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Leading from behind at the U.N.

Leading from behind at the U.N.

Who says the United States doesn’t wield influence in the world?

With all the clamor about the limits of American power in shaping a tougher response in the Security Council to Syria’s excesses, a couple of recent cases demonstrates that when the U.S. acts others follow suit, just not always the countries you would expect.

On Friday morning, July 27, the United States announced that it needed more time to consider the thorny details of the landmark arms trade treaty. The request, made on the last day of a nearly month-long session, effectively brought the process to a crushing halt. It also made it clear that the United States had no intention of negotiation the pact until next year, after the U.S. presidential election.

The action was criticized by America’s allies and denounced by arms control activists as a monumental abdication of U.S. leadership on the world stage, one that threatened the fate of the first international treaty regulating the international sale of conventional weapons.

"This was stunning cowardice by the Obama administration, which at the last minute did an about-face and scuttled progress toward a global arms treaty, just as it reached the finish line," said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International and formerly the Obama administration’s deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations.

But for countries that were never enthusiastic about supporting a treaty that could potentially constrain their military exports, the U.S. move was a rallying cry. Before the day was out, Russia, China, India, and Indonesia had lined up squarely behind the United States.

But this isn’t the kind of leadership the State Department likes to brag about.

After the conference ended without agreement, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued a statement that glossed over the role it played in the delay, saying simply that "more time is a reasonable request for such a complex and critical issue."

She said the United States still favored a U.N. arms treaty, but that negotiations would have to wait till next year, placing the politically charged issued off the table in the run up to the election.

"The illicit trafficking of conventional arms is an important national security concern for the United States…. The current text reflects considerable positive progress, but it needs further review and refinement," Nuland said in a statement. "With that in mind, we will continue to work towards an Arms Trade Treaty that will contribute to international security, protect the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade, and meet the objectives and concerns that we have been articulating, including not infringing on the constitutional rights of our citizens to bear arms."

On another front, the United States clearly demonstrated the enduring power of America’s example on the world stage.

For years, critics have accused the State Department of shielding the predominantly ethnic Tutsi Rwandan government from allegations that it had committed large-scale massacres of ethnic Hutus in Rwanda and eastern Congo following the 1994 genocide. The killings, according to human rights advocates and U.N. investigators, were in retaliation for the role of the Hutu-led government in the slaughter of more than 800,000 people.

In her book, Madame Prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte said that State Department’s ambassador at large for war crimes, Pierre Prosper, tried to blackmail her into dropping an investigation by the International Criminal Tribunal into alleged crimes by Paul Kagame‘s forces.

Del Ponte claimed that Prosper, who is now advising Mitt Romney, pressed her to sign a memorandum of understanding allowing the Rwandan government to prosecute alleged war crimes against its own forces. When she refused, the United States launched a successful campaign to assign a new prosecutor to oversee the Rwandan war crimes.

The State Department, which has long shielded the Rwandan government from war crimes charges, announced that it was withdrawing $200,000 in funding for Rwanda, citing claims in a U.N. report that Rwandan has organized, armed, and funded a military rebellion in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Within days, Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany announced that they were planning, or at least considering, suspending funding for Rwanda’s budget, citing its alleged support for the mutineers. Rwanda responded angrily, characterizing the aid cut as another example of Western paternalism. "This child-to-parent relationship has to end … there has to be a minimum respect," Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told business leaders in Kenya, according to a Reuters report. "As long as countries wave check books over our heads, we can never be equal."

For now, that reality is perhaps a small sign that the era of American world dominance has not entirely faded.

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