U.N. looks for better times when Obama takes over

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Standing in the line of those hoping for a better deal from U.S. President-elect Barack Obama than they got from outgoing President George W. Bush is a body representing the entire world: the United Nations.

President-elect Barack Obama speaks as he presents his choices for his newly formed Economic Recovery Advisory Board during a news conference in Chicago November 26, 2008. REUTERS/John Gress

Despite public protestations of neutrality in the November 4 presidential election, there has been thinly disguised glee at U.N. headquarters that Democrat Obama defeated Republican John McCain. Some foresee Obama’s inauguration on January 20 as the end of a long dark night under the eight-year Bush administration.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said he looks forward to “an era of renewed partnership and a new multilateralism” with Obama -- even though he also says he has managed to improve ties with Bush since taking over at the beginning of 2007.

The United Nations fell foul early on of Bush administration hawks who considered the world body hostile to America’s interests.

The failure of the Security Council explicitly to endorse the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and a statement by Ban’s predecessor Kofi Annan that the invasion was illegal, strengthened that view.

In 2005, Bush named as his U.N. ambassador the sharp-tongued conservative John Bolton, a man who more than a decade before had said that if the U.N. skyscraper in Manhattan lost 10 of its 38 floors, “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

Because the U.S. Senate never confirmed him, Bolton had to step down the following year, but not before, critics say, he antagonized friends and foes alike -- even if they admitted he was a hard worker who was always on top of his brief.

Among other things, Bolton appointed a former Bush deputy campaign manager, Mark Wallace, to pursue allegations of U.N. mismanagement, especially that the U.N. Development Program had channeled hard currency to the North Korean leadership. Later inquiries cleared UNDP of major wrongdoing.

Although Bolton’s successor, Zalmay Khalilzad, has sought to mend fences with other countries, senior U.N. officials are now hoping for much closer cooperation with an administration they believe will be far more aligned with U.N. goals.

To the United Nations, the United States is crucial as the world’s most powerful country, the host of its headquarters and the largest contributor to U.N. funds, paying 22 percent, albeit while often in arrears of up to $2 billion.

So Obama’s statements such as a comment in a 2007 “Foreign Affairs” magazine article that America needs to “rededicate itself to the (U.N.) organization and its mission” are music to U.N. ears.


“The signals are that (Obama) will want to consult closely with allies and build a consensual approach as best he can,” said one senior European diplomat.

“The platform for change, and a lot of it is change away from Bush, is something which I think will get a very ready response in the world, which he will want to tap into.”

Dozens of U.S. foreign policy leaders, including Democratic and Republican former cabinet members, took out a full-page New York Times advertisement on November 20 to urge the incoming administration to strengthen ties with the United Nations.

“President-elect Obama has the opportunity to engage with the world and renew American leadership at the United Nations,” said Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, a U.N. advocacy group and charity.

Ban, who once by chance spent half an hour sitting next to Obama on a Washington-New York air shuttle and also spoke with him by telephone after the election, has said he is “very much encouraged” by the president-elect.

Senior U.N. officials have gone further. “Here’s a person who looks at the world the same way we do,” said one, adding that Ban and Obama were “talking from the same script.”

Ban’s aides have been excited by Obama’s views on combating climate change, a subject that tops the U.N. chief’s agenda. Obama’s promise to “fast track investments in a new green energy business sector” echoes what Ban has been saying.

The issue will return to prominence next year as nations seek to agree a new climate treaty by December in Copenhagen to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. Bush rejected Kyoto and its emission targets, citing the need to safeguard U.S. industry.

U.S. relations with the United Nations were an issue that barely figured in the election campaign and many Americans are ambivalent about a body they helped found but which has often seemed to fall short of the hopes placed in it.

While opinion polls show the U.S. public broadly in favor of U.N. goals, a community of angry bloggers sees a corrupt organization dominated by foreign dictatorships that sucks in American money and spits out anti-American venom. Several websites exist to “watch” the U.N. and pounce on misdeeds.

With perhaps half an eye in that direction, Obama has said the United Nations “requires far-reaching reform” and that its “management practices remain weak.”

U.N. officials are unfazed by such comments and say that Ban is as keen to overhaul the bureaucracy as the critics are.

Additional reporting by Caren Bohan in Washington; editing by Anthony Boadle