Back to Work

By Colum Lynch

If you felt your life was on hold the past week or so, as the U.S. election entered its final stretch, take comfort — so was the rest of the world, at least at the United Nations. The U.S. political campaign placed a number of U.N. foreign-policy priorities, including Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran, on the backburner.

But within hours of President Barack Obama’s reelection, the United States had begun to turn its attention to deferred business, agreeing Wednesday, for instance, to set a date for resumption of negotiations on the establishment of a new arms trade treaty.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, used his congratulatory message to President Obama to draw Washington’s attention to four key priorities — ending the bloodshed in Syria, restarting the Middle East peace process, promoting sustainable development, and tackling climate change — requiring greater American engagement.

There are a number of areas, including arms control and possibly climate change, where the administration may show renewed vigor in a second term, according to U.N. observers. But they cautioned that movement on a second-term agenda would start slow, given the months it will likely take to put a new foreign policy team in place. The king, said one observer, will be the same, but the royal court will be new.

The administration will face the first test of its standing at the United Nations on Monday, when it will participate in its first competitive election for a seat on the Human Rights Council, facing off with Germany, Greece, Ireland, and Sweden for three Western spots on the U.N.’s main rights body. Washington has been aggressively campaigning for the post, seeking to avert an embarrassing loss. “People are nervous about it; they don’t think it in the bag,” said one U.N.-based source.

Observers said they did not foresee the administration pursuing a particularly ambitious agenda at the United Nations. Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, said he saw little likelihood that the U.S. would move, for instance, to join the International Criminal Court, push for ratification of the Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty, or press for expansion of the U.N. Security Council.  “Just as Obama was burdened with excessive expectations at the start of his first term I think quite a lot of leaders may have excessive expectations of what he will do now that he is reelected,” Gowan said.

So, what will a second term Obama administration pull off the backburner and pursue with renewed vigor? Read more…

Colum Lynch has been been reporting on foreign policy and national security for the Washington Post since June 1999. He also writes Foreign Policy’s Turtle Bay blog.

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on November 9, 2012.



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