The new United States administration assuming office next January will confront a congested menu of domestic and foreign policy items demanding immediate attention. He or she, required to separate the urgent from the merely important, will be fortunate if the George Bush administration leaves behind just unfinished business instead of a full-blown crisis or two. The list of critical areas and issues is long: Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Afghanistan, Pakistan, I ran, and North Korea; terrorism, nuclear proliferation, human rights abuses and atrocities, global trade, climate change, pandemics, and poverty. There are also the perennial issues of managing China-U.S. relationship as a partnership or rivalry, reassuring traditional allies like Japan and Australia, dealing with a prickly and newly assertive Russia, responding to requests for NATO membership from Georgia and Ukraine, and massaging the trans-Atlantic alliance.
The United Nations Charter articulates the normative architecture of a world order based on quintessentially American values and worldview. No other country had as much influence on designing the international organisation or on its operations once established; no other will have as critical a role in determining its agenda and actions in the foreseeable future. At the same time, no other country will have as devastating an impact on the fortunes of the U.N. by withholding support or opposing it.
Though the hyperpuissance may be humbled, the U.S. is neither a humble nor dispensable power. Nor is the U.N. a disposable organisation, even for the most powerful nation in history. It remains an un-substitutable forum and indispensable front of authority for reducing the transaction costs of U.S. diplomatic engagement with the rest of the world. Within the urgent and important issues, the new administration will therefore have to pay early attention to repairing and revitalising the relationship with the U.N. that has been strained and frayed. In Afghanistan, the two are already working together closely and have done so from the start. This is one reason why the U.S. role in Afghanistan remains relatively uncontroversial.
In Iraq, the U.N. presence is minor and secondary. Yet clearly the situation is such that the large U.S. military presence has become part of the problem and no solution is likely until a substantial drawdown. But for it to simply withdraw would create a dangerous vacuum. Only the U.N. has the legitimacy to authorise a replacement multinational presence for stabilising the security situation and the capacity to mobilise the requisite resources for post-conflict reconstruction.
Regarding Iran, any military attack without U.N. authorisation would reopen America's Iraq wounds around the world with a vengeance.
The connecting link between U.S. national interests and the international interest symbolised by the U.N. might be the analytical prism or organising principle - the strategic-cum-moral compass - through which the new President interprets the world and frames the foreign policy choices: balance of power, isolationism, concert of democracies, or embedded liberalism which seeks American security and prosperity in a rules-based international architecture. The underlying and unifying theme is the challenge posed to the world order by the shifts in power in the international system.
The relationship between the U.S. as the universal power and the U.N. as the universal organisation can be framed with respect to four critical themes: the use of force; peace operations; nuclear weapons; and climate change. Although not exhaustive, the list is highly representative.
How will the different candidates respond to this agenda? There are two difficulties in answering the question with any degree of confidence. First, what they say and write before and during the campaign is aimed at winning the party nomination and then the general election. For all the precision and details demanded by voters as the basis of making their choice, no one can be surprised that actual policies vary from campaign promises. Second, no one can predict the exact challenges and crises that will confront the new President. Who would have been brave enough to forecast the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent Iraq war as the defining foreign policy legacy of the Bush administration?
At present, there are three viable presidential candidates. Of them, Barack Obama is the most likely to win instant international attention, admiration and respect for the U.S. His persona was formed in part in Indonesia, where he learnt the triple lesson of the powerlessness and helplessness of citizens in developing countries, the status of Americans abroad, and the extent to which others look to America to help them overcome their own political and economic problems. According to him, the U.S. mission "is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity." He is the most likely to engage with the rest of the world on climate change, calling on Al Gore's assistance, and by instinct should be the most responsive to providing U.S. logistics and political support for U.N. peace operations in Africa. He is also the only one to have shown interest in pursuing the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world while downgrading its role in the interim and ratifying the CTBT.
As for the use of force, in general, he has been the most circumspect of the three candidates, for example, with respect to Iraq and Iran. He has shown the clearest understanding of the broader damage done to U.S. interests and leadership by the distraction in Iraq, and promised to bring it to "a responsible end." Yet he also famously said he would not hesitate to take military action in Pakistan even without the host government's permission if there was actionable intelligence to indicate the presence of high-value terrorist leaders there. Overall, he is likely to strive to "harness American power to reinvigorate American diplomacy." His understanding of the reforms needed in the U.N. system is not substantially different from the Bush administration's.
Hillary Clinton is the most difficult to read because of her known propensity to tailor her promises to the political exigencies of the moment, the unknown variable of her husband's influence as a former President, First Mate, etc. Certainly during the campaign, she seems obsessed with the Commander-in-Chief role of the President, goes out of her way to present a persona of unremitting toughness, and threatens to "obliterate" Iran if it dares to attack Israel with nuclear weapons. In other respects as well, she gives firm signals of an America-first policy stance. She declares that although the U.S. cannot solve the climate crisis alone, "the rest of the world cannot solve it without us." Given the distant relations with Al Gore, his role on climate change is likely to be ornamental rather than substantial. Despite her declaration that "international institutions are tools rather than traps," the U.S. participation in U.N. peace operations is unlikely to be any less problematical than during the Bill Clinton years which witnessed the failures, disasters and horrors of Somalia, Srebrenica and Rwanda. And she is likely to emphasise nuclear non-proliferation and downplay disarmament.
John McCain is the only one of the three to know first-hand what war means. The deliberate misrepresentation of his 100-years in Iraq comment notwithstanding, he could be more cautious than Ms Clinton but, because of his party, less restrained than Mr. Obama in defending U.S. interests with force. He has based his campaign on winning the war in Iraq and not losing focus from the war on terrorism. He seems more interested in cooperating with a coalition or league of democracies than giving priority to the U.N., which might make him the most attractive choice for the Indian government. Based on that, like Mr. Bush, he would most likely differentiate between U.S.-friendly and U.S.-hostile regimes possessing or pursuing nuclear weapons, enlisting the former as strategic partners and allies while sanctioning the latter as threats to world peace. But he could also offer Reaganesque surprises if the idea of a nuclear-weapon-free world propounded by four former Republican heavyweights grabs his attention. Neither by personal instinct nor by party leanings is Mr. McCain likely to pursue an activist agenda with respect to U.N. peace operations and climate change. Moreover, as he is the least likely of the three to serve for a second term (based simply on age), he may have the least longer term impact.
Regardless of who becomes President, the U.S., to regain its former status as a good international citizen, should reinvest diplomatic assets in the U.N., regain its former role as the champion-in-chief of the global human rights norm, "re-sign" and ratify the Rome Statute of the ICC that was "unsigned" by Mr. Bush in 2002, reaffirm firm adherence to the Geneva and U.N. torture conventions, ratify the CTBT, and assume the leadership role in negotiating a post-Kyoto climate deal.