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October 5, 2022

Barack Obama about the United Nations

By Ioan Voicu*


The book  A  Promised Land by Barack Obama (973 pages in its e-version),launched on 17 November 2020, is a bestseller of great interest for international  readers, including those  attracted by multilateral diplomacy. It  is  a very useful instrument for  understanding the position of the United States of America about the United Nations (UN) during the present  irreversible process of globalization.

As the first world institution under which multilateral diplomacy is being practiced is the UN, the pages and paragraphs of the book  dealing specifically  with the world organization and signed by a former US President  deserve to be well known by diplomats from 193 member states.

Barack Obama  learned for the first time about the existence of the UN, as a nine or ten years  boy, from his  mother who  described it for him  as a  place  for countries to meet  to “learn about each other and not be so afraid”.

As US President, being  convinced that his country  has the dominant position on the world stage, the author of the book  had to be seriously  interested in international institutions and respect the UN. In his first address in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 23 September 2009 he said :

“The United Nations can be a place where we either bicker about outdated grievances or forge common ground; a place where we focus on what drives us apart or what brings us together; a place where we indulge tyranny or a source of moral authority. In short, the United Nations can be an institution that is disconnected from what matters in the lives of our citizens or it can be an indispensable factor in advancing the interests of the people we serve”.

These ideas are strongly emphasized in the book, special attention being given  to the world  organization’s role  in  promoting  peaceful resolution of conflicts and developing  multilateral cooperation on all global issues.

The author answers  important questions about  to what extent should America bind  itself to multilateral institutions like the UN, and to  what extent should it go  alone in pursuit of its interests.

Readers will find for the first time US President’s  personal opinions about   Ban Ki-moon, the former  UN Secretary-general, the world most prominent diplomat,  dependent on the ability of 193 countries to do  something meaningful.  The author describes his own very busy schedule at the UNGA. Everybody  wanted to have a  meeting with him or at least a photo for the people back home. He had numerous  consultations at the UN, discussions  with the UN Secretary-general, multiple speeches to be written, including  major addresses for the UNGA.

While the US President is hopeful and  expectant about the UN, it does not mean that he  is not critical about the world organization. In his view, like the League of Nations, the UN  is only as strong as its most powerful members allowed it to be, as  any significant action requires consensus among the five permanent members of the Security Council, each having the right of an absolute veto.

However, Barack Obama remains convinced that for all its shortcomings the UN  serves vital functions. Its reports and findings  sometimes shame countries into better behavior and strengthen international norms. Because of the UN work many  lives have been saved. The UN has had  a positive role by enabling  more than 80 former colonies  to become independent countries.

On a more practical note, the author  discovered that many diplomats and UN staff were trying to convince governments to find vaccination programs and  schools for poor children, rallying the world to stop minority groups from being slaughtered and for young women from being trafficked.

A fundamental topical idea of this book of memoirs is the confession made by Barack Obama according to which he believed that America’s security depended on strengthening alliances and international institutions.

For doing that, as US President, he decided “to put broader faith in  diplomacy to the test”. That process started by  the change in tone and making sure that every foreign policy statement coming out of the White House emphasized the importance of international cooperation and the America’s intention to cooperate with all nations, big and small, on the basis of mutual interest and respect.

An interesting example is related to the UN budget. Under Barack Obama  the decision was taken  for  bringing the US out of arrears in the UN after several years during which the Bush administration and the Republican- controlled Congress had withheld certain UN payments. In his view, “Within the Republican Party, the UN became a symbol of nefarious  one-world globalism”.

Very interesting considerations can be found in this book about climate change Conference which took place in Copenhagen in 2009 and about nuclear non-proliferation strategies.

As the book of Barack Obama was published in November 2020, a year when the UN is celebrating its 75th anniversary, it is instructive to remind the thought-provoking ideas developed by President Obama in his address delivered in the UNGA on 28 September 2015, a year  when the world organization  was celebrating its 70th anniversary.

In a lucid and realistic manner he reminded in his address :”There are those who argue that the ideals enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations are unachievable or out of date, a legacy of a postwar era not suited to our own. In effect, they are arguing for a return to the rules that applied for most of human history and that predate this institution — the belief that power is a zero-sum game, that might makes right, that strong States must impose their will on weaker ones, that the rights of individuals do not matter and that in a time of rapid change order must be imposed by force “.

In the final part of the  same  address Barack Obama said inter alia :” …..there are certain ideas and principles that are universal. That is what those who shaped the United Nations 70 years ago understood. Let us carry that faith forward into the future, for it is the only way we can ensure that the future will be brighter, for my children and for everyone’s children”.

In the last sentence  of the Preface to A Promised Land,  signed in August 2020, Barack Obama continued the above idea by confessing :”I’ve learned to place my faith in my fellow citizens, especially those of the next generation, whose conviction in the equal worth of all people seems to come as second nature, and who insist on making real those principles that their parents and teachers told them were true but perhaps never fully believed themselves. More than anyone, this book is for those young people—an invitation to once again remake the world, and to bring about, through hard work, determination, and a big dose of imagination, an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us”.

In a similar manner, on 21 September 2020 the UNGA on behalf of 193 member states adopted by consensus the Declaration on the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations which  states in its  paragraph 19 the following :”Through reinvigorated global action and by building on the progress achieved in the last 75 years, we are determined to ensure the future we want. To achieve this, we will mobilize resources, strengthen our efforts and show unprecedented political will and leadership. We will work together with partners to strengthen coordination and global governance for the common future of present and coming generations.”

Readers of the first volume of Barack Obama’s memoirs  have been  already informed that the story will continue in the second volume, but the author has already illuminated  many significant  moments in American and UN history in his current bestseller.

*Dr Ioan Voicu is a Visiting Professor at Assumption University in Bangkok.


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