Obama Administration Loses Its Earlier Enthusiasm for the United Nations

By Patrick Goodenough | September 10, 2013 | 4:15 AM EDT

President Obama and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the G8 summit in Deauville, France on May 27, 2011. (UN Photo/David Ohana)

(CNSNews.com) – As it does every September, the State Department later this will week send a senior official to present U.S. “goals and priorities for the upcoming session of the United Nations General Assembly,” but this year’s speech comes at a time when the administration is sounding a lot less enthusiastic about the institution it once eagerly sought to engage and extol.

Frustration over failure to get a concerted U.N. stance against the Syrian regime – both before but especially since the August 21 chemical weapons attack – has prompted uncharacteristically glum comments about the world body from an administration that presented itself as an antidote to its predecessor’s supposed “unilateralism.”

From the president down, officials have indicated a readiness to act outside the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), running in the face of multilateralists’ long-held views that it alone can legally authorize military action.

“I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold [Syrian President Bashar] Assad accountable,” President Obama said 10 days ago, when he first announced he was taking his military strike plan to Congress.

Since the civil war began in March 2011, Russia and China killed three attempts by Western members of the Security Council to pass Syria resolutions, and blocked even press statements expressing concern about the use of chemical weapons.

Recalling those debates while delivering a speech in Washington on Monday, National Security Advisor Susan Rice – who served as ambassador to the U.N. until the end of June – called them “shameful.”

She accused Russia and China of three times vetoing resolutions that had been so watered-down in a bid to accommodate them that they were left “almost meaningless.”

Rice said Russia had in recent months similarly “blocked two resolutions condemning the use of chemical weapons that did not even ascribe blame to any party.”

Of course Obama – who has “consistently demonstrated his commitment to multilateral diplomacy” – would rather have had the UNSC’s backing for action on Syria, she said, “but let’s be realistic – it’s just not going to happen now.”

Moscow is a one of the Assad regime’s closest allies; Beijing is ideologically opposed to outside interference in a state’s affairs. Even after blocking action on Syria so consistently, now that Obama has threatened military action in Syria both insist that the situation must be dealt with through the framework of the UNSC.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been leading efforts to build up international support for a limited military strike against the Assad regime, said in Europe on Saturday there was no way the administration would respond to the gas attack simply because of the Security Council gridlock.

“Are we supposed to turn away because the U.N. itself has become a tool of ideology or of individual nations, and not say that the principle we put in place and have fought for all of these years is going to be thrown away?” he told reporters in Paris. “I don’t think so.”

In St. Petersburg, Russia a day earlier, Obama described himself as “a strong supporter of the United Nations,” and said he “would greatly prefer working through multilateral channels and through the United Nations to get this done.”

But the international community was “paralyzed and frozen” over this issue, he said.

“And if we end up using the U.N. Security Council not as a means of enforcing international norms and international law, but rather as a barrier to acting on behalf of international norms and international law, then I think people, rightly, are going to be pretty skeptical about the system and whether it can work to protect those [Syrian] children that we saw in those videos.”

Also on Friday Samantha Power, Rice’s successor at the U.S. Mission in New York, said, “People are asking, shouldn’t the United States work through the Security Council on an issue that so clearly implicates international peace and security? The answer is, of course, yes. We would if we could, but we can’t.”

In a speech at the Center for American Progress, Power said the international system designed after World War II “has not lived up to its promise or its responsibilities in the case of Syria.”

“Many Americans recognize that, while we were right to seek to work through the Security Council, it is clear that Syria is one of those occasions – like Kosovo – when the Council is so paralyzed that countries have to act outside it if they are to prevent the flouting of international laws and norms.”

‘New era of engagement’

The remarks by these top officials contrast sharply with past years’ annual upbeat assessments on the achievements of U.N. engagement.

“The United States has dramatically changed the tone, the substance, and the practice of our diplomacy at the United Nations and our approach to the U.N. as an institution, as well as our approach to multilateralism in general,” Rice said in Sept. 2009, shortly before Obama was to address the U.N. for the first time.

One year on, the White House declared that Obama’s “new era of engagement has led to concrete results at the U.N. that advance U.S. foreign policy objectives and American security.”

In Sept. 2011, a State Department factsheet stated that the president’s “‘new era of engagement’ has led to concrete results at the U.N. that advance U.S. foreign policy objectives and American security.”

And a fact sheet last September said, “The Obama administration has restored America’s standing and leadership in the world, repaired frayed relations and ended needless U.S. isolation on a range of issues. As a result, we have secured strong cooperation on the issues most important to U.S. national security and upheld American values.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stopped short of saying any U.S. action against the Syrian regime absent Security Council approval would be illegal or a violation of the U.N. Charter.

But he has said so indirectly, on a number of occasions, stressing that the use of force is lawful only when authorized by the UNSC or when carried out in self-defense, in line with the U.N. Charter.

Yale Law School professors Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro argued in a recent op-ed that attacking Syria without UNSC authorization would violate a norm even more important than the ban of chemical weapons which the U.S. accuses Assad of contravening.

“If the United States begins an attack without Security Council authorization, it will flout the most fundamental international rule of all – the prohibition on the use of military force, for anything but self-defense, in the absence of Security Council approval,” they said. “This rule may be even more important to the world’s security – and America’s – than the ban on the use of chemical weapons.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow