NEW YORK | As he came to office in 2009, President Obama looked to the United Nations as a vehicle to drive change in the Middle East and around the world. Four years later, the international body remains, as its critics long have suggested, more of an obstacle to action than a leader of it.
Mr. Obama arrived here Monday, a day ahead of his highly anticipated speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday morning. His remarks surely will focus on many of the same topics raised last year: the Syrian civil war, Iran’s nuclear program and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, among others.
But the president’s overall view of the U.N., some analysts say, has shifted over four years. A key difference from Mr. Obama’s first U.N. address in 2009 and what we’re likely to hear Tuesday, is the subtle acknowledgment that if the U.S. wants something done, it often must do it itself.
“I think the administration came in with an attitude that you really have to roll up your sleeves, and with a little bit of retail diplomacy, you can get multilateralism back up and running. What it has discovered over time is that there are structural limitations to how effective these institutions can be,” said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“No amount of re-engagement is going to eliminate geopolitical rivalries. That’s been particularly the case in Syria. Not for want of trying, but the United States has found itself colliding with a brick wall of Russian obstructionism,” he said.
Indeed, U.S. attempts to force through the U.N. Security Council a resolution for military force in Syria have been blocked by Russia, frustrating the White House’s efforts to build a true international coalition.
The U.S. and Russia are working together to rid Syrian President Bashar Assad of his chemical weapons stockpile, but there remains significant opposition — with Russia leading the way — to any U.N. action authorizing the use of force.
The roadblocks at the U.N., which also has failed to make breakthroughs on Iran, North Korea, Middle East peace talks and other issues, surely were not what Mr. Obama had in mind when he first spoke here four years ago.
Having taken office just eight months earlier, and on the heels of a 2008 presidential campaign in which he vowed to repair the damage done to America’s standing during the George W. Bush era, Mr. Obama’s inaugural U.N. speech was both an olive branch and a call to global action.
“Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone. We have sought — in word and deed — a new era of engagement with the world. And now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges,” Mr. Obama said, taking implicit shots at the perception the U.S. was ready and willing to “go it alone” during the Bush years.
“We can be remembered as a generation that chose to drag the argument of the 20th century into the 21st … or we can be a generation that chooses to see the shoreline beyond the rough waters ahead, that comes together to serve the common interests of human beings and finally gives meaning to the promise embedded in the name given to this institution: the United Nations,” Mr. Obama continued.
Each year thereafter, Mr. Obama’s U.N. speeches became less big-picture and instead focused more on specific issues and threats facing both his nation and others around the world.
Mr. Assad’s slaughter of his own people and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, for example, were discussed at length last year; it’s a near-certainty those two topics also will dominate this year’s address.
On Syria, Mr. Obama continues to leave open the door for U.S. military action, should Mr. Assad fail in his commitment to give up his chemical weapons.
“Here you have the president effectively making the same argument … that George W. Bush made in Iraq, which is the international community was blocked by [U.N.] Security Council obstructionism and the United States was prepared to act outside of it,” Mr. Patrick said. “Although I’m sure the Obama administration would dispute any characterization, any equivalence, of Syria and Iraq.”