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U.N. Relationship Should Be a Priority, Say Foreign Policy Figures

Updated 3:57 p.m.
By Michael Abramowitz
A high-powered group of foreign policy figures from both parties are urging President-elect Barack Obama to revitalize the U.S. relationship with the United Nations as one of his early priorities on the international front.

"The U.N. cannot succeed without strong U.S. leadership and support," the group writes in an open letter to be published later this week. "The next President has a unique opportunity to revitalize the U.S.-U.N. relationship as a symbol of America's commitment to constructive international cooperation. This investment will pay off substantially by helping to enhance our standing internationally and strengthen our ability to keep America safe and strong."

The group includes a bevy of the foreign policy establishment's biggest names, including former defense secretaries Harold Brown and William Perry, former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher, and former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft, Sandy Berger and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Along with Scowcroft, other Republicans signing the letter include former senators Howard Baker, Nancy Kassebaum Baker and Alan Simpson, former New Jersey governors Thomas Kean and Christine Todd Whitman, and former deputy secretary of state John Whitehead.

"Obama is a different face around the word, and the U.N. is the right place for exactly the kind of multilateralism Obama is talking about," said former Democratic senator Tim Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation, one of the organizers of the letter. The other group is the Partnership for a Secure America, which is dedicated to trying to foster bipartisan solutions to foreign policy challenges.

The Bush administration has had a rocky relationship with the United Nations, owing mostly to the decision to go to war in Iraq without formal U.N. authorization, as well as the decision to appoint John Bolton, a fierce critic of the U.N., as the U.S. ambassador there for a time. While the relationship has improved in recent years, several of the signatories to the letter said in interviews they wanted Obama to make an early sign of commitment to the U.N. as way of signaling a new era at the international body.

"We wanted to take the curse away that was introduced in part by the last administration with the Bolton appointment and in part by some of the attacks on the U.N.," said Thomas Pickering, a former senior State Department official whose many ambassadorships included a stint at the United Nations. "The U.N. can't succeed without the U.S. playing a significant leadership role."

Bolton rejected the criticism from the letter-writers. "The U.S. did play a leadership role at the U.N. -- look at the Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on North Korea, demanding that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment program, creating a UN peacekeeping force for Darfur, and putting Burma on the Council agenda for the first time," he said. "What this report is really complaining about is that we didn't worship at the U.N. altar while achieving these objectives."

The letter-writers have a range of suggestions for what the United States ought to do under Obama, from paying debts to the U.N. on time and obtaining a seat on the "faltering" U.N. Human Rights Council to engaging more aggressively with the international body on issues like climate change, development and non-proliferation.

Nancy Soderberg, who served at the United Nations as an ambassador under the Clinton administration, said Obama will be naturally focused on a raft of other issues, foreign and domestic, in his first few months, but the rest of the world will be looking for U.S. leadership on many of the issues typically handled by the U.N.

"The most important thing is an early sign of putting the U.N in the first tier of things," Soderberg said.

By Web Politics Editor  |  November 19, 2008; 2:05 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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Comments

The Influx Project welcomes Obama's approach to foreign policy and the UN. We are a United Nations reform organisation and believe that Obama's election is a positive step toward a more effective and respected UN. The US is a vital force in the International Community but needs to act multilaterally and diplomatically if it is to be respected in the eyes of the rest of the world. We hope that the presidency of Obama will restore America's International reputation, which is particularly crucial for the multilater co-operation necessary during this turbulent financial period. We welcome comments, queries and advice on our site http://www.influxproject.org

Posted by: laura14 | November 25, 2008 11:08 AM | Report abuse

I do hope that "revitalizing the US relationship" with the UN will include paying all of the US back dues. It's really embarrassing that we are such deadbeats.

Fairfaxvoter, Richardson has "been there, done that" as ambassador to the UN. I suspect that he wants something new and different....

Posted by: dotellen | November 20, 2008 9:08 AM | Report abuse

I think for the UN to trully be relevant, it will have to take major US involvement and focus on us working with the world as a whole to make the right decisions. I think the UN position would be a great opportunity to reach across party line and offer it to Collin Powell. With his reputation, and expierence it would be a major move.

Posted by: cgshelton | November 19, 2008 4:47 PM | Report abuse

I completely agree, if the US wants to keep its standing and influence, it has to revitalize its relationship with the UN and agree to play by the same rules as everyone else..which means no unilateral invasions.

and as for if the UN is still relevant and has ever done anything since 1945...I'm not even going to answer because if you even have to ask that, then you have obviously never taken an international relations/studies course, so my time would be wasted. ask latin america, haiti, africa, south east asia, and EUROPE etc if the UN, world health organization, UN environmental programme, EcoSoc have done anything for the world. Just because the US media refuses to report it and because Americans are so stingy with their gigantic economy that they don't like to share the wealth with those they took it from in the third world so that they can shop cheap at Walmart, doesn't mean the UN isn't what has kept WWIII from happening.

Posted by: mmendieta | November 19, 2008 3:39 PM | Report abuse

What has the UN ever done? They were responsible for the IMF, which after WWII put in place systems for international currency exchange, stabilizing currencies around the world. They authorized military action in VietNam, Korea, Bosnia, and Iraq twice- they feed people around the world, they are a source of tracking hunger, poverty, development, nuclear proliferation....and most importantly, they are the best recognized and utilized forum for international dialogue.

Unfortunately one of their most spectacular failures has been in the area of education and dissemination of democratic principles in Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisana, Georgia, Indiana, W. Virginia, Idaho, Wyoming and Texas. The people there still suffer from inadequate information and education, imprisoned by a rigid fundamentalist religious dogma that discards rational analysis and decision making.

Posted by: interactidiomas | November 19, 2008 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Gimme a Break!

O'Bomba's own Bill-The World Poverty Act, AKA, World Income Tax;

has already paved the way for waaaayyyyy too much MORE US Money, to be squandered on the frigging United Nothings!

Posted by: SAINT---The | November 19, 2008 2:57 PM | Report abuse

If the U.N. Ambassador is going to be the point person for a renewed engagement with the United Nations, I think it's clear which bat signal should be in the sky:

Bill Richardson!

He would be great and nothing could be a stronger signal than to put someone of his stature there.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | November 19, 2008 2:45 PM | Report abuse


The UN is one of many forums (G8, NATO, OAS, etc) where the US can improve multilateral relations and be a real consensus leader in the world. As compared to the failed Bush model ("If you're not with us, you're against us.")

As to whether the UN is relevant, that comes and goes depending on how the US works with them or goes around them. I do not see UN Peacekeepers and UNICEF as irrelevant in this world.

Posted by: mikeinmidland | November 19, 2008 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Has the UN actually done anything useful since its creation in 1945? Yeah, I didn't think so.....

Posted by: WildBill1 | November 19, 2008 2:29 PM | Report abuse

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