Multilateralism: B-

obamaUnderstandably preoccupied the economic crisis and health care reform, the Obama administration has failed to deliver on the multilateral front. Still awaiting signatures and ratification are the Law of the Sea (wanted by the Pentagon), the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty (crucial to the administration’s nonproliferation policy), the Conventions on Land Mines and Child Soldiers (both popular with Obama’s base), and, of course, the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Law of the Sea is crucial for American claims in the rapidly defrosting Arctic and is such low-hanging fruit that only an exclusive concern with local politics can explain the failure to ratify it. In the case of the ICC, the administration did send a delegation to the recent meeting of states party. That is progress of a sort. But this approach simply returns the United States to the Clintonesque position of non-inhalation, going with the flow but not taking any actual risks. The muted reaction from the blogosphere suggests that those who could once have been whipped into patriotic indignation about U.S. accession to the ICC are too busy teabagging.

At the same time, the Obama administration has aligned the United States publically with the United Nations and its surrounding multilateral structures. In one of the few concrete steps it’s taken, Congress honored the White House request to pay U.S. arrears to the UN for the first time in 30 years. Admittedly, Washington still pays nine months in arrears, and there are huge debts for peacekeeping contributions. But the payments are a big step forward from when any dyspeptic legislator with a grudge against the world could use the UN as a whipping boy.

Congress might try again to starve and beat the UN into submission, but the Obama administration shows few signs of doing so. Indeed, freed from a perennial anxiety about the budget and the once-vindictive attention Washington formerly paid to the UN secretariat, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has become more forthright and principled.

Now Ban Ki-Moon has a real opportunity. Whether we like it or not, a UN without the active support of the world’s superpower, albeit a declining one, is simply not effective. And insofar as declining superpowers have more need of multilateral support, the United States has a rational self-interest in supporting the organization. Obama’s public commitment to multilateral principles allows the secretary-general to restate them more forcefully.

However, the pinch will come, just as it did during the Reagan years, on the Middle East. It was not gratifying to see Obama appointees eating — even if they did not entirely swallow — their previous words on international justice when it came to the Goldstone Report. Obama has not used previous UN resolutions on the Middle East, nor the possibility of future Security Council decisions, to prod the maverick Netanyahu back onto the trail laid down by the road map for peace. On the other hand, his administration hasn’t “punished” Ban Ki-Moon for his increasingly forthright statements about Gaza — perhaps because U.S officials have been saying similar things, albeit less strenuously.

The Obama administration has endorsed the Arab League plan and its references to the UN-sanctioned borders from 1967, but it’s hardly been assiduous in pressuring Israel to accept them, let alone the road map. Until it does, the world’s jury will remain out on whether the United States has truly re-subscribed to the principles of the organization that it played such a large role in founding. But Obama can still deal with those outstanding international conventions, notably the Law of the Sea, while he still has a Senate majority, thereby reassuring to the world that progress is being maintained. Even if the Massachusetts election result gives him an excuse for failure, it’s no excuse for not trying.

Senior Foreign Policy In Focus analyst Ian Williams is a journalist and author. Much of his work can be found on his blog, Deadline Pundit.