For Obama at the U.N., a Quick Victory Lap Before Reality Sets In
Despite diplomatic wins with Iran and Cuba, the president is still grappling with carnage in Syria, Putin’s aggression, and the worst migrant crisis in decades.
By most measures, President Barack Obama's seventh appearance before the U.N. General Assembly Monday should be a moment for him to savor a succession of extraordinary diplomatic achievements.
By most measures, President Barack Obama’s seventh appearance before the U.N. General Assembly Monday should be a moment for him to savor a succession of extraordinary diplomatic achievements.
Having restored U.S. relations with Cuba, survived a congressional challenge to his nuclear deal with Iran, and recharged international climate talks through a landmark deal with China, the American leader can expect the diplomatic equivalent of high fives from the assembled dignitaries while credibly proclaiming that the era of American leadership on the world stage still has some life in it. Even Pope Francis all but conferred his blessing on some of Obama’s foreign-policy priorities before the United Nations, using a historic speech Friday to praise the Iran deal and urge the assembled leaders to take more serious action to combat climate change.
“Five years ago, a lot of countries started making bets on China’s inexorable rise and America’s gradual decline. They bet wrong,” said Bruce Jones, vice president and director of the foreign-policy program at the Brookings Institution, citing China’s recent financial woes. “The whole narrative of American decline has really fundamentally shifted. There’s good U.S. economic news and basically bad news elsewhere. Obama’s got the diplomatic wind to his back.”
And yet, the president has little cause for gloating.
A quick survey of the foreign-policy landscape facing the Obama administration makes for some grim reading: The prospects for peace in the Middle East are dimmer than when the president came into office in 2009; the NATO-led intervention in Libya — once cited by American policymakers as an unmitigated success — has left chaos and instability in its wake. Russia and its proxies have gobbled up pieces of Ukraine.
The breakup of Syria, meanwhile, has breathed fresh oxygen into the jihadi movement, contributing to one of the worst refugee crises since World War II. And now, Russian President Vladimir Putin is flexing his muscles in the heart of the Middle East, deploying Russian tanks and troops to Syria to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“The situation is so dismal around us that you can’t be swaggering,” said Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the United States. “It’s the most messy Middle East we have seen in decades.”
Wittig added that ongoing chaos in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, as well as the refugee crisis, would require any world leader to temper their oratory and resist self-congratulation.
“This is not the time to speak of a new world order or about grand diplomatic designs,” he said. “It’s all about containing the cancerous conflicts that are emerging.”
Syria, where more than 250,000 people have died and more than 4 million have fled the country during nearly five years of unrelenting violence, is the deadliest and most complicated of those conflicts.
The civil war there “is the canary in the mineshaft for the international community, and we don’t know how to deal with it,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Landis praised Obama’s Iran and Cuba diplomacy, saying it reflected a welcome willingness to shed America’s Cold War fixation with isolating and punishing rivals. But he said the United States, as well as other key powers, has failed to devise a strategy for dealing with the crises of today and tomorrow: particularly the specter of an increasing number of nations and societies, from Syria to the Central African Republic, that are developing into failed states. “We don’t know how to deal with it,” he said.
U.S. officials acknowledge the scope of the security challenges they are confronting in the Middle East and beyond. But they say they are forging a strategy to address those concerns. During his U.N. visit, Obama will host a summit that will seek to focus the world’s attention on current security threats, including the need to confront terrorism and violent extremism. But he will also host a second summit that aims to encourage governments, particularly from Europe, to increase their participation in U.N. peacekeeping missions as a way of preventing impoverished and conflict-ridden countries from spiraling into the category of failed states.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters that this month’s U.N. gathering of world leaders would provide an opportunity to reflect on “a year that offered a greater testament to the fruits of collective action.” She cited the Iran deal and the near elimination of Ebola in West Africa, and said Washington’s normalization of ties with Cuba could “unlock” some new diplomatic opportunities at the United Nations. But she also acknowledged the “visible testament to the tragedy of the commons in the scenes of desperate families trying to get into Europe.”
She said “it testifies to a collective inability” to reach political solutions on a set of persistent crises, including Syria.
Obama is expected to receive a particularly warm reception, according to U.N. diplomats. That would mark something of a change from previous years, when the United States was blamed for triggering an international recession and the White House faced international condemnation following revelations that the National Security Agency was spying on friends and foes alike. Despite deep unease over the Iran deal in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. Congress, Obama’s emphasis on diplomatic solutions to the world’s crises resonates powerfully with the wider U.N. membership, particularly among many European governments.
“The foreign policy of the Obama administration is — if I may say so — very European, and therefore we applaud it,” Wittig said, citing the Iran and Cuba deals as well as American support for action on climate change. “We are really singing from the same song sheet.”
Witting said Obama “late in the day, in the fourth quarter, turned out to be a real leader on climate change,” singling out the president for cinching an agreement last November with Beijing to set new targets on cutting carbon emissions by 2030. “He brought China along, and that has served as a catalyst for other emerging economies.”
Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s former ambassador to the United Nations, said Obama will receive well-deserved acclaim for the Iran nuclear deal, which removes some of the West’s punishing economic sanctions against Tehran in exchange for strict controls on its nuclear program. The deal, he said, “has involved the fundamental reordering of the sums of American foreign policy.”
Puri said he expected little criticism of the United States during the event, even from those like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vociferously opposed the nuclear pact with Iran. “Once the deal is done, what are you going to do: Come and cry, ‘I told you not to do it, and you went ahead,’” Puri said. “That’s a point at which self-respect comes into play, and you tone it down.”
The U.S. president is traditionally the star attraction at the U.N. General Assembly, but this time around Obama will be vying for the spotlight with Pope Francis, who is making his first visit to U.N. headquarters as the leader of the Catholic Church — only the fifth U.N. visit by a pope since the organization’s founding. Early Friday morning, Pope Francis was met with cheers from a group of 350 U.N. staffers, who won a lottery to hear a private address in the U.N. lobby. The pope was given a standing ovation in the U.N. General Assembly chamber despite laying out potentially controversial calls for world powers to cease military interventions and to eliminate nuclear weapons while chiding them for putting profit before the fate of the poor.
There was much in the speech that reinforced Obama’s diplomatic priorities. The pope praised the Iran nuclear deal as “proof of the potential of political goodwill and of law,” and he urged the assembled leaders to take action to combat climate change, blaming a “selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity” for contributing to the destruction of the environment.
On Monday, Obama will be followed to the podium by four leaders — Putin, and Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran, Xi Jinping of China, and Raúl Castro of Cuba — who may be less inclined to see the virtues of America’s leadership.
“In strategic terms, this is a great moment for Obama, but in diplomatic terms it’s a very fragile one,” said Richard Gowan, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, citing a range of unresolved crises from Syria to Ukraine. “Putin could pull the rug out from underneath him.”
The Russian leader, who is making his first appearance in the U.N. General Assembly hall in a decade, has in recent weeks deployed Russian troops, tanks, and fighter aircraft to Syria in support of Assad. Putin has secured a meeting with Obama to try to persuade the American leader that they should forge a common front against Middle East extremists, particularly from the Islamic State, that would include the participation of both Assad and Iran.
U.N. diplomats and observers said it would be naive to think that Moscow’s cooperation with Washington on the nuclear deal would clear the way for the two countries to work together on issues like Syria. One Security Council diplomat said that Russia’s military buildup in Syria has “slammed shut” the prospects of making diplomatic progress on the country’s conflict.
Iran presents another challenge. Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters earlier this month that Moscow remains hopeful that U.S. cooperation with China, Russia, and Iran over the nuclear deal could spill over into other areas, though he hinted that Washington remained reluctant to involve Tehran in initiatives like a diplomatic push designed to end the civil war in Syria.
“Clearly, there is a hope that after [the nuclear deal] it would be possible to try to integrate Iran closer into the efforts, for example, [to resolve] the Syrian situation,” he said. “I … haven’t talked to anyone who does not realize that Iran has an important role to play, but not everybody has yet accepted the need to integrate Iran in those discussions.”
Still, skeptics said it was far too soon to believe that Tehran would play a more constructive role in the region rather than continue to use proxies to foment instability in countries like Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. Other critics said the deal has imposed constraints on Washington’s ability to continue pressing for long-held diplomatic goals in the broader Middle East.
Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said the nuclear pact has “hamstrung” the administration’s efforts to promote human rights in the region, with Obama appearing reluctant to press Tehran on its dismal treatment of its own people while also soft-pedaling criticism of regional allies who oppose the pact, like Saudi Arabia. In Yemen, the United States has provided logistical and intelligence support for a Saudi-led air war that has contributed to a death toll of more than 2,000 civilians. In Syria, he said, the United States has not leveraged its influence to pressure Assad to halt the use of barrel bombs, which exact a disproportionate toll on civilians.
Roth also criticized U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for crediting Egypt’s military in 2013 with “restoring democracy” after ousting the country’s freely elected former president, Mohamed Morsi. “Kerry is seeing a democratic transition that no one else is seeing,” Roth said. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, he added, is “presiding over the largest, worst crackdown [on dissidents] in modern Egyptian history.”
Some observers are less confident than U.S. policymakers that the president’s string of diplomatic victories, particularly over the Iranian nuclear deal, may do little to alter the diplomatic calculus. For instance, Gowan remained skeptical that countries like Iran and Russia will become more cooperative partners in addressing their regional troubles. “There is a sense that now every single major deal will involve lots of long and prolonged compromises … making cooperation harder,” Gowan said. The Iran deal, he said, “may be a bit of an Indian Summer of American diplomacy.”
Photo credit: Alexey Kudenko/Getty Images
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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