Controversies over domestic issues such as health care reform have dominated the headlines, overwhelming the news that President Obama will make his first speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations next week and take the unprecedented step of presiding at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
Speaking on Tuesday, John R. Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under George W. Bush, said that the Obama administration has been a “bystander” when it comes to foreign policy so far.
“The focus is so expansive on domestic issues that the attention span for foreign policy and international security is just not there,” Bolton said.
Next week provides an opportunity for Obama to diversify his focus. Noting that the rest of the world is relatively unconcerned with the details of health care reform in the U.S., Bolton said the reality is that the U.N. “really has very little to do with some of the hardest issues that we face.”
In a panel discussion Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Bolton, Heritage Foundation research fellow Brett D. Schaefer and David R. Rivkin Jr. from the global law firm Baker & Hostetler made predictions about Obama’s speech and reception at the General Assembly, which begins September 23 in New York. “I think it’s fair to say that the reception that President Obama will receive in the General Assembly will be nothing short of rapturous,” Bolton said.
“He’s going to get a standing ovation,” Schaefer predicted.
The panel event also promoted the book ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives, a book of 10 essays edited by Schaefer with a foreword by Bolton. The book looks at the U.N. “warts and all, recognizing what could be useful, pursuing it in that area, but also recognizing the many problems and fighting hard to address them,” Schaefer said. “The point of ConUNdrum is to say: don’t be fixated on the … United Nations. Be flexible. Multilateralism and the U.N. are not synonymous.”
Schaefer characterized the Obama administration as hopeful and willing “to believe that the United Nations can be effective,” due to what he believes is a mistaken impression that the Bush administration’s policies were the source of the adversarial relationship between the U.S. and the U.N. “There’s going to be a process of disillusionment with the organization as the reality comes to the fore,” he said. “I think that they’re going to learn very quickly that simply not mentioning the problems of the U.N. … isn’t going to lessen the criticism of U.S. policies, isn’t going to lessen criticism of the United States in general. It isn’t going to lead these other countries to abandon their more controversial agendas.”
Obama has been named chair of the Security Council for September, and nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament are expected to be important topics. Referring to the draft resolution distributed to the other members of the Council last week, Bolton said, “There’s a real problem, frankly, in the linkage that they very casually put forward on non-proliferation and disarmament, as if they’re all part of the same problem.” Bolton reiterated his previous statements regarding the ineffectiveness of sanctions, identifying Iran and North Korea as the two major problems when it comes to nuclear proliferation. He said that “whatever momentum there was for additional sanctions on Iran … has now disappeared.”
The members of the panel emphasized the conflict between the idealism the U.N. was founded on and the practical reality of its flaws. However, Bolton said, ultimately the Obama administration is “still in the expression of faith mode, and that’s what you’re going to hear next week.”