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.
Middle Easterners (Sanbar is from Lebanon) also see no real possibility of change in regional policy in the Mideast, he said. Not long ago, before the election, a Brazilian diplomat remarked that there is concern about the Democrats' aversion to free trade. A lot of Indians liked the Republicans because they gave New Delhi a nuclear supply deal that may have killed the nonproliferation treaty .
Maurer, an expert in international law, said that a hoped-for thaw in US-UN relations would need to translate into action. "We all know what some of the concrete issues are, where many delegations would hope that a new administration would eventually set some priorities," he said. "This goes from climate change to engagement on a balanced nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, policy. It goes to a new engagement for multilateral human rights, approaches which we certainly missed. New ideas, new approaches might be extremely welcome."
A list of international agreements rebuffed by the US awaits the Obama-Biden administration, beginning with the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty against nuclear weapons development, which the Clinton Administration did not fight for in the Senate, and where Jesse Helms was able to kill it swiftly. Also under Clinton, the US signed but never ratified the 1998 treaty creating the International Criminal Court , the first permanent tribunal designed to deal with perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2001, the Bush administration rescinded even the US signature and set out to undermine the court. Now, without standing in the court, Washington is in the awkward position of wanting the president of Sudan to be tried there for the horrors of Darfur.
The United States also opted out of joining the Human Rights Council , created in 2006 to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission. An early decision will have to be made on whether to vie for a seat in the new year.
On climate change, the US has not joined the Kyoto Protocol , which sets binding targets for reducing greenhouse gases in industrialized countries. The agreement, due to expire in 2012, is scheduled to be renegotiated next year at a global conference in Copenhagen. Strong leadership and active American participation will be needed to draw in major developing nations that have so far refused to be bound by internationally agreed limits.
The UN seems to have been a bone thrown by Washington to the ideological right. After the Security Council refused to endorse the American invasion of Iraq, Republicans excoriated the UN and Secretary General Kofi Annan for his opposition to the war and on whom, with more than a hint of revenge, they tried to pin responsibility for corruption in the Iraqi "oil for food" program a few years later. That the secretary general had no authority over the Security Council and that almost all the corruption turned out to have been found in corporations operating outside the formal system, whose rules Council members failed to enforce, were conveniently overlooked.
Sanbar says that the current secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, whom the US (and particularly Bolton) propelled into office in 2007, may be wondering what will happen when and if he seeks a second five-year term. He will have to open channels to the Democrats.
The UN Population Fund  may have the most to gain in the short term from the Democratic victory. Since 2002, the Bush administration has barred American contributions to the fund, known as UNFPA, on specious claims that it was involved in programs in China that included forced abortions--claims the State Department argued were not true. The cumulative loss to UNFPA neared $300 million this year, at a time when maternal mortality remains high and family planning programs, in great demand in poor nations, are falling well behind funding campaigns for fighting HIV-AIDS.
In the Senate, Obama and Joe Biden have been supportive of programs for women--Biden co-authored the Violence Against Women legislation--and the ban on UNFPA is expected to be lifted early, along with what is known as the "global gag rule" introduced at a population conference in Mexico City in the Reagan administration that prevents US aid to any organization worldwide that condones abortion.
With the new administration, the broader American opposition to social programs in the UN system may end or be greatly diminished. The US has been in league with the Vatican and conservative Islamic countries on women's reproductive rights. It has failed to ratify the 1979 Convention on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (along with nations such as North Korea and Iran) and is only one of two countries (Somalia is the other) not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child .
Maurer said diplomats who watched the presidential debates this year with great interest noticed that the UN did not figure in the candidates' foreign policy messages. Ignoring the UN has become bipartisan. Reluctance to make commitments "went far beyond the President Bush administration," he said. "There has to be something in the American political fabric which produces these opinions."
Advances in universal human rights, international criminal law and accountability in the UN system all depend on American involvement, Maurer said. "There is no doubt that if you want to have functioning multilateralism you have to have the United States engaged and on board. If this is not happening, you are immediately in the vicious circle because then the results of negotiations will always be weaker if the US is not pushing within the institution, at the table."