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Obama at the UN

United Nations Security Council Chamber

United Nations Security Council Chamber

American University Professor David Bosco has a very thoughtful op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post in the wake of President Obama’s upcoming visit to the United Nations in a few days. As has been widely reported, Obama will be chairing a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on non-proliferation issues. Bosco urges the Obama Administration to approach the United Nations with caution– taking advantage of the real opportunities offered by the organization, but understanding its limitations. Needless to say, that is good advice. But I would also remind the Administration to recognize that at the end of the day, the ability of the United Nations to respond to international challenges is but a reflection of the Great Powers’ willingness to act through the institution. In the area of conflict management, there is no anthropomorphic UN out there hovering above the Great Powers. When the “UN fails,” it is almost always due to the lack of will of the Permanent Five to act, or their inability to reach a consensus. With or without the United Nations, the same result would likely obtain. What the UN does provide the P-5 is an institutionalized framework for deliberation and action. I believe this framework could serve as an extremely useful tool for the Administration to build a global consensus around a wide variety of issues– everything from climate change, to human rights, to non-proliferation. But in order for this to happen, there needs to be a willingness to work the organization much as a parliamentary leader works a parliament– collaborating with coalitions to set an agenda, working to create agreement on a course of action, and pushing for action. As any Prime Minister knows, this can be a very long and arduous process, but it can have great success. The President would be well-served to take the new session of the United Nations as an opportunity to commit the United States to this type of approach to the United Nations.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.