Argument

Not Enough?

Susan Rice's speech was a good start toward global re-engagement. But it was only that -- a start.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In a speech last night at New York University, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice spelled out the Obama administration’s vision for U.N. and global engagement. Her tone was decidedly upbeat — almost valedictory — and it came as no surprise to hear her happily declare, "It is a great time to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations." After eight years of hostility from the George W. Bush administration, two of which were spent under Ambassador John Bolton (who left little tiny shoes to fill), the high-spirited atmospherics were to be expected. The new administration, in stark contrast to its predecessor, has brought a wholesale shift in mood and attitude to Washington’s relations with the United Nations. With it has come a jump in the step of diplomats walking the hallways in Turtle Bay. But Rice’s speech, which was a good one, also deserves a very careful reading. Some important things were left out.

Barack Obama’s enjoyable honeymoon at the United Nations will likely last longer than it does on the domestic front; international diplomats view the U.S. president as a vast improvement from his predecessor. Rice rattled off some of the Bush policies recently reversed: Obama has adopted the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, rolled back the "Mexico City" guidelines that limited U.S. assistance for family planning, signed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and taken a much more supportive line toward the International Criminal Court. More than once, Rice mentioned that the United States would "pay our bills" at the United Nations — no small matter given that the United States owes more than $1 billion in arrears.

One of the core messages of the speech was Rice’s commitment to international engagement and expanding the number of stable market democracies around the globe. This is not new; in fact, it was the bipartisan approach of every U.S. president and the country’s NATO allies throughout the Cold War and into the administration of Bill Clinton. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. could have delivered the same formulation when he was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s U.N. ambassador. It was a good approach then, and it is a good approach now. Much of the speech embodied this sensible, middle-of-the-road multilateralism.

Still, Rice was not shy about defending U.S. exceptionalism and leadership, though she carefully avoided the trip wire of calling the United States "indispensable." While U.S. leadership remains important, she noted, successful engagement also requires effective cooperation and collaboration with allies. It says a great deal about how bad Washington’s relations with the rest of the world had become that Rice’s affirmation that the United States needs to lead by example, acknowledge mistakes, correct course when necessary, and treat others with respect sounded downright inspiring and revolutionary.

Rice did not expend many words considering specific situations around the globe. Anyone who was hoping for a stirring call to action on North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Middle East peace, Sudan, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo was disappointed. The speech would have been painfully long to do justice to any or all of these hot spots. Instead, the remarks were designed to deal with structural and architectural issues. And it is here that the fine print deserves attention. Note for example that U.N. Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon was mentioned a grand total of once very late in the speech (the same number of times as the U.S. secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano). U.N. employees will be carefully reading the tea leaves of this coolness in coffee shops across Manhattan’s East Side.

Equally AWOL from the speech was any reference to the "responsibility to protect" either as a concept or practice. This omission was unfortunate. When the international community can and should intervene in conflicts and humanitarian emergencies is a complicated, deeply contentious issue at the United Nations. If the Obama administration remains silent on the issue, many will perceive that Washington has lost interest in dealing with the Sudans, East Timors, and Kosovos of the world — given the country’s ongoing distractions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rice was, however, effective in arguing that U.N. peacekeeping missions need mandates that are "credible and achievable," with forces that are "equipped seriously, led ably." She stressed that the United States is keen to help other countries train and deploy peacekeepers. In recent congressional testimony she went further, arguing, "The Security Council has recently given some very ambitious mandates to peacekeeping operations in Africa, such as protecting civilians under the threat of physical violence — including sexual violence — in vast and populous territories with limited infrastructure, faltering peace processes, ongoing hostilities, and uncooperative host governments."

Maybe it would have been too impolite to say in New York, but in the last eight years, the Security Council has repeatedly established peacekeeping missions it knew full well would fail. Just take the current force in Darfur, which is understaffed, underequipped, and lacks capable military leadership. If the United States and its European allies really want hard peacekeeping missions to succeed, they need not only a better mandate and equipment but the involvement of U.S. or European forces in more than an advisory role. That model has produced the only truly effective peacekeeping forces to date, including those that brought peace to Sierra Leone, the Balkans, and elsewhere during the late 1990s.

Ambassador Rice concluded her remarks with a short declaration: "The United States is back." The Obama administration is eager to engage the world and mend fences. Let’s make the most of the honeymoon.

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