Obama’s Farewell to a World Awash With Troubles
As they gather for a United Nations summit, global leaders are expected to fall short in tackling crises from migration to Syria.
This week’s annual United Nations gathering of global leaders will bid farewell to the age of U.S. President Barack Obama, an era that began with high hopes for multilateralism but is ending in frustration over the world’s inability to solve some of the most intractable problems from Syria’s civil war to the most acute refugee crisis since World War II.
In a poignant sign of the limits of international cooperation, U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday will jump-start the session with a summit to tackle a refugee and migration crisis that has displaced more than 65 million people — and to coax countries around the world into accepting more of them. The initial idea was modeled on the landmark Indochina refugee conferences of 1979 and 1989, which resulted in the resettlement of several hundred thousand Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian refugees. The same, some U.N. officials hoped, could be achieved for refugees in the Middle East and North Africa.
But governments have been unwilling to agree on any bold commitments for the Monday summit’s final document, the so-called New York Declaration. Early last month, a U.N. proposal to have governments pledge to annually resettle just 10 percent of the world’s 21 million refugees was dropped. Instead, the 25-page document’s high-minded, if somewhat vague, invocations to aid those most in need fall short of concrete targets and solutions, and governments will be asked to go back to the drawing board for another two years.
“My God, can’t we do anything more of significance as the international community?” said Joel Charny, founding director of the U.S. branch of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “We were promised something groundbreaking. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think it amounts to very much.”
Indeed, the Monday summit is facing formidable anti-immigration headwinds around the world, including from the United States and Europe. The American presidential Republican nominee, Donald Trump, has galvanized his support with a message of keeping foreigners, including Mexicans and Muslims, out of the United States.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May, who crested to power alongside a wave of British anxiety over migrants, will make the case for keeping refugees closer to home. The rationale is that keeping them close from where they came — whether in the Middle East or North Africa — would increase the chances they could one day return to their homelands. Some observers say that while U.K. policy may appear self-serving, it does make sense to devote greater resources in the developing world, where nearly 90 percent of the world’s refugees reside. But some critics see it as an effort to put a humane face on a cold-hearted policy to keep refugees out of Europe.
The U.S. has placed little stock in the U.N. session. Frustrated by the lack of concrete targets, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power announced last September that Obama would convene his own summit Tuesday on refugees and migrants. Its aim: To move away from what the administration sees as increasingly irrelevant talk fests, and into an event to compel attendees to “pay to play” with commitments to increase funding to humanitarian relief efforts for the displaced, absorb more refugees, and strengthen legal avenues for refugees seeking a safe harbor and access to jobs and education.
“The function of the meeting is to prod people to step up with concrete, new and significant pledges,” Power told reporters Thursday. “We are not going to solve the refugee crisis on Tuesday. But I think you will see an important show of political will from leaders around the world….that will bring about a tangible improvement in people’s lives.”
But even the U.S. is seen as falling short. The world’s wealthiest nation has taken in only a tiny fraction of Syrian refugees — 10,000 in the last year — and Republicans in the U.S. Congress have vowed to block the White House’s plan to invite 110,000 refugees from around the world in 2017. That’s compared to countries like Turkey, which has absorbed over 2 million; Lebanon, where one in every five people is a refugee; Germany, which absorbed 1.1 million asylum seekers last year; and Jordan, which has taken in at least 650,000 Syrian refugees. It’s clear why diplomats, especially from Europe, have questioned Washington’s right to urge other countries to action. “It’s a bit rich to hear the Americans lecture about the crisis when they’re taking in so few people,” one European diplomat told FP.
U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del), who will attend the summit, said there’s nothing “rich or laughable” about the U.S. trying to convene world powers to address the global refugee crisis. “While we have taken in very few refugees compared to Germany or Lebanon or Jordan, we have been the leading funder of humanitarian relief in countries like Jordan or Lebanon,” he told FP.
Despite the setbacks, U.S. and U.N. officials point to a number of crises where concerted action resulted in big diplomatic gains.
The Iran nuclear deal, which requires Tehran to dismantle its most sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for an end to economic sanctions, is viewed by diplomats at U.N. headquarters in New York as a monumental achievement. Big emitters of greenhouse gases, including the United States and China, in December 2015, struck a landmark agreement in Paris on climate change.
U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said Obama will use his final address at the General Assembly, scheduled for Tuesday, to highlight achievements of the past eight years — from the stabilization of the global financial system and the Iranian nuclear deal, to the signing of the Paris agreement on climate change and the recent peace deal in Colombia. The U.N. session, Rhodes said, would also set the stage for the world’s most famous former political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, to address the General Assembly as Myanmar’s democratically elected leader.
But many of the U.N.’s toughest diplomatic and security challenges — including the effort to get North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons — have proven intractable. The peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has stalled. And, as a main driver to the refugee crisis, efforts to restore peace have failed in Syria after more than five years of violence that have left at least 400,000 dead and destabilized the region.
That crisis entered a new phase Saturday as American warplanes bombed Syrian troops in Deir Ezzor, prompting Russia to call for an emergency meeting of the U.S. Security Council. Moscow maintains the strikes killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers and injured about 100 more.
Addressing reporters before the meeting late Saturday, Power went on the offensive, calling the decision to hold the meeting a “cynical and hypocritical” stunt by Moscow to distract attention from its Syrian-backed campaign to murder and starve opposition towns around Aleppo into submission. Russia, meanwhile, suggested that the U.S. attack was intentional.
Seizing on reports of divisions between the White House and Pentagon over the wisdom of a U.S.-Russia pact to coordinate the fight against terrorists in Syria, Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, hinted the U.S. military may have conducted the strike to undermine the deal. “Who is in charge in Washington?” he told reporters. “Is it the White House or the Pentagon?”
Ban has also cited the nuclear crisis in North Korea, where Kim Jong Un has routinely tested ballistic missiles and detonated increasingly powerful nuclear devices, as singularly vexing.
“It has been a decade of progress and setbacks,” said Ban, who took a break this week from summit preparations to reflect on his tenth and final year as the U.N. chief. He said the Paris climate pact, the conclusion of negotiations on an accord aimed at sharply reducing extreme poverty by 2030, and the creation U.N. Women, a new agency dedicated to empowering women worldwide, are the highlights of his tenure.
Still, “the inability to resolve several protracted conflicts has been a source of tremendous pain,” Ban said.
Ban and Obama both will use the General Assembly’s bully pulpit to urge world leaders to put the 2015 Paris climate change accord into legal force by the end of the year. They want to lock all the signatory countries into the agreement for the next four years, before the next U.S. president takes office in January. The push follows statements by Trump that climate change is a hoax, and talk of tearing the agreement to shreds.
The summit won’t be devoid of U.S. electoral politics. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has scheduled meetings with world leaders on the sidelines of the summit, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, according to her campaign.
Trump had not initially scheduled any public meetings with world leaders — and a spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment — but he will also meet with Sisi, according to the MENA state news agency. For many, Trump embodies the anxieties that so many world leaders harbor over a post-Obama world order. But Trump is an easy fall guy.
Europe, which underwent its own refugee crisis in World War II, has experienced its own backlash against refugees, with Eastern European countries sealing their borders to prevent desperate Syrian refugees from entering their countries. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has demonized the refugees as a “public security and terror risk” and refused European Union calls to accept fewer than 3,000 asylum seekers.
On the eve of Monday’s U.N. refugee summit, the British anti-poverty organization Oxfam scolded governments for watering down the final declaration to make it harder for refugees to make their way to Europe. European governments performed the role of “spoilers” in the negotiations on the New York declaration, according to Alexander Betts, a scholar at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Center, who has closely tracked the talks.
“In the corridors of Brussels, governments are quietly celebrating having scuppered” the possibility of a strong final summit declaration, he said.
This article has been updated.
Photo credit: ANDREW BURTON/Getty Images
Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch