Obama at the United Nations Take 3: Where Cooperation and Conflict Clash

When President Obama heads to New York [this] week for the UN General Assembly (GA), there will be two very different things on his mind. On the one hand, the UN gathering—the world’s largest act of political theatre, but also its most efficient bilateral meeting space—offers an opportunity to advance an agenda close to the heart of the administration, that of forging new tools to advance what he recently referred to as an international order that is “more peaceful, more prosperous and more just.” In particular, Obama will join forces with Brazilian President Rousseff to launch the Open Government Partnership—a creative new venture that links government ministries, civil society and the private sector, across more than 60 countries, to foster accountability and transparency in government. This is Obama’s clever answer to the democracy agenda – it’s the Club of Democracies, stripped of the arrogance of that idea’s original formulation, as well as its implicit effort to contain China – an idea that doomed the original version. Added to the Nuclear Security Summit, a new global forum on counter-terrorism, and a food security initiative, the Open Government Partnership adds depth to the administration’s efforts to rebuild the multilateral order after the damage done by the Iraq war.

It won’t dominate the headlines, though. That job will go to the Palestinian search for a UN vote on statehood, and the mounting tensions between Turkey, Israel and Egypt. The Palestinian vote is a counsel of despair – the GA vote, which they will win handily, won’t give them a state; only the Security Council can do that, and they’ll lose that vote. So why are they doing it? Because they’re under mounting domestic pressure to have their own answer to the Arab Spring. Because neither they nor the Arabs nor the Europeans (nor, frankly, the Obama administration) have the slightest confidence in any negotiating strategy Netanyahu has to offer. And because the GA vote will feel good (until they wake up the next morning, and realize nothing has changed.) The International Crisis Group makes a big point about the vote getting the Palestinian Authority (PA) observer status at the ICC—but Israel has multiple protections against that ploy. The wise move for the PA would be to pocket the GA win and skip the Security Council vote—which President Obama will veto. With Israel-Egypt relations in tension and Israel-Turkey relations in tatters, even those of us skeptical of much U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East see that now is not the time for the United States to play games with Israeli security—Obama has no choice but to veto a vote in the Security Council, and he would be right to do so. But there will be a big cost, not least alienating Obama himself. Granted, Middle East diplomacy has been President Obama’s weakest foreign policy game—but antagonizing the president isn’t exactly good politics in the Middle East.

The question in the real world is which process is moving faster: building the tools for cooperation, or deteriorating geopolitical relations? Between the search for genuine cooperation to advance justice and democracy, and tackle common threats, and the rising scepter of tension and crisis in the Middle East, it will make for an interesting week at the UN.