aid to peacekeeping, childhood immunization to environmental protection. But if he is to show a real return on his investment of time and attention, President Obama would be wise to focus on a short list of pressing issue areas, including:
Peacekeeping: Obama can use his side meeting on peacekeeping to highlight one of the UN's great unsung contributions to global security. Today, more than 115,000 "blue helmets" are restoring peace, saving lives, and promoting regional stability in some of the most wretched corners of the world, with U.S. contributions amounting to only a quarter of every dollar spent. The president should insist on more realistic UN peacekeeping mandates-a priority highlighted by the struggling UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and call on all member states to provide greater logistical and financial support to sustain these critical missions.
Human Rights Council: Few things risk discrediting the United Nations in U.S. eyes more than its perceived indifference to violations of fundamental liberties. The administration has chosen to work within the Human Rights Council, but the president should put that body on notice. The United States expects all members of the Council to fulfill their responsibilities, by shining the spotlight on abusers (rather than focusing monomaniacally on Israel), abandoning archaic pattern of bloc voting, and developing serious criteria for Council membership.
UN Security Council Reform: Other UN member states are looking to Washington to see whether the United States is serious about its stated desire to update the composition of the Security Council. No doubt the Obama administration would prefer to sidestep this briar patch, given the intense emotions of aspirant states and their regional rivals. But the issue cannot be put off indefinitely-without undermining the perceived legitimacy of the world body. Without offering a specific formula, the president should declare his general openness to enlargement to include those states that have the will and capacity to help defend international peace and security.