Will Barack Obama one day be remembered as the American President who precipitated the breakdown of the United Nations? It sounds like an improbable accusation. Obama appears to be an instinctive multilateralist. For good or ill, his foreign policy legacy will be bound up to a considerable extent in a small host of UN resolutions and treaties. This summer, the Security Council endorsed the Iranian nuclear deal with much diplomatic fanfare. In September, the President joined other world leaders in New York to sign off on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a sprawling list of aspirational aid targets meant to wipe out poverty by 2030. In December, Obama helped kick off another UN conference in Paris to sign off on an even more ambitious grand bargain, this time on fighting climate change.
Yet there is little time or reason for rejoicing at UN headquarters. The organization seems to be rotting both from the head down and the bottom up. At the apex of the system in the Security Council, the U.S. and its allies have become trapped in a war of attrition with Russia and China over the future of Syria. There are now signs of a compromise peace deal emerging in the new year, but Moscow has already exploited the crisis to reassert its great power status at the UN and beyond. It has used its veto at the council seven times in the past five years—this may not sound like much, until one notes that it only vetoed six resolutions altogether between 1989 and 2010. China and Russia have also held up Western efforts to handle lower-profile crisis (such as the potential genocide now looming in Burundi) through the Security Council without resorting to formal vetoes, weakening the UN further.
The burden of managing the widening array of suffering in the Middle East, combined with multiple crises in Africa, is pushing UN humanitarian agencies to their limits. The UN now needs over $20 billion a year for its relief efforts (more than double the figure for 2009, President Obama’s first year in office) and the money is running out. The World Food Programme (WFP) has had to make repeated cuts to the rations it gives Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, fueling the rush of refugees into Europe. Senior UN officials privately worry that they are approaching “peak crisis”: a moment when they simply cannot run any additional large relief missions.
UN peacekeepers are also in trouble on multiple fronts, struggling in war zones such as the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, and Mali. While there are 100,000 blue helmets on active service—a record—many are either under-equipped or unwilling to operate effectively. UN mediators are trapped in apparently endless, quite possibly hopeless, and perhaps even counterproductive efforts to negotiate peace in other trouble spots such as Libya and Yemen. “In the face of blatant inhumanity, the world has responded with disturbing paralysis,” the innately cautious but increasingly desperate UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned his counterpart at the International Red Cross this October. “This flouts the very raison d’être of the United Nations.”1
The UN’s situation is not yet as dire as it was in the mid-1990s, when the disasters of Somalia, Rwanda, and Srebrenica wrecked its post-Cold War credibility. But it is badly wounded. The Obama Administration is working hard to patch it up, often digging deep to find extra funds for the WFP and other agencies in the Middle East when other donors do not come forward. Over the past few months, the President has personally focused on buttressing UN peacekeeping, convening fellow world leaders in New York to pledge over 40,000 new blue helmets in September (although the number of U.S. troops on UN missions is still under one hundred). He will host a further summit on the global refugee crisis next year. U.S. officials continue to try to engage China and Russia over Syria and other crises, such as the Libyan war, via the UN—despite repeated failures.
The crises converging on the UN may well overshadow the Obama Administration’s diplomatic successes there. The bloodshed in Syria, and Russia’s intervention there, have already taken the shine off the Iran deal—to the extent there was one in the eyes of some beholders. The UN’s ongoing failures in the Middle East will feed into foreign policy debates in the U.S. presidential race. Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponents will bash Russia for its behavior in the Security Council, and most likely claim a willingness to intervene in future conflicts without UN authorization. In May, Marco Rubio gave a speech on his foreign policy vision at the generally quite internationalist Council on Foreign Relations without mentioning the UN or Security Council once. Ted Cruz grumbled in September that “what President Obama wants to do is he’s run to the United Nations and wants to use the United Nations to bind the United States and take away our sovereignty.”2
This sort of stuff may just be campaign rhetoric, although it is hard to imagine Senator Cruz charming the UN General Assembly. Whoever wins in November, there is a high chance that the next Administration will be less sympathetic to the UN than the current one. Historians may come to see President Obama’s commitment to the UN as a hiccup, coming between the supposed unilateralism of President George W. Bush (who was readier to the work through the UN than his critics generally allow) and whoever and whatever comes next.
This raises hard questions about what President Obama set out to achieve at the UN in the first place, and why the organization has faltered so badly on his watch. The President’s critics claim that he is attached to the UN out of idealism or weakness or both. There have indeed been moments in his presidency when Obama’s decision to work through the UN has smacked of confusion, such as his decision to compromise with Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons in 2013 rather than bomb Damascus. But Obama’s reasons for working through the UN have generally been more strategic.
The Administration has, in truth, pursued a series of priorities at the UN that the President laid out at the very beginning of his first term. The nuclear deal with Iran, the SDGs, and the climate change agreement represent the culmination of an agenda he presented to the UN General Assembly on his first visit as President in September 2009. The Bush Administration had not engaged seriously in climate diplomacy, and had refused to back the SDG’s predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The new President reversed these positions, and signaled his desire to resolve the Iranian issue through diplomatic rather than military means, a dilemma Bush had left unresolved. He framed these issues, as well as a drive for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, as parts of a greater push to reinforce the international system after the ructions of the Bush years and to realize “the promise embedded in the name given to this institution: the United Nations.”3
While Obama’s first UN speech was rapturously received, he soon discovered that achieving these grand goals would be very difficult. The 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, intended to deliver a binding deal on climate missions, made that abundantly clear. It descended into chaos and climaxed with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hammering out a thin, face-saving statement with their Brazilian, Chinese, Indian, and South African counterparts. While some U.S. officials spun this as proof of the President’s diplomatic skills, the whole experience largely demonstrated how dysfunctional UN diplomacy had become. Obama is reputedly no fan of multilateral meetings, marveling at other leaders’ capacity to burble on ineffectually (former Argentine President Christina Kirchner is said to be the worst repeat offender in Obama’s book). If he and his team chose to stick with the UN after the Copenhagen debacle, it was out of diplomatic calculation rather than deep affection.
But stick with the UN they did. In 2010, Obama’s first ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, hammered out a deal on new sanctions on Iran in the Security Council, overcoming deep-seated Chinese opposition.4 These measures paved the way for Tehran’s eventual willingness to agree to a nuclear bargain. While Rice developed fractious relations with many other ambassadors on the Security Council, leading some to joke that they were “Snow White and the Fourteen Dwarves,” she scored a further tactical coup by securing the resolution authorizing the Libyan intervention in March 2011, even if this arguably set in motion a serious strategic mistake.
Behind the scenes, U.S. officials played a leading role in rebuilding climate diplomacy after Copenhagen, persuading China to make a crucial joint pledge on cutting carbon emissions in 2014. Continuing to differentiate itself from its Republican predecessors, the Administration also made its political support for the SDGs clear, arguing in the 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS) that sustainable development “will foster export markets for U.S. businesses, improve investment opportunities, and decrease the need for costly military interventions.”5 The NSS as a whole contains few direct references to the UN, but reasserts the Administration’s commitments to “international cooperation, burden sharing, and accountability.”6
Nobody imagines that the Iran deal or the SDGs are perfect. The former sets far less firm restrictions on Tehran’s long-term nuclear ambitions than the U.S. government initially envisaged. The latter are a laundry list of 17 goals, ranging from “peaceful societies” to “quality education” encompassing 169 specific targets. American negotiators wanted a far pithier text. There were fears that the Paris climate deal would be equally convoluted and weak. Happily, the final document was rather sharper than expected, in part thanks to ruthless process management by the French hosts, but it is still thin. Governments have pledged to cut their carbon emissions, but the agreement does not contain enforcement mechanisms, and most scientists worry that the pledges aren’t enough to limit global warming to tolerable levels anyway.
The President can nonetheless argue that this series of flawed bargains still validate his original decision to invest in the UN and multilateral diplomacy. Obama has characterized the Iran deal as an imperfect agreement that allows the U.S. government “to shape events in ways where it’s more likely that problems get solved, rather than less likely,” and a similar logic applies to the SDGs and climate change deal.7 Such big, rambling agreements are not going to solve the proliferation dilemma, poverty, or global warming alone. But they provide some foundation for the United States and other powers to tackle them in future. For a President who preaches the virtues of “strategic patience,” and has tried to explain the limits of American power, that is a modest but very real form of success.
Looking back seven years to his first address to the General Assembly, therefore, President Obama might be tempted to murmur “mission accomplished.” He has admittedly made no progress on one issue he flagged in 2009, an Israel-Palestinian deal, but his multilateral efforts have more or less worked out on other fronts. Yet when the President visited New York for his latest General Assembly address in late September 2015, his tone was more dour than celebratory. He boasted of his success regarding Iran, but also warned: “Dangerous currents risk pulling us back into a darker, more disordered world.”8 It was clear that Russia’s military build-up in Syria was at the front of his mind. President Vladimir Putin, who addressed the General Assembly shortly after Obama, commandeered diplomatic attention with a swinging attack on America.
The standoff between Obama and Putin, who went on to hold fruitless bilateral talks at Turtle Bay, was arguably the culmination of one particular American gamble at the UN that misfired badly. This was the Administration’s decision to put the UN at the center of its response to the Arab upheavals. In doing so, Washington gifted Moscow with huge diplomatic leverage in the Security Council, and set the stage for the crises now shaking UN humanitarian and peacemaking efforts in the Middle East and North Africa.
When demonstrations began to spread through the Arab world in early 2011, it was not clear that the UN could have a major role in managing the consequences. The Obama Administration was initially wary of intervening in Libya and hoped to parlay with Russia over Syria through quiet bilateral channels. But, driven by its overarching desire to limit the U.S. role in the Middle East, the Administration turned to the UN for political cover for the Libyan intervention and to mediate in Yemen and Syria. This initially looked like a successful strategy: UN officials seemed to stave off all-out civil war in Yemen in 2011 and facilitated credible elections in Libya after the fall of Qaddafi. In early 2012, there seemed to be a decent chance that former Secretary-General Kofi Annan could defuse tensions with Moscow over Syria and usher Bashar al-Assad out of power.
Instead, the region began to implode, leaving the UN and U.S. Administration floundering for answers. Assad repeatedly ignored and humiliated Annan and his successor, Lakhdar Brahimi. Libya fragmented, helping to destabilize Mali. The rise of the Houthi rebels in Yemen undid the UN’s best efforts to find a political settlement, precipitating a bloody and ill-managed Saudi intervention. Today, UN officials are still trying to bring the Syrian, Libyan, and Yemeni wars to a close. After multiple delays, they hashed out a ceasefire deal for Yemen and a compromise on a unity government in Libya in December 2015, in addition to some progress towards a Syrian transition. Yet no sober analyst of any of these conflicts believes that these agreements have great credibility: At best, they represent openings for more grinding diplomacy, similar to the UN’s endless efforts to end the Bosnian war in the early 1990s and its more recent struggle to establish viable peace in Darfur.
In the meantime, poorly armed African peacekeepers are also patrolling northern Mali, where they regularly face ambushes and roadside bombings by Islamist insurgents. Al-Qaeda affiliates have kidnapped UN troops in the Golan Heights. While these incidents summon up memories of Rwanda and Bosnia, a much deeper crisis is slowly paralyzing the organization’s humanitarian operations. As the number of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) worldwide has pushed past 60 million, agencies such as the World Food Program (WFP) and UNHCR have struggled to find the resources to keep on. In September, the WFP had to halt rations to a third of the Syrian refugees on its books. Although the EU eventually scraped together funds to bridge the gap, nutritionists estimate that the majority of Syrian refugee children are badly underfed.9 While European officials have scrambled to find even more cash for the Syrians in recent months, UN aid efforts in half-forgotten conflict zones such as South Sudan remain massively underfunded.
The gradual collapse of UN humanitarian programming in the Middle East and Africa is contributing to the flow of refugees from Libya and Syria across the Mediterranean to Europe, and reducing the chances that the displaced will ever elect to head home. Antonio Guterres, the former Portuguese premier who stepped down as head of UNHCR this year (and currently hopes to be the next UN Secretary-General) has called the humanitarian system “financially broke” and “exhausted.”10
If the UN faces a perfect storm in the Arab world, the one political beneficiary is Russia. Moscow has not only used its veto powers to stop the U.S. government and its allies from applying pressure on the Syrian regime through the UN, but also employed more subtle techniques to maintain a central place in negotiations over Syria’s future. As I have argued elsewhere, “Russia’s preferred tactics involve (i) entangling the West in fragile peace initiatives that have little genuine chance of success and rely on Moscow’s goodwill; (ii) dispensing more-or-less illusory concessions on minor issues to appear constructive; and (iii) sending dark signals that, unless it is listened to, it may go on a diplomatic rampage and start blocking Western proposals far more brutally.”11
These tactics have served Russia well. Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly tried to resolve the Syrian war through talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. The current UN envoy for the conflict, Swedish-Italian diplomat Staffan de Mistura, has little choice but to follow suite. A vicious cycle has emerged in diplomacy over Syria: Russia’s tactics have repeatedly caused the war to worsen; each time the situation deteriorates, Moscow steps up to suggest that it can ease matters through the UN, a ruse that President Putin perfected in 2013 with his offer to defuse the chemical weapons crisis. In the meantime, Moscow has coldly vetoed Western efforts to condemn its Ukrainian adventure in the Security Council.
It remains possible, perhaps even probable, that the UN will have some part in ending the Syrian horror story, just as it once helped end Cold War conflicts in Cambodia, Afghanistan, and in the Iraq-Iran war. But nobody could argue that the Obama Administration’s efforts to put the organization front and center over Syria, or indeed other countries in the Arab world, has proved to be strategically sound.
Turning to the UN over Syria offered the Obama Administration a counterfeit way to avoid these hard choices, but in the end it really only worked to postpone them.
At some point soon, the Administration will most likely have to make major concessions to Russia over the future of Assad (a compromise that many European governments increasingly advocate), or if not Assad then at least his regime’s stranglehold on the country. And that is because Russia has put more skin in the game than has the Obama Administration. If the Administration resists that course, it may finally have to take steps to push Assad out, and so tumble into the conflict that Obama has devoutly tried to avoid. Whatever the ultimate outcome, the Syrian crisis has done deep harm to the UN’s political and operational credibility.
The damage extends beyond the current day-to-day strains on the organization’s mediators and aid officials in the Middle East. Syria has precipitated a much greater breakdown of trust inside and outside the United Nations. Sunni Arab governments have come to see the UN as an enemy, serving a Russian agenda. In New York, there is a broader disillusionment with the Security Council’s failures in the Middle East and doubts about its future. A recent note by UN staff to the Council noted that Arab and African officials and analysts in particular “have questioned the relevance, credibility and legitimacy of the United Nations and its peace operations in maintaining peace and security in their respective regions.”12 Unless the UN can pull through the current crisis in the Arab world, its credibility will sink even lower.
The UN has been through even worse periods of desuetude before. The U.S. administration of the day has often been partially responsible. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations enthusiastically used the UN to defuse Cold War crises such as Suez and the collapse of the Congo. Kennedy even considered asking a UN official in a Canadian plane to monitor the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba in 1962. Moscow became profoundly suspicious of the UN, and placed firmer limits on the UN’s action from the mid-1960s onwards. At the end of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush (himself a former U.S. Ambassador to the UN) invested heavily in the organization, paving the way for its catastrophic operation in Somalia.
Even if the current crises facing the UN do not have quite such destructive consequences, the organization will need time to rebuild. This will mean overhauling its mediation and peacekeeping systems to manage future crises in the Middle East and North Africa more effectively, and parallel reforms to its ailing humanitarian agencies. Ban Ki-moon, who has less than one year left in office, has taken some steps in this direction, but he lacks the political and financial resources to achieve much in his lame-duck phase. Negotiations over his successor are just warming up: Whoever gets the job will have hard work to do in order to right the institution.
The Obama Administration is doing its best to tee up these reforms. In September, it released a new policy document about the support of UN peace operations as part of a broader effort to “spread the burden” of dealing with fragile states globally.13 While Obama is entering the lame-duck phase of his own tenure, he has pledged to oversee a leaders’ meeting on the refugee crisis to coincide with his final appearance before the UN General Assembly next September (a separate UN summit on the state of the humanitarian system in May is another potential opportunity for action, but it has aroused little serious political interest and most aid experts and officials fear it will be a flop.) The President must be conscious that his policies in the Middle East have contributed much to the plight of organizations like UNHCR and WFP: However unintentionally, the U.S. has helped saddle them with responsibilities well beyond their means to cope. So he owes them a last boost before he exits.
Obama’s last-ditch efforts to assist the UN will not, of course, do much good if President Putin continues to exploit the Security Council as a source of leverage over the West. There is no guaranteed plan to deter Putin, but there are small but real signs that China—which has grudgingly backed Moscow over Syria—is frustrated with the Russian President’s tactics. President Xi Jinping used his own appearance at the General Assembly in September to offer large amounts of money and peacekeepers to assist the organization.14 President Obama was clearly delighted by this display of Chinese supportiveness, just as he and Secretary of State Kerry have lauded China’s role in the Paris climate summit despite many last-minute frictions there. There are obvious geopolitical risks in giving China greater leverage over UN affairs, but the U.S. government and allies must hope that they can now isolate Moscow by collaborating more closely with China in New York.
Equally, if the next occupant of the White House concludes that the UN is a bad bet, it may have a depressing effect on multilateral diplomacy not only over future conflicts but also over Obama’s legacy issues like the SDGs and climate change.
Obama has shown that the U.S. government can still backstop complex international deals by using the UN, but his successor could very quickly undo this progress with a few dismissive remarks. President Obama had a clear view of what he planned to achieve at the UN when he took office, and he has achieved much of it. But it will ultimately fall to his successor to revive the organization after the Syrian disaster—or let it drift into irrelevance.
1Tom Miles, “U.N. and ICRC chide states for ‘paralysis’ in the face of conflict,” Reuters, October 31, 2015.
2Ted Cruz, comments at CNN Republican debate, September 16, 2015.
3Remarks by the President to the UN General Assembly, September 23, 2009.
4Trita Parsi, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran (Yale, 2012), p. 161ff.
5National Security Strategy of the United States, February 2015, pp. 17–18.
6Ibid, p. 23.
7Peter Baker, “Obama’s Iran deal pits his faith in diplomacy against skepticism,” The New York Times, July 15, 2015.
8Remarks by the President to the UN General Assembly, September 28, 2015.
9Harriet Grant, “Lack of food means Syrian children face ‘irreversible’ health issues says UN,” The Guardian, December 14 2015.
10Antonio Guterres, Remarks to the International Peace Institute, November 20, 2015.
11Richard Gowan, “Bursting the U.N. Bubble: How to Counter Russia in the Security Council,” European Council on Foreign Relations, June 30, 2015, p. 3.
12Internal UN document, March 2015.
13“United States support for UN peace operations” (memorandum for the heads of executive departments and agencies), White House press office, September 28, 2015.
14For details see Richard Gowan, “Red China’s new blue helmets,” Order From Chaos, September 30, 2015.