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Obama to Tell UN That Washington Values Engagement


Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama joking backstage before giving a speech at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the State University of New York in Albany on May 8, 2012.. PETE SOUZA/WHITE HOUSE

President Barack Obama, criticized in an intense election campaign for not being tough enough with the rest of the world, is expected to tell fellow leaders next week why his administration thinks that cooperative action, not bluster or the flaunting of power, is a better policy for meeting the crises of this century.

The busiest weeks of the United Nations’ new General Assembly session, its 67th, begins on Sept. 24 with a high-level debate on the importance of the rule of law globally. Major speeches by heads of state and government get under way the next day, with Obama among the first to address the representatives of 192 other nations.

If the preview of his likely remarks offered this week by the State Department‘s assistant secretary for international affairs is a guide, the Obama message will be that Washington’s more active participation in the UN since 2009 has paid off for the United States – on nuclear issues in Iran and North Korea; and in Africa, Haiti and Syria, among other places.

“Working in the multilateral world is complicated because the world is complicated,” Esther  Brimmer, the assistant secretary, said in an address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Sept. 18.

“Global power is more diffuse than it has been for centuries,” she said. “Nonstate actors are more influential than ever. A number of countries are emerging as centers of influence with aspirations to global leadership, and bringing their own perspectives to global governance. For our part, the United States sees this growing diversity of perspectives as an opportunity to strengthen the international order.”

Brimmer said that in a period of economic slowdown, “The Obama administration has been clear from the start that just over one percent of the federal budget that the international affairs account comprises – a small slice, even in this time of increased global responsibilities – is one of the best investments the United States can make, yielding huge dividends for our collective security and prosperity.”

A week earlier, Brimmer testified to the House foreign affairs subcommittee on Africa that UN peacekeeping in Africa was “cost effective” to the US. “Over 70 percent of UN peacekeeping operations is paid for by the rest of the world,” she said. “Clearly the cost of any unilateral action would be far greater.”

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The Obama administration takes particular pride in the effects its leadership has made in invigorating the Human Rights Council and strengthening its ability to address the most pertinent issues. Brimmer noted that the council’s work has directed a brighter spotlight on the worst rights abusers worldwide, including most recently on Syria. It has also adopted the first resolution at the UN affirming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual rights and expanded mechanisms to monitor and protect freedom of expression and the rights of women to live without discrimination.

“And our work is not finished, which is why the United States is running hard for a second term on the Human Rights Council this autumn,” Brimmer said. The election of council members is scheduled for November, and the US is competing among 4 others – Greece, Germany, Ireland and Sweden – for 3 vacancies.

In New York, Obama, who normally takes the opportunity of the General Assembly’s opening session to meet other world leaders, will not do so this time, according to media reports on the eve of his trip. Among those who had sought a meeting were President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, one of the fastest-growing emerging economies, and  Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, a pivotal figure in the Arab region, where candidates of Muslim-centered organizations are gaining political power after the Arab spring. The US will have to rely on them to prevent or manage anti-American outbursts like those that followed the online screening of a crudely produced American video offensive to Muslims in many countries.

In a move from the Middle East that the US will oppose strongly, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, is expected to resubmit a bid for a Palestinian seat in the General Assembly as a nonmember observer state. This would be a step up from the Palestinian’s current observer status as a movement but fall short of full membership as a nation.

The 2012 General Assembly session, which lasts through September 2013, long after the speeches by leaders are over, will be led by Vuk Jeremic, a former foreign minister of Serbia. The election of Jeremic as assembly president attested to the breakthrough – and political rehabilitation — of Serbia 20 years after it provoked a series of Balkan wars by resisting the formation of new countries, most notably Bosnia and Herzegovina, after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Serbia’s new stature in international affairs happened mostly through its help in capturing and turning over to the Balkans war crimes tribunal in The Hague leading proponents of Serb nationalism responsible for what became known as the brutal “ethnic cleansing” that took place in the early 1990s. Among those eventually sent to the tribunal were Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia (who died during his trial) and Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the two most prominent leaders of the Bosnian Serb forces accused of the worst mass atrocities of the Bosnian war, including genocide and crimes against humanity.

[This article was updated on Sept. 24.]

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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