Sunday, April 19, 2009

An Obama Administration Misstep on Engagement

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some positive news about two US moves to boost its international authority through diplomacy -- joining the United Nations Human Rights Council and having an initial high-level meeting with Iran. 

But unfortunately, the consistency of engagement has faltered a bit. Recently, the Obama administration has pulled out of a large international conference on anti-racism, hosted by the United Nations. After some negotiations on the wording of the conference communique, the US left the negotiations due to disagreement over deeming 'defamation of religion' as racism as well as wording that tries to equate Zionism (i.e. Israeli claims to territory and treatment of Palestinians) with racism. 

Although both of these definitions of racism are objectionable for many (including myself), obviously there are a considerable number of people that believe in the wording or else it would not be a debated issue. (The religion and Zionism issues are supported by the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference.) But as I said in the previous post, only by staying engaged in these processes of deliberation over definitions of international norms and law can the US maintain maximal influence over the outcomes. By leaving these negotiations in a huff, the US only manages to diminish its influence. This is the tact that the Bush administration followed regularly; hence the decline of US authority.

The irony in this recent move is that a few weeks ago, in its bid to join the UNHRC, the Obama administration was explicitly espousing the idea of negotiating with those people or governments with which it disagrees. A wise principle. But apparently, consistency in its principles is a problem for the new White House. 

To be fair, all governments falter on upholding stated principles -- insofar as they claim to be following principles. But the degree to which a government falters is key. The Obama administration has pinned a large part of its foreign policy on reengaging with others (refer to Obama speeches during the presidential campaign, his address on Al-Arabiya television, or any recent remarks in Europe). So to begin wobbling in highly visible diplomatic venues on a paramount foreign policy principle seems neither pragmatic nor right. 

The US should recommit to discussions on the anti-racism conference.

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