With his encyclopedic knowledge of the United Nations, Stephen Schlesinger was an informative speaker whose talk, "The UN and the US after Obama," concluded United Nations Week by reflecting back on the history of the UN and predicted its future trajectory. Stephen Schlesinger, a historian and foreign policy expert who literally wrote the book on the UN, Act of Creation, began by reviewing the 70-year history of the institution. In the spring of 1945, the nations that had gathered in San Francisco at the close of the Second World War signed the United Nations Charter, pledging to work to avoid the ‘scourge of war’ and create a forum for the discussion and settlement of international crises. 

Several decades later, Obama assumed the presidency in a time when the general climate towards the UN was less favorable. President Bush had famously acted without the Security Council when he invaded Iraq, and to add insult to injury had appointed John Bolton, an outspoken critic of the institution, as ambassador to the UN in 2005. In contrast, since 2008, President Obama has worked to strengthen US-UN ties. Schlesinger detailed the ways in which the Obama administration has interacted with the United Nations on a plethora of issues. First, Obama appointed two of his closest advisors, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, as UN ambassadors, demonstrating his commitment to the organization. Obama worked with the Security Council to tighten multilateral sanctions on Iran, which Schlesinger claimed were partly responsible for the new Iranian nuclear deal. The Security Council enabled Obama to organize a coalition in Libya, and in turn Obama supported UN peacekeeping efforts and participated in UN-brokered disarmament conferences. From a human security perspective, Obama has pledged aid to support refugees, helped start UN Women, committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, supported LGBT rights, and participated in the Paris Climate Conference (COP21). Moving forward, Obama is seeking to increase sanctions against North Korea, as well as respond to yearly UN Resolutions condemning the US sanctions on Cuba by continuing to thaw relations with the island. 

However, despite these successes,many problems still faced the UN during Obama’s presidency, many of which will inform the next US president’s agenda. Libya, where the coalition withdrew too early and created a power vacuum, was one incident which reflected poorly on the organization. Another was the failure to take meaningful action in Syria. Additionally, conflict still runs rampant in Yemen, and North Korea is a growing threat to international stability. 

In addition to these five countries, Schlesinger emphasizes that the next US president must also work with the UN to address current conflict in Afghanistan and in Ukraine. The growth of stateless terror networks such as ISIS is paramount to international security, as is the continuing need to monitor nuclear nonproliferation, especially in light of Iran’s new commitments. The UN itself is facing organizational issues and changes, such as pressure to improve peacekeeping after reports of sexual assault have surfaced. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will step down at the end of this year, and a woman is expected to be named as the new head of the UN. 2015 marks the beginning of 15 years of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, and as always there is talk of the need for Security Council reform and the creation of a UN rapid reaction force. 

These issues will shape the ways in which international governance is carried out moving forward, both for the next American president and beyond. 

Contact the John Parke Young Initiative on the Global Political Economy
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The McKinnon Center for Global Affairs