Though the 64th UN General Assembly opened on September 15, the stage was in fact set months earlier. On the evening of August 12, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice arrived for a policy speech at New York University, ending months of quiet diplomacy. Here, she outlined America's new strategy of "engagement," which is to embrace a new role of working on international issues from within the UN, not outside it.
Indeed it is the Obama administration's premise that "the UN is imperfect, but it is also indispensable," as Rice put it, that will shape its role in the upcoming debates, scheduled to take place next week. With President Barack Obama set to play a larger role at this year's gathering than his predecessors, the administration is all but ensuring that its agenda - which includes a major push for nuclear nonproliferation - will be heard. What happens, of course, remains to be seen.
The US policy shift acknowledges both the power and the challenges facing America as it pushes a set of priorities that also includes the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and climate change. "These are transnational security threats that cross national borders as freely as a storm. By definition, they cannot be tackled by any one country alone," Rice said this summer.
Pledging to change the UN "from within rather than criticizing it from the sidelines," she concluded: "The UN is essential to our efforts to galvanize concerted actions that make Americans safer and more secure."
In many ways, the administration wasted little time; recent months have been busy ones for Americans at the UN, as all 192 member countries geared up for the General Assembly. The US paid its dues for peacekeeping operations and in May, it reversed an earlier policy and won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council with 90 percent of the vote.
"Through three election cycles, the United States refused to seek a seat, dismissing the council as flawed and anti-Israel - which obviously it is. But what did this approach achieve?" Rice asked during her speech at NYU. "Dictators were not called to account for their records of repression; abused citizens did not have their voices heard; obsessive, unproductive Israel-bashing raged on."
In September, Rice took over as president of the Security Council. During the General Assembly debate, Obama is set to spend three days in New York. On September 24, he will become the first American president to chair a meeting of the Security Council. He is eager to participate in diplomatic meetings on the margins of the main sessions, including a possible meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
"This is the biggest appearance by a US president since 2002 when George W. Bush went to the UN and challenged the UN to prove its relevancy in the age of new threats," said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Unlike Bush, Obama's multilateralist approach will ensure his popularity, but it also creates high expectations.
"The administration has basically placed its bet [that working within the UN will yield more results than working outside it] - they think it's a good wager," he said. "The big question is, can these institutions deliver in practical terms for US priorities and global security?"
With a heavy focus on nuclear disarmament, the US circulated a draft resolution on September 11 that called for more robust efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. US officials said they hoped world leaders would consider it at the special Security Council meeting chaired by Obama.
WITH ADDED scrutiny this year, insiders will be watching Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for blustery speeches full of vitriol. "It will be interesting to see whether or not he makes any statement that indicates any receptivity at all to what Obama will be proposing," said Patrick.
Libya, which is presiding over the General Assembly, infuriated Western countries this summer when it welcomed home Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, convicted in the Lockerbie bombing over Scotland. But speaking to reporters earlier this month, Rice issued a stern warning to its leader, Muammar Gaddafi, not to fan the flames.
The $54,000 question is whether Obama will say anything about UN Security Council reform, which Patrick described as an "elephant in the room." Inside the office buildings around the UN on the East Side of Manhattan, Brazil, India, Nigeria and China are becoming countries that matter right now. But insiders say the US is not likely to take up this issue, which was a topic of hot debate over the summer.
Following the global financial crisis, many countries were angry with the US for dragging them under. "The economic supremacy is still there, and I think it's still the strongest country in the world at this point, but the world is evolving," said Elisabeth Lindenmayer, director of the UN Studies Program at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. "When the world evolves, particularly on the economic side, the center of power shifts."
HOW WILL the Middle East be factored in? The Obama administration's major agenda item - nuclear power and weapons - directly addresses the Iranian threat that Israel has been warning about.
The most recent assault on Israel at the UN, a scathing report that cast it as an agent of war crimes in the Gaza conflict, is not likely to make waves. Last week, a fact-finding mission led by former South African Judge Richard Goldstone paved the way for the Security Council or Human Rights Council to send the matter to The Hague. "The murderers' pact that often dominates a politicized UN will use the Goldstone report as their weapon de jour, the latest salvo in their ongoing campaign to demonize Israel and deflect attention from their own systematic abuses of human rights," said Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based UN Watch. But he said it's not a General Assembly matter at this point.
Still, it was the Human Rights Council - which the US recently joined - that in April issued the mandate for the fact-finding mission. Israeli officials, who initially balked at the decision by the US to join the council, said they now view it as an opportunity for the US to defend Israel's interests in a body that is traditionally anti-Israel.
"We do hope this is an opportunity to show the US is standing with us regarding human rights and singling out Israel," Gabriela Shalev, Israel's permanent representative to the UN told The Jerusalem Post.
Speaking a day after the opening speech of the General Assembly, however, Shalev expressed concern regarding the body's new president, Ali Abdussalam Treki of Libya, whose remarks devoted a full paragraph to the situation of Palestinians, indirectly confronting Israeli policy. "I was taken aback and upset," said Shalev. "I'm still hoping we can promote our agenda, but it's getting harder and harder."
The Israeli delegation will not attend Ahmadinejad's speech, and officials are equally concerned about Gaddafi. "We are kind of apprehensive about what he's going to put in his speech," Shalev said. "The guy is completely uncontrollable."
She outlined the Israeli agenda, including resuming peace talks and Israel's security needs vis a vis Iran. "I hope the Security Council and the countries will realize how dangerous nuclear proliferation is," she said. As for Israel's American ally, she noted: "As long as they engage and there are fruitful results, mainly concerning Iran, we will be happy."
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