Obama promises fresh engagement with international organisations

By Russell Berman, in Washington DC

USA president-elect Barack Obama has promised a robustly multilateralist foreign policy for America having assumed office on January 20, but one of the more complicated relationships he will have to navigate will be with the United Nations. Facing constant criticism for a unilateral, go-it-alone attitude toward diplomacy and world opinion, the Bush administration has had a largely adversarial relationship with the UN.

Mr Bush famously launched the Iraq war without authorisation from the UN, and he later nominated as ambassador to the world body John Bolton, a man known for his harsh criticism of the institution. Mr Obama, by contrast, has sent a key early signal that he plans to re-engage with the UN as part of a broader strategy to bolster American diplomacy and improve its image throughout the world. The president-elect announced in early December that he would return the position of UN ambassador as a Cabinet-level post – a level of prestige it enjoyed under President Clinton before Mr Bush knocked the envoy position down a rung when he took office. Mr Obama plans to nominate one of his senior foreign policy advisors, Susan Rice, an internationalist who has pushed for more aggressive American intervention in Darfur, including the possible use of military force.

Yet while Mr Obama has elevated the envoy position within his administration, he has been careful to avoid getting too cozy to the UN, which has been plagued by corruption scandals in recent years. The UN is also seen by many staunch supporters of Israel – a constituency Mr Obama aggressively courted during his campaign – as hostile to the Jewish state. In naming Ms Rice as ambassador, he also criticised the UN’s record: Ms Rice, he said, “shares my belief that the UN is an indispensable – and imperfect – forum. She will carry the message that our commitment to multilateral action must be coupled with a commitment to reform.” Mr Obama added: “We need the UN to be more effective as a venue for collective action – against terror and proliferation; climate change and genocide; poverty and disease.”

His comments likely reflected his attitude toward the complex American relationship with the UN His administration will surely reach out more actively to the world body, but not always with compliments and pleasantries.