By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009
UNITED NATIONS -- President Obama's U.N. envoy, Susan E. Rice, has pledged to "refresh and renew American leadership" at the United Nations. But U.S. rivals with a long history of opposing American aims now hold some of the most influential posts at the world body, a testament to the diminished power of American diplomacy to shape the organization.
The General Assembly is headed by a leftist Nicaraguan priest, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, who routinely rails against the evils of American imperialism. Cuba chairs the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), an influential Third World political bloc. Libya serves on the Security Council and next year will preside over the 192-member General Assembly.
Even Iran and Sudan, which are subject to U.S.-backed U.N. sanctions, have made their way back to international respectability, securing leadership positions on the board of the United Nations' top development agency and at the head of the Group of 77 and China, a group that coordinates social policies for Third World countries.
The alignment of these leaders has the potential to restrain U.S. ambitions to pursue initiatives, including stepping up international pressure on Sudan to stem the bloodshed in Darfur, strengthening U.N. oversight of its multibillion-dollar field operations and normalizing the United Nations' relationship with Israel.
Last week, Libya blocked a U.S. plan for a Security Council resolution condemning violence against civilians in south Darfur. And d'Escoto has used his position to excoriate Israel's policies in Gaza.
Rice hopes to bolster the standing of moderates and redouble support for less-ideological practitioners in the U.N. Secretariat, which is responsible for managing complex and far-flung peacekeeping and humanitarian relief missions, addressing climate change and halting the spread of nuclear weapons. In a show of respect for the U.N. bureaucracy, Rice has pressed for more reliable U.S. funding and recruited three of her top advisers from within the organization's ranks. The United States, however, continues to pay its dues at the end of the year, not at the beginning, when they are due.
Rice said she is prepared to engage America's rivals in pursuit of U.S. interests. She has already met with d'Escoto and Sudan's U.N. ambassador. But she has also hinted that she will strive to undercut their influence, pledging in her Senate confirmation hearing to "prevent the accession of candidates whose orientations or values or perspectives would actually serve to undermine the institutions to which they are seeking service."
Some U.N. diplomats said the Third World voting blocs have been radicalized by eight years of confrontation with the Bush administration. The test, they say, is whether the Obama administration, buoyed by a reservoir of international goodwill, can moderate or blunt their influence.
"We are coming out of a period where there had been a very fundamentalist confrontation between the United States and many in the G77," said Mark Malloch-Brown, a minister in the British Foreign Office who oversees U.N. affairs. "The United States chose not to notice, or if it did notice, it dismissed it as typical U.N. antics."
Malloch-Brown said he doubts the successes of U.N. hard-liners constitute "an insuperable barrier" to U.S. initiatives, noting that some of America's sternest foes are eager to work with the Obama administration. "I detect there is huge excitement about Susan's arrival, and you know some of the most difficult countries are quite willing to lie on their backs and have their tummies tickled."
But others say hard-line leaders will use their posts to promote policies that are hostile to the United States. "I think it's a fallacy to think the most entrenched ones can be won over," said James Traub, author of a book on the United Nations. "We have a problem that goes beyond the Bush administration's unilateralism."
Traub said the Third World bodies at the United Nations present countries such as Iran, Belarus and Venezuela with an opportunity to exercise influence well beyond their national means. "What makes them powerful out of all proportion to the power they hold in the world is not only their position of authority, but more mysteriously and alarming the fact that their views so often carry the day in the NAM," he said.
"Countries which are our genuine allies behave at the U.N. as if they are not, and adopt policies quite out of step both with their relations with Washington and with what the democracies of the Western world tend to think," he said. For instance, he said, Egypt and Pakistan, two major recipients of U.S. aid, routinely oppose the United States.
Many of the most prestigious posts, including the General Assembly presidency and Security Council membership, are allotted to countries on the basis of rotation within regional blocs -- a formula designed to ensure that even the smallest governments get to play on the international stage. In the past, the United States has frequently blocked such countries as Libya, Sudan and Venezuela from securing Security Council seats or other choice jobs.
But the United States has not opposed Libya since the two nations reestablished diplomatic relations in May 2006. And Washington's ability to thwart other aspirants has been weakened.
In the final days of the Bush administration, U.S. diplomats sought to block Iran's bid to chair the U.N. Development Program's executive board. But they were defeated, persuading only three other members of the 36-person board to oppose Iran.
"The United States' influence is diminished greatly as a result of its policy," said d'Escoto, who said that the Americans also launched a campaign to deny him the General Assembly presidency.
D'Escoto said he is eager to work with the new administration. "I didn't think I would live to see the day when you had such a really reasonable and constructive attitude on the part of the leadership of this country," he said.
John R. Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said efforts to engage will yield few concrete results from countries that remain committed to weakening the United States. "I think all countries in the U.N. pursue their own national interest," he said. "The only one that gets criticized for that is the United States."
Heraldo Muñoz, the U.N. ambassador from Chile, which is a member of the Group of 77, conceded that the group has been radicalized and that moderates rarely protest. "There is a silent majority that oftentimes is not taken into full consideration because the silent majority don't speak out," he said.
Some diplomats say many of the Third World leaders at the United Nations have achieved little success in pushing their own agendas.