The Roadblock in the Obama Doctrine
President Obama may say he's committed to international institutions and multilateral engagement, but the Israel-Palestine debacle keeps tripping him up.
President Barack Obama's well crafted but often anodyne speech on Thursday was full of references to the important role multilateral institutions are playing in and around the Middle East: he talked up the U.N. Security Council mandate for the ongoing NATO operation in Libya (interestingly, however, he didn't say anything about the International Criminal Court). He squeezed in a laudatory reference to the European Union's role in cementing Eastern Europe's political transition. And he called on the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to provide the G-8 with plans for bolstering Egypt and Tunisia.
President Barack Obama’s well crafted but often anodyne speech on Thursday was full of references to the important role multilateral institutions are playing in and around the Middle East: he talked up the U.N. Security Council mandate for the ongoing NATO operation in Libya (interestingly, however, he didn’t say anything about the International Criminal Court). He squeezed in a laudatory reference to the European Union’s role in cementing Eastern Europe’s political transition. And he called on the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to provide the G-8 with plans for bolstering Egypt and Tunisia.
When he moved to concrete steps, however, the president spoke mostly about either American action (such as greater involvement by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation) or, in a few cases, steps taken in conjunction with European allies. It was telling that he spoke about the G-8’s role rather than the G-20’s. That focus on either unilateral or Western initiatives reflects several realities.
When it comes to actual resources that can be deployed to boost the economies of the region, the game is still mostly a Western one. The emerging economies are only just getting into the development business, and often in their own idiosyncratic ways. At the political level, Obama’s Western orientation reflects the reality that there is no broad global consensus on how to address the uprisings. The brief moment of Security Council unity on Libya has ended, and the Council has not been able to pass resolutions on the Syrian violence.
What’s more, the nods in the speech to global solutions will count for little given what the president said about the U.N.’s role on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Earlier this week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas heralded a diplomatic push for a vote on Palestinian statehood during September’s U.N. General Assembly meetings. In response, Obama was caustic. "Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September," he warned, "won’t create an independent state." It was an all-but-explicit promise to veto Palestinian recognition. Should it come to that, Washington will almost certainly be isolated not just from the broad U.N. membership but also from its Western allies.
An actual vote on the issue would be a nightmare for the administration’s diplomacy at the U.N. The Obama administration has worked hard to restore bruised relationships in New York and Geneva. Shortly after taking office, the administration generated goodwill by paying off large chunks of outstanding U.S. dues to the United Nations. It has engaged aggressively at the U.N. Human Rights Council and improved the work of that body substantially. But Israel-Palestine remains a point of friction and has already isolated the administration at the U.N. once: In February, the U.S. vetoed a Security Council resolution criticizing Israel’s settlement policy. The Arab uprisings quickly overwhelmed the impact of that vote. Absent some very effective diplomacy, the administration may not be so fortunate in a few months time.
The Israel-Palestine dispute has been a serious complication for American diplomacy for more than 60 years. It is a particularly enervating one for an administration that came to office determined to reinvigorate multilateral tools and willing to imagine a world in which the United States is not a hegemon. The low American profile during the Libyan intervention has been an attempt to put that vision into practice. But for all the efforts to forge a new approach to the world, Israel-Palestine puts the administration squarely where its predecessors have been: almost alone and committed to marginalizing global institutions.
David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist
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