Jubilation should be the order of the day at the United Nations when an American who is also a son of Kenya and a child of Indonesia is elected president of the most powerful country in a world in need of healing. But while there is quiet joy and relief at the victory of Barack Obama, there is also a strong undercurrent of caution. Is the end of an unfriendly Republican era enough in itself to bring the United States back? Or have the Democrats, the heirs of the UN’s founders, drifted too far from internationalism?
Much has been written in recent years about America “rejoining the world.” Nowhere more than at the UN have Washington’s bullying tactics and stunted, provincial vision of global challenges cast such a pall over international cooperation. Here, the United States is close-up and personal. After the naming in Washington of a new secretary of state, the appointment most eagerly awaited at the UN is that of the next American ambassador.
Peter Maurer, Switzerland’s ambassador to the UN, says that what he hears among his diplomatic colleagues is a plea for trust to be restored between the US and the UN. There are the wounds of the Iraq war, and there is skepticism about the motives of Washington when politicians talk about UN reform. “The new administration will find a kind of window of opportunity because there is enormous goodwill around the UN to see and to hear some new voices” Maurer said. But the UN as well as the US will have to work on closing the rift, he added.
The world of the United Nations is divided into two distinct camps. The people of the headquarters Secretariat and the various agencies are recruited or appointed international civil servants who are expected to leave their nationalities behind and work for a global constituency. Many of them fail to meet that test, but that’s another story. Separate from them are the diplomats who represent the 192 member nations. Their missions are in essence embassies to the UN and their views, at least formally, would reflect those of their governments.
To the foreign diplomats based in New York, perhaps surprisingly, the ambassadors sent to the UN by the Bush administration have generally been respected and liked, from John Negroponte and John Danforth to Zalmay Khalilzad, the first Muslim to represent the US in New York. John Bolton was the exception, but his period as ambassador was relatively brief and he was regarded as competent even by some who found him undiplomatically abrasive and driven blindly by his distrust of internationalism and rigid defense of American sovereignty.
Samir Sanbar, a former UN under secretary general for communications who now publishes a gossipy newsletter, unforum.com, describes the mood in the Secretariat this week as “caught between hope and apprehension.” He says that the organization remembers the Clinton years, when the White House backed away from some important international commitments and crudely dumped a secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, out of what appeared to be domestic political skittishness.