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“The United Nations can be a place where we either bicker about outdated grievances or forge common ground; a place where we focus on what drives us apart or what brings us together; a place where we indulge tyranny or a source of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.