Back to Work

7 things the U.N. can finally get around to doing now that the U.S. election is over.


If you felt your life was on hold the past week or so, as the U.S. election entered its final stretch, take comfort — so was the rest of the world, at least at the United Nations. The U.S. political campaign placed a number of U.N. foreign-policy priorities, including Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran, on the backburner.

But within hours of President Barack Obama’s reelection, the United States had begun to turn its attention to deferred business, agreeing Wednesday, for instance, to set a date for resumption of negotiations on the establishment of a new arms trade treaty.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, used his congratulatory message to President Obama to draw Washington’s attention to four key priorities — ending the bloodshed in Syria, restarting the Middle East peace process, promoting sustainable development, and tackling climate change — requiring greater American engagement.

There are a number of areas, including arms control and possibly climate change, where the administration may show renewed vigor in a second term, according to U.N. observers. But they cautioned that movement on a second-term agenda would start slow, given the months it will likely take to put a new foreign policy team in place. The king, said one observer, will be the same, but the royal court will be new.

The administration will face the first test of its standing at the United Nations on Monday, when it will participate in its first competitive election for a seat on the Human Rights Council, facing off with Germany, Greece, Ireland, and Sweden for three Western spots on the U.N.’s main rights body. Washington has been aggressively campaigning for the post, seeking to avert an embarrassing loss. "People are nervous about it; they don’t think it in the bag," said one U.N.-based source.

Observers said they did not foresee the administration pursuing a particularly ambitious agenda at the United Nations. Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, said he saw little likelihood that the U.S. would move, for instance, to join the International Criminal Court, push for ratification of the Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty, or press for expansion of the U.N. Security Council.  "Just as Obama was burdened with excessive expectations at the start of his first term I think quite a lot of leaders may have excessive expectations of what he will do now that he is reelected," Gowan said.

So, what will a second term Obama administration pull off the backburner and pursue with renewed vigor?

A new U.N. ambassador?

A lot of media attention has focused on the horserace for U.S. secretary of state between Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair John Kerry, (D-MA). But there has been little speculation about who would replace Rice at the United Nations if she moves on to bigger things.

The White House has already begun considering at least two new candidates for the top U.N. job, including Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who oversees U.N. policy at the White House, and Eileen Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the Human Rights Council, according to a source close to the Obama administration.

But that race may have to be put on hold until Obama picks a successor to Hillary Clinton, who plans to step down after the transition. And who knows, maybe Rice will be sticking around for a little while longer.

Several weeks ago, Rice appeared to be the front-runner, but her prospects have reportedly diminished since her public account of the terrorist attack on the Libyan consulate in Benghazi as a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic video came under fire, raising the prospects of a contentious Senate confirmation hearing.

Post-election speculation has been all over the map, with the New York Times citing one administration characterizing Rice as "crippled" while Bloomberg News claimed she had emerged as the odds-on favorite. If Obama denies her the top diplomatic post, what else could he offer her that would be better than her current gig? Current U.S. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon is said to want to remain in his job.

The arms trade treaty

In July, the United States derailed U.N. negotiations on a landmark treaty regulating the $70 billion global arms trade, triggering charges by arms control advocates that it feared support for the pact would weaken President Obama’s standing in U.S. presidential elections. The administration, which then claimed it needed more time to review the draft treaty, voted Wednesday alongside other major arms exporters, Britain, China, France, and Germany to begin talks on a treaty in March. (The vote was initially scheduled before the U.S. election, but was rescheduled after Superstorm Sandy led to the U.N.’s temporary closure.)

The move sparked protests from the American gun lobby, which portrayed the vote as a threat to the Second Amendment, which enshrines the right of gun ownership in the United States. But supporters of the treaty said it would not infringe on the Second Amendment, instead arguing that it would constrain the unregulated sale of weapons that fuel conflicts around the world. "This treaty could be a signature accomplishment for the administration at the United Nations within coming months," said Suzanne Nossel, the president of Amnesty International USA. "The fact that they’ve taken this position will enable them to lead on this issue."


The civil war in Syria will continue to represent one the greatest security challenges for the United States at the United Nations, one which they may not be able to resolve here. There are no signs at this point that the American presidential election will make Russia any more willing to allow the United States and its Western partners to use the Security Council to apply pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

For the time being, there are divergent tracks to addressing the crisis: one military, and the other diplomatic. Earlier this week, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that Britain would establish contacts with leaders of the armed opposition. "There is an opportunity for Britain, for America, for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and like-minded allies to come together and try to help shape the opposition, outside Syria and inside Syria, and try to help them achieve their goal, which is our goal of a Syria without Assad." The U.N.-Arab League special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, meanwhile, has been pursuing a negotiated settlement, and is trying to convince the United States and Russia to back a negotiated settlement that would lead to a transitional government, but one that remains unclear about the fate of the Syrian president. Assad, for his part, made it perfectly clear in an interview with Russia Today, saying that he intends to "live and die" in Syria.

Palestinian statehood

The Obama administration will continue to press Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to drop his plan to seek recognition for Palestine as a state in the U.N. General Assembly, a move that would further damage U.S. Palestinian relations with the United States. This time around, the United States will be able to count on support from its key European allies, including Britain and France, who have been urging the Palestinians to give the new administration time to put a new team in place.

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, said he suspects the Palestinian leader will force the issue and push for a General Assembly vote elevating Palestine to a non U.N.-member state. But he has urged Washington and Israel not to react too harshly to a move he sees as a largely symbolic gesture, albeit a "provocative symbolic gesture," on the grounds that punishing the Palestinian Authority will strengthen the hand of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement, that is being courted by Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey. "This is bad for America," he said. "Both the Palestinian Authority and Washington need to repair their relations; the Palestinian Authority, because it’s essential for their survival; and Washington, because otherwise, it will have to deal with bearded guys with Qurans." 


The Obama administration has been keen to pursue a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban before the withdrawal of U.S. forces and its NATO allies from the country at the end of 2014. But the American presidential election has made it tough for the Obama administration to carry through on its pledge to release several Taliban members from Guantanamo Bay detention center as a goodwill measure. In March, Taliban negotiators reportedly broke off talks with the United States, complaining that the United States was not serious about striking a deal.

Scott Smith, an expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace, said he expects the Americans to try to revive talks, but that the failure of the previous round of talks will make it more difficult to draw the Taliban back to the table. ""What was intended to be a confidence building effort ended up eroding confidence," said Smith. "Everybody understood nothing was going to happen till after the election. But is the ball in our court or in the Taliban’s court?"


For the time being, Israel and Iran appear to have stepped back from the brink of nuclear war. At the United Nations, China and Russia have made it clear that they will not approve another round of economic sanctions against Iran. And prospects for diplomatic progress with Iran at the U.N. seem pretty distant. Before the election, the New York Times reported that the United States and Iran had agreed in principle to start one-on-one negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program. The White House quickly denied the report. But the story is continuing to fuel rumors that Washington may pursue direct contacts with Tehran.


Rwanda’s election to the Security Council presents a thorny new problem for the United States. A close American ally, Rwanda has come under sharp criticism for its alleged role in sponsoring and arming the M23 mutineers in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rwanda has denied a role in sponsoring the mutiny. Nevertheless, the United States is expected to face intense pressure from human rights advocates to pressure Rwanda to cease its military operations in eastern Congo.  "We would expect the United States to finally raise the pressure on Rwanda to stop its support for the M23," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "They should make crystal clear to them that being on the Security Council starting on January 1 will not give them a free pass to continue supporting an abusive rebel group in a neighboring country."

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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