In The Hague, Netherlands, a conference on the situation in Afghanistan was being convened. There, US special envoy Richard Holbrooke met with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh in a brief sideline meeting. Secretary Clinton claims that it was "unplanned". Whether or not this is true, it is a clear step in the right direction.
Since 1979, the US and Iran have been throwing barbs at one another without formal diplomatic relations. Although lower-level officials have met on numerous occasions in the past, this face-to-face meeting is the first public, high-level communication in three decades. Furthermore, that it occurred at this particular conference is a signal by both sides that there are important issues -- like the stability of Afghanistan -- in which Iran and America share a similar end-goal.
The other positive move by the Obama administration was its effort to get a seat on the Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Created in 2006 to monitor and recommend action on human rights violation, the Bush administration boycotted the UNHRC because of its membership of countries with questionable human rights records (like China) as well as the Council's numerous criticisms of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
Of course, the Bush administration missed the point of an international body. The idea is to get as many countries as possible invested in the international system of norms -- especially a rising power like China. And if it was a prerequisite that every country must agree on the definition of a norm -- in this case, human rights -- before coming together to deliberate, then cooperation would be hopeless. (Try to apply that conditionality to any interpersonal relationship and you would be absent friends or a spouse!)
By joining the UNHRC, the US will have more influence over the future of human rights going forward. And it is my view that the UNHRC could use some fresh deliberation; last Thursday, the UNHRC passed a resolution aimed to curb criticism of religion. (Here's the text of the resolution.) Without more resistance to hastily passed measures, the UNHRC could become a voice for the restriction freedom of speech, which seems peculiarly devoid of a human's right.
In summary: both of these diplomatic actions by the US are important in their respective issue-areas, but they also signal an increased willingness by the US to work within cooperative frameworks to achieve its objectives. This is a necessary step to winning back international support.
What do you think of these recent events? And do you think that these steps are mitigated by other actions that the Obama administration has or has not taken?