Why the U.N. Is Suddenly Relevant

On Syria and Iran, the Security Council debate could determine Obama’s foreign-policy legacy.

President Barack Obama chairs a meeting of the United Nations Security Council at the United Nations headquarters, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009. 
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Sept. 23, 2013, 12:42 p.m.

When it comes to make-be­lieve for­eign policy, usu­ally noth­ing beats the an­nu­al meet­ings of the U.N. Gen­er­al As­sembly. Each Septem­ber, mem­ber na­tions of the or­gan­iz­a­tion that Pres­id­ent Obama re­cently de­cried as “para­lyzed” each get to per­form, some­times an­tic­ally, at the po­di­um. And ab­so­lutely noth­ing gets done.

That’s es­pe­cially the view in Wash­ing­ton, which more of­ten than not sees the big green build­ing on the East River as a gi­ant, musty en­cum­brance. But sud­denly the United Na­tions has be­come freshly rel­ev­ant, more so than it has been in years, cer­tainly for all of Obama’s first term. And new U.N. Am­bas­sad­or Sam­antha Power, who is largely un­tested as a dip­lo­mat, finds her­self in a very hot spot­light, one that might even make her pre­de­cessor, new Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­visor Susan Rice, a touch re­gret­ful that she de­par­ted New York so soon.

In­deed, in com­ing months the ac­tions of the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil could de­term­ine Obama’s ma­jor for­eign-policy leg­acy, even more so than his take­down of Osama bin Laden, on the long-fes­ter­ing is­sues of Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram and Syr­ia’s civil war.

In both cases a leg­al de­pend­ency on the U.N. Charter and pre­vi­ous Se­cur­ity Coun­cil res­ol­u­tions will be cru­cial to suc­cess. It already seems clear that it was, more than any­thing, the sharp bite of U.N.-ap­proved sanc­tions on Ir­an that led to the sur­prise elec­tion of mod­er­ate Pres­id­ent Has­san Rouh­ani, who has prac­tic­ally tripped over him­self of­fer­ing to ne­go­ti­ate and whose much-an­ti­cip­ated speech Tues­day is ex­pec­ted to give clues as to his flex­ib­il­ity. It is also clear that pre­vi­ous U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil res­ol­u­tions dat­ing back to 2006 and de­mand­ing that Tehran sus­pend urani­um en­rich­ment will, more than any­thing else, put Rouh­ani’s sin­cer­ity and in­ter­na­tion­al­ism to the test. On Syr­ia — an is­sue on which Obama has looked con­sist­ently weak for two years — it is also a U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil res­ol­u­tion that will en­force the deus-ex-mach­ina deal that Mo­scow and Wash­ing­ton sud­denly already agreed upon to dis­mantle Bashar al”“As­sad’s chem­ic­al weapons.

The Rus­si­ans are res­ist­ing any men­tion of force in the new res­ol­u­tion, and Obama has pledged to keep open his earli­er threat to at­tack Syr­ia uni­lat­er­ally if it does not com­ply. But even here, says John Bellinger, the former leg­al coun­sel to the State De­part­ment, the pres­id­ent’s best ar­gu­ment rests on the U.N. charter’s “Chapter 7” guar­an­tee of the right to “col­lect­ive self-de­fense.” Bellinger, who served un­der George W. Bush, says the pre­vi­ous pres­id­ent might have won more sup­port in Ir­aq had he done something sim­il­ar. “My ad­vice to Obama would be same: Rather than rely on new and un­tested the­or­ies such as pree­mp­tion or hu­man­it­ari­an in­ter­ven­tion, em­phas­ize more a re­li­ance on the U.N. charter it­self.”

Amer­ic­an policy-makers have rarely paid much re­spect to the U.N. Gen­er­al As­sembly, an ob­strep­er­ous talk­ing shop built on the pre­tense that the vote of Zi­m­b­ab­we or Liecht­en­stein is as im­port­ant as that of the United States. U.S. pres­id­ents have also grown im­pa­tient with the Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, which Frank­lin Roosevelt set up to­ward the end of World War II as a glob­al poli­cing body. Pres­id­ents, in­clud­ing Obama, tend to see the Se­cur­ity Coun­cil as a stag­nant pool of lost great-power am­bi­tions, a pre­tend-place where a Rus­sia can puff it­self up in­to an im­age of its former self. Un­der Vladi­mir Putin, Mo­scow has of­ten done just that, veto­ing every res­ol­u­tion that might have au­thor­ized an in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia over the last two years.

But now Rus­sia has pub­licly com­mit­ted it­self to a U.N.-au­thor­ized dis­mant­ling of Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons — and if Mo­scow fol­lows through, that will achieve the double vic­tory of cur­tail­ing As­sad’s activ­it­ies and co-opt­ing an in­creas­ingly roguish Rus­sia back, to some de­gree, in­to the in­ter­na­tion­al sys­tem. The fact is that, as Obama is dis­cov­er­ing anew, the Se­cur­ity Coun­cil re­mains the main re­pos­it­ory for in­ter­na­tion­al le­git­im­acy — which is an­oth­er way of say­ing it’s the most ef­fect­ive way of get­ting oth­er na­tions to ally with the United States. As we are find­ing out anew, the grow­ing body of U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil res­ol­u­tions is what gives Amer­ic­an for­eign-policy goals the heft of in­ter­na­tion­al law, rather than the stigma of a diktat from Wash­ing­ton.

So all eyes are on New York. Let the dip­lomacy be­gin.

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