At the U.N., Many Hope for an Obama Win

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

UNITED NATIONS -- There are no "Obama 2008" buttons, banners or T-shirts visible here at U.N. headquarters, but it might be difficult to find a sliver of territory in the United States more enthusiastic over the prospect of the Illinois senator winning the White House.

An informal survey of more than two dozen U.N. staff members and foreign delegates showed that the overwhelming majority would prefer that Sen. Barack Obama win the presidency, saying they think that the Democrat would usher in a new agenda of multilateralism after an era marked by Republican disdain for the world body.

Obama supporters hail from Russia, Canada, France, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere. One American employee here seemed puzzled that he was being asked whether Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was even a consideration. "Obama was and is unstoppable," the official said. "Please, God, let him win," he added.

"It would be hard to find anybody, I think, at the U.N. who would not believe that Obama would be a considerable improvement over any other alternative," said William H. Luers, executive director of the United Nations Association. "It's been a bad eight years, and there is a lot of bad feeling over it."

Conservatives who are skeptical of the United Nations said they are not surprised by the political tilt. "The fact is that most conservatives, most Republicans don't worship at the altar in New York, and I think that aggravates them more than anything else," said John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "What they want is the bending of the knee, and they'll get it from an Obama administration."

The candidates have said little about their plans for the United Nations, but Obama has highlighted his desire to pursue diplomacy more assertively than the Bush administration, whereas McCain has called for the establishment of a league of democracies, which many here fear is code for sidelining the United Nations.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has avoided showing a public preference about the presidential campaign -- although he has hinted at a soft spot for Obama in private gatherings, according to U.N. officials. His top advisers say they think McCain and Obama would support many of Ban's priorities, including restraints on production of greenhouse gases that fuel climate change.

"The secretary general and the Secretariat of the United Nations take no position on the U.S. election," said Ban's chief spokeswoman, Michele Montas. "The secretary general deeply respects the democratic process, and he looks forward to working with whomever the American people choose."

Many U.N. rank and file are less circumspect, saying they see in Obama's multicultural background -- a Kenyan father, an Indonesian stepfather and a mother and grandparents from Kansas -- a reflection of themselves. "We do not consider him an African American," said Congo's U.N. ambassador, Atoki Ileka. "We consider him an African."

One U.N. official threw a party over the summer and asked guests to place stickers of either an elephant or a donkey on the front door to show their political preference. At the end of the night, the door was covered with about 30 donkeys and two elephants. "We found out that one of the Republicans was an American and the other couldn't vote," according to a U.N. official who attended. "So we convinced the American to vote for Obama."

"I have not heard a single person who will support McCain; if they do, they are in hiding," said another U.N. Obama booster from an African country. "The majority of people here believe in multilateralism," he said. "The Republicans were constantly questioning the relevance of the United Nations."

For the small minority of U.N. officials who have stuck with McCain -- only two of 28 U.N. officials and diplomats questioned said they favored the Arizona senator -- life in Turtle Bay can seem lonely. "I keep my mouth shut," said one American official here who plans to vote for McCain. "Everyone is knocking on wood, counting the days to the elections. Some Americans here are planning to move to Washington," in search of jobs in an Obama administration.

"It will be devastating if Obama loses," the official said. "There has been such an amount of faith placed on the outcome."

The official, who like all other Secretariat staffers spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalled that Democrats have not always been so supportive of the United Nations, citing the Clinton administration's lone 1996 campaign to block the reelection of then-Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. And some foreign delegations, including Georgia, have been outspoken in their support of the foreign policy approach of McCain, who reacted quickly and sharply to Russian intervention in Georgia.

Still, the Obama candidacy has enormous emotional resonance among delegates from developing countries, particularly for what it says about race in America. They recall that one of the United Nations' most famous civil servants, Ralph Bunche -- an African American who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his Middle East mediation -- could never have risen to the same heights in U.S. foreign policy circles. And Kofi Annan, the first black U.N. secretary general, said the prospect of an Obama presidency would be "phenomenal."

Even while critics of the Bush administration here root for Obama, they acknowledge that the U.S. attitude toward the United Nations has improved dramatically in recent years, citing cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

They say President Bush deserves much credit for supporting U.N.-backed initiatives, including the provision of billions of dollars in funding to fight AIDS and malaria in Africa as well as support for the largest expansion of U.N. peacekeeping in history. And they expect that whichever candidate prevails will be compelled by the United States' falling financial fortunes to work more cooperatively with foreign governments.

"We don't have voting rights," said Yukio Takasu, Japan's ambassador to the United Nations.

But, he added, "We expect whoever [wins] in Washington will have a fresh look at the U.N. and the utility of working through the U.N. And, of course, we have to adjust to them."

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