Obama confronts a noisy United Nations General Assembly
President Barack Obama waves after delivering his first address to the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on September 23, 2009 in New York City.
September 20th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Obama confronts a noisy United Nations General Assembly

Editor's Note: Stewart Patrick is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security.

By Stewart Patrick - Special to CNN

This Wednesday, world leaders gather in Manhattan for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). As always, the most anticipated moment will be when the U.S. President steps to the podium. With little doubt, Barack Obama’s third annual UNGA speech will also be his most challenging.

In September 2009, the president had it easy. After eight years of fractious U.S.-UN relations under George W. Bush, UN member states yearned for a new start. Promising  a “new era of engagement,” Obama had his audience at hello. His 2010 speech was also straightforward. It celebrated the fruits of enhanced cooperation on terrorism, financial instability, and other global problems, while imploring the UN to live up to its mandate to promote human rights, global development, and collective security.

This week the President is in the hot seat, confronting Palestinian demands for statehood and a rising tide of anti-UN sentiment in the U.S. Congress. By pushing a UN Security Council vote on statehood—supported by a supermajority of UN member states—the Palestinian Authority (PA) has put Washington on the defensive. The United States will surely veto the resolution, which it considers a threat to Israel and a distraction from the peace process. But doing so will be excruciatingly awkward. Just last year, the president told the world body that he looked forward to the day Palestine would take its seat as a full UN member. By casting its veto,Washington will isolate itself from European allies, to say nothing of the UN’s broader membership, and raise doubts about whether it can ever be an honest broker in the Middle East.

The United States has worked hard to try to head off this diplomatic “train wreck.” In past weeks, it has sought to hold off the PA by reenergizing the peace process through the Middle East “Quartet” (the United States,European Union,Russia and the UN Secretariat). More recently, European diplomats have explored whether the PA might be willing to forgo the UNSC route and instead pursue a less confrontational UNGA resolution. This would enhancePalestine’s UN representation to “observer” status, allowing the PA to seek representation on multiple UN bodies, committees, agencies, and programs. The United States would be free to vote against the motion, but the diplomatic fallout would be far less than a UNSC veto.

Still, U.S.(and of course Israeli) officials worry that Palestinians would exploit these settings to delegitimize and attack Israel in multiple forums, such as the UN Human Rights Council. Most worrisome is the very real possibility that the PA will use their elevated status to seek prosecution of Israeli officials or soldiers by the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, members of congress from both parties have warned that any of Palestine move toward statehood prior to a final peace agreement will result in an abrupt end to U.S. financial support for the PA—and reprisals against UN agencies that afford the PA elevated status.

Meanwhile, Obama confronts a rebellion against the United Nations on Capitol Hill, making international observers wonder whether the brief U.S.-UN honeymoon is over. Anti-UN sentiments are strongest in the Tea Party flavored, GOP-controlled House. Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced draconian legislation to curtail UN funding that will bring a smile to the shade of Jesse Helms. The most egregious provision of this bill—the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011—would slash by 50% America’s legally binding assessed contributions to the UN’s regular and peacekeeping budgets—unless the United Nations shifts to an entirely voluntary funding system.

Such a shift to a la carte UN budgeting—with different countries “cherry picking” those items they wish to fund—would be an invitation to chaos. It would encourage other countries to follow theU.S. irresponsible lead, crippling the UN’s ability to provide global public goods on which the United States and other countries depend—from peace operations to global health surveillance to counterterrorism cooperation. More generally, the bill if it became law would return U.S.-UN relations to the protracted arrears crisis of the 1990s, whenU.S. unwillingness to pay its dues poisoned the atmosphere at the United Nations and undercutAmerica’s image as an enlightened global leader.

The President thus faces a daunting two-fold challenge on Wednesday morning when he addresses the UN General Assembly. First, he must persuade a skeptical General Assembly that the United States remains committed to the goal of a Palestinian state, but believes that the route to that objective must be final status negotiations in which the Palestinians acceptIsrael’s right to exist within secure borders. The President should caution Palestinians against using enhanced UN status to pursue Israel in the ICC, while giving them hope that a rejuvenated “peace process” can actually get somewhere.

Second, the President must make it clear to both UN member states that the United States is no fair-weather partner with the United Nations—and that the enormous strides his administration has made to reengage the world body over the past three years will not be derailed by misguided legislative activism in Congress. He needs to frame this message in a way that resonates with the American people, too. He can remind his countrymen of the multiple ways the United States benefits from the United Nations every day: how more than 100,000 blue helmets are keeping the peace around the world; how WHO scientists are monitoring the globe for the next outbreak of a global pandemic; how U.S. leadership has helped make the Human Rights Council begin to hold abusers to account; and how at a time of U.S. fiscal crisis, the UN remains a great deal for U.S. taxpayers—leveraging a dollar of effort for every quarter the United States spends.

A short time ago, President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress was widely regarded as his last opportunity to shore-up confidence in his administration’s ability to help weather the Great Recession and create jobs. This week, he faces a starkly similar moment in reassuring a troubled ally, while also defending a mutually-reinforcing U.S-UN relationship.  Good luck, Mr. President.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Stewart Patrick.


soundoff (246 Responses)
  1. James

    He has to veto,, there's nothing he can do. Israel has us by the b@lls!

    September 21, 2011 at 9:40 am | Reply
  2. lol

    People calling for a Palestinian state are ignorant of recent Middle Eastern History. But that's no surprise, most of the liberal hippies don't have a long term memory of anything exceeding 4 – 8 years.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:49 am | Reply
  3. What is right?

    When it comes to supporting Israel, US is behaving like a orthodox and fundamentalist Arab state. Like Islamic Fundamentalism, US religious and political support to Israel is Chiristian version of fundamentalism.
    World will be better place without ugly politics and blindminded religion.
    Entire civilized world must be ashamed of the fact that some people in this world are still allowed to be under occupation.US takes action against arab dictators to bring democracy.If US is really serious about supporting democracy around the world, US must take action against Israel in the first place. Because, Occupation is the worst form of Dictatorship.Occupation is the direct opposite of Democracy. Occupation is the biggest threat than terrorism.
    Funtamentalist Jewish mindset is also like a funtamentalist Islamic mindset.
    We do not need to blindmindedly support Israel Because we are chiristian. We do not need to support arabs Because we are arabs. It is time to leave our history and religion behind. It is time to stop being Muslim, Christian or Hindu. It is time to stop being american, german, arab or Israeli. Religion and politics are inhuman. It is time to be human.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:50 am | Reply
  4. Sam Temple

    Israel is the 27th wealthiest nation in the world per capita, just ahead of Italy, according to the International Monetary Fund. So why do Israel continue to receive $3 billion from the US taxpayer every year, a sum that some in congress including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor want to make a permanent untouchable subsidy through incorporation into the US defense budget rather than as part of the foreign aid package. What can possibly justify American taxpayers subsidizing the Israeli standard of living, which includes free medical care and university education, at a time when social programs in the US are being cut?

    September 21, 2011 at 9:50 am | Reply
  5. grant

    The Palestinian Authority has every right to put this forward and it should be ratified.Obama and Netanyahu have gone through the meaningless motions toward a two party state for ages with no results because they do not really want it plain and simple.These two have been in bed together for a long time and it's time Israel stopped sucing the teet and milking the U.S. dry,and its high time that both the U.S. and in particular Israel is held accountable for a number of highly questionable and heinous crimes against humanity.Stand tall Abbas.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:56 am | Reply
  6. Joe

    All the US has to do is veto the proposal. obama is just trying to save political face with the Jewish voter for his anti-Israel stance. Don't believe anything this man says!

    September 21, 2011 at 10:12 am | Reply
  7. Lisa

    Once again the President of the United States votes against everything America claims to be. I'm Ashamed of my country today.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:13 am | Reply
  8. The Right Left

    In the future, looking back, historians will find that Israel was the anchor that ran us in the ground. The ground realities are shifting faster than we can control with our interference. In the meantime we are held hostage by our AIPAC bribe addicted politicians. If not now, in the near future we will be forced to confront this volatile issue again. Once again we will be pitched against world opinion, by our spineless and subservient politicians, further damaging our position.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:25 am | Reply
  9. The Right Left

    The fact that Netanyahu has blinked, says it all. This is a good move. Getting the GA seat will allow the ICC to move against BB for crimes against humanity.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:27 am | Reply
  10. Greg Gilbert

    When you go against the entire world in an idea there is a high chance that you are looking at the issue in an incorrect way. America should examine hard it's premises and conclusions of it's stances when it comes with the way it deals with Israel and Palestine.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:28 am | Reply
  11. Zoltan Grossman

    If an independent state of Palestine should only be recognized through a peace settlement with Israel, then why did the U.S. recognize the independence of Kosovo three years ago, over the objections of Serbia? (Kosovo had ethnically cleansed Serbs from most of its territory, and threatened the security of Serbia and Macedonia.) Why recognize Kosovo but not Palestine?

    September 21, 2011 at 10:48 am | Reply
    • alex

      100% true, I'm glad you made this link.

      September 21, 2011 at 11:37 am | Reply
  12. cooldela

    Obama stated in a June, 2009, Cairo speech to the Muslim world that he supported an independent Palestinian State. Has that changed? What is wrong with right now? Why wait? Who benefits by waiting?

    September 21, 2011 at 10:54 am | Reply
  13. Bitterjack

    The UN should recognize Palestine as its own sovereign state. Then, when they launch rockets/blow up a school bus/bomb a restaurant at/in Israel, Palestine has two options: 1) Stop the terrorists or 2) prepare to be totally annihilated in actual war. If they become a country, they'll actually have to accept responsibility for the violence and instability they cause. I can't wait for the day.

    September 21, 2011 at 10:57 am | Reply
  14. SomeoneWhoKnows

    The problem is freeing a state does NOT mean war. What people don't understand is that when someone is sick and tired of fighting OVER NOTHING, they just want their own life back. Nobody really knows what is going on there except for the people who live there. Even if you have visited, you still would not know. This is like the Holocaust 2, why cannot anyone see that? Look at pictures and the people there, they are treated just as bad in the people of the Holocaust. Palestinians die there daily, and nobody cares! Well, you say you care, but why don't you do anything about it? I am sick of people saying "yeah, its sad" or "Well, look what they did to the US." They did nothing to the US. Why is everyone making this difficult. Another thing is that, the Israelis are the ones who came to the land and occupied it from the Palestinians, so that person who said, "The Palestinians can have their own land in the State of Jordan," think again. Facts or Fictions, Palestinians were their first.
    Anyway, I hope President Obama keeps his word about unity, and I hope the UN see what is right in front of them, which is: A group of human beings just wanting to be able to walk out on the streets without living in free or having to be stopped every day just because the Israelis don't want them to pass to wherever they are going.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:01 am | Reply
  15. Hugo

    Poor people and poorer nations seldom get anything, that is not self serving, from wealthy nations. While the opportunity is ripe, the Palestinians should exercise the leverage that they seldom have. I am aware of all of the US media misinformation about Israeli and Palestinian conflicts; only Jimmy Carter will tell the truth. Israel needs to face reality, as we do also. Sometimes might, money and wealth, does not give advantage. It is time to get on board, as if this were a war or peace resolution; which in actuality it is.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:03 am | Reply
  16. Laura

    One word – disgusting. Absolutely with agreement what the site councilforthenationalinterest dot org stated. Unfortunately, many of our politicians motivated by paycheck from AIPAC, which is not even represents interest on Israeli people but rich buddies of Mr. Perry & CO in Israel, we are motivated by victims of 9/11 and pictures of young soldiers who have killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. We need take our hijacked country back.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply
  17. Jacko

    The US is so overwhelmed by the power and influence of the AIPAC lobby that it will never be able to be a fair broker. We have arrived at a point where it is as if the US is a province of Israel. Americans must understand the level of patience exhibited for the past 20 yrs by the Palestinians. As for the claim by the President that the US supports a 2 state solution, he should look at a map and ask himself just where that "state" will be with Israeli settlements turning that territory into a piece of moth eaten fabric with their settlements.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:18 am | Reply
  18. Bruce B

    We should have ended support of all kinds to the U.N. long ago! Especially financial support. The Hell with the U.N. as it has not been what was conceived to be. It now is really in the hands of the third world who think the US owes them EVERYTHING! Let's close it up, period. Sell the land and building to realestate developers and stop this house of of terrorists. The city should not give any breaks to diplomats too. They park wherever they want to and if it was me, I would shoot dead the first diplomat that saysd, "You can't touch me, I have diplomatic immunity". The hell with these types! Just my humble opinion. Have a nice day.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:24 am | Reply
  19. Merle

    Obama has lost his support , he has been on all sides of most issues, depending on the listeners and time. ONLY THE MOST RADICAL APOLOGISTS STILL SUPPORT HIM.

    September 21, 2011 at 11:47 am | Reply
  20. timerbeltkiller

    1.
    David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of Israel:
    """"“If I were an Arab leader, I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country. It is true God promised it to us, but how could that interest them? Our God is not theirs. There has been Anti – Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault ? They see but one thing: we have come and we have stolen their country. Why would they accept that?” """"

    2.
    We all live on stolen land.
    Every single person on earth lives on land once (or rather several times) conquered by means of genocide or ethnic cleansing or both!
    After some time (say one hundred years) reversing such an incident becomes the greater evil and status quo the lesser one- as the present Israel so sadly proves!

    3.
    Holocaust and Israel
    Abused kids grow up into 2 categories:
    – Those who hate abuse and stay away from it
    – Those who become abusers themselves

    If you think Israel belongs to the first group, you are blind and deaf to reality!
    Fact is there is a hooligan in the neighborhood terrorizing everybody. Impossible to make him behave like a civilized person because he has gotten a mighty uncle that obstructs any attempts to correct the situation.
    It is also a fact this thug was abused in his childhood and now has grown up to be a tera abuser himself.

    Do you still wonder why the tug and his uncle are hated and despised by every one???

    September 21, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Reply
  21. What is right?

    Dividing people on basis of religion is the worst thing ever happened to humanity.

    Concept of "Christians supporting Christians, Muslims supporting Muslims" is ridiculous.

    We, the human beings, must decide things on the moral basis of what is right. Unfortunately, US bond with Israel is based on blindminded religious fundamentalism combined with most selfish interest of sustaining US Military might in the region through Israel.

    Both Israel and US don't care about the plight of people in Palestine. Because, They do not want a powerful Palestine that can compete with Israel. Israel wants to keep Palestine as a weak and powerless State without any military strength to confront Israel. If Israel can be created with UN mandate, Then Why not Palestine?

    UN has every right to intervene and create a Palestine State. Both Israel and Palestinians will never reach agreement on their own.
    Actually, Violence and Terrorism is very useful to Israel than Palestine. Because, ironically, Israel breeds on terrorism. Palestine non – violent struggle can really weaken Israeli position. They can adopt Gandhian Anna Hazare's tactics like fasting to win public support around the world to put pressure on America.

    September 22, 2011 at 2:54 am | Reply
    • jay

      Several thousand rockets lobbed into Israel with Hama and Hezbollah's middle finger on them is non violent eh?? My neighbor is in for a hard time tonight...

      September 23, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  22. People of the world

    Majority of the people in the world support Palestine statehood and are fed wp with US and Israeli Stand on this terrible conflict.

    September 22, 2011 at 3:20 am | Reply
  23. Alex Medienne

    When the US prioritized the Israelis more than their own people, you know things are bad....

    September 22, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  24. Alex Medienne

    Americans don't know anything about the Middle East or the Palestinians. They only know how to kiss up to the Israelis because of all of the powerful zionist lobbies. They should stay out and Orin Hatch will definitely get his beak chopped off if he keeps yapping it.

    September 22, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  25. Angry Mob

    I'm glad we hit Obama across the nose with a 2×4 before his speech at the general assembly.

    September 23, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  26. AzHitman

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHoNWwhzh3M&w=640&h=390]

    September 23, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  27. SconnieGuz

    The muslim world continues to push for the war of all wars which will end their own existence. All they do is instigate a war, start a war, get their A$$ stomped and then cry and play the victim card. The free world will put you psychotic muslims out of your misery soon enough. You really want war with the West and Israel?? Bring it little ragheads....your gonna need more than your invisible friend allah to save you when it all really goes down.

    September 24, 2011 at 10:02 am | Reply
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