Will Barack Obama put the UN back on the rails?

At her confirmation hearing before the U.S. Congress earlier this month, Susan Rice, the newly appointed American ambassador to the United Nations, described it as "an indispensable, if imperfect, institution for advancing our security and well-being in the 21st century." That kind of language has not been heard coming out of Washington for quite some time.

George W. Bush was not a great fan of the UN, to put it mildly. His administration believed that nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of America's sovereign right to defend its interests as it saw fit. At best, the UN was seen as a convenient tool for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and the management of conflict of secondary importance. The Iraq episode reinforced the neo-cons' conviction that the UN was a hostile entity not to be trusted under any circumstances.

The organization is emerging battered and bruised from the Bush era. The Iraq crisis polarized the UN's membership in a way that had not been seen since Cold War days. The anger and resentment felt by both camps has abated, but confidence in the UN has not been restored and the organization is drifting.

The UN badly needs inspiration and direction of the kind President Barack Obama seems ready to provide. His early pronouncements on key UN issues have been well-received internationally. Mr. Obama's promise of active engagement in climate-change negotiations has gone down well with Europeans and others that place the issue at the top of their priority list.

The new U.S. administration's explicit intention to respect its obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to, in the words of Ms. Rice, "work constructively and securely toward the goal of a world without nuclear weapons" will likewise have been warmly received in foreign ministries everywhere around the world.

Developing countries have been reassured by the new President's firm endorsement of the Millennium Development Goals. If, on top of that, Mr. Obama can deliver on his promise to pay UN dues in full and on time, there will be smiles all around in New York.

Ms. Rice is thus likely to encounter considerable goodwill when she takes up her post. This will not be sufficient, however, to guarantee easy agreement on the many issues that will require her urgent attention.

Early out of the gate will be Iraq and Afghanistan, where Washington wants an expanded role for the UN, as well as Darfur and Congo, where the UN missions are struggling to cope with very challenging problems, inadequate resources and insufficient diplomatic support. Add to this list the ongoing concerns with Iran's nuclear program, a fragile ceasefire in Gaza and the rapid disintegration of what is left of Somalia as a functioning state.

The Security Council cannot be effective if its key members are at loggerheads. America's relations with China and Russia usually set the tone in the council. If bilateral relations are set on a positive course, mutually acceptable solutions will be more easily found, even though the three countries clearly do not share the same values or priorities.

It will also be important for Washington to build support among the UN membership at large. The ability of the world body to perform effectively depends to a large extent on the perceived legitimacy of its decisions. So long as they are seen as the expression of the common will, the organization has a potential for effectiveness that no other can have.

This legitimacy is now put in doubt in many quarters.

The Security Council is no longer representative of the world's reality at the beginning of the 21st century, and the failure, so far, to reform it increasingly serves as an excuse to ignore its decisions and challenge its interventions.

More and more people in developing countries, particularly in the Muslim world, view the UN as a tool of the United States and of the West. They see an organization that is insufficiently supportive of the Palestinians and is ganging up on Muslim countries from Sudan to Afghanistan and from Iraq to Iran, at the behest of the American imperial power.

Meanwhile, in the United States and elsewhere, the public has the impression that the UN is a hopeless mess, totally under the thumb of non-democratic states.

Trust in the UN's legitimacy can be restored if its member states can be brought together around a common vision for the organization. The most powerful among them must take the time to listen, explain and persuade. History shows that when the member states are united in their purpose, the UN can deliver - if it's given the means to do the job.

Mr. Obama has an opportunity to get the UN back on the rails. Canada should do all it can to help him in this enterprise.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.