Multilateralism, Iran sanctions and a quiet signal on Afghanistan?
Here's the executive summary of what I think is going on at the UN today. Obama's speech was a sustained attempt to reinforce America's new, multilateralist stance. He acknowledged that frustration with unilateral action had created a "pervasive anti-Americanism" that is getting in the way of united action. He acknowledge also that the USA had pursued democracy selectively in the past. That whole part of his speech was pitched at the level of principle and designed to change the mood music.
Then, almost in realtime, we are getting an applied demonstration of what that means in practice. Obama signalled a review of the USA's nuclear posture. This plus the withdrawal of the planned missile defence shield in East Europe now seems to have prompted the Russians to reciprocate - one member of President Medvedev's team signalling to the press that there will be movement on sanctions against Iran if the IAEA provides evidence to base it on. Right now there is a foreign ministers' meeting going on to discuss what international pressure the UN might place on Iran over nuclear weapons.
Then, a second demonstration of what it means to build alliances with people you don't like: Muammar Gaddafi delivers a long and rambling speech, calling for the UN to be relocated, and calling the Security Council the "Terror Council", complaining about jetlag also. But Gaddafi is now "one of our" dictators and is being tolerated.
There was a third striking aspect of Obama's speech. He omitted any mention of the Taliban, outlining the mission in Afghanistan thus:
"We have set a clear and focused goal: to work with all members of this body to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies - a network that has killed thousands of people of many faiths and nations, and that plotted to blow up this very building. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, we - and many nations here - are helping those governments develop the capacity to take the lead in this effort, while working to advance opportunity and security for their people."
The background to this is a growing debate within the US administration over Afghan strategy. At the weekend the leaked McCrystal report showed Obama is being advised to boost troop numbers, accepting initial higher casualties, or face possible defeat in Afghanistan. Today it emerged there is another option being considered: abandoning counterinsurgency versus the Taliban in favour of a targeted anti-terror campaign against Al Qaeda, based partially in Pakistan.
Obama, we are told, wants to take his time rethinking Afghan strategy; the US media is interpreting this as a victory for Vice President Joe Biden, who has been pushing for a switch of focus to Al Qaeda, not the Taliban.
Obviously now we are in a world of multilateral diplomacy, it will be interesting to hear what America's NATO partners contribute to this rethink, particularly those who have advocated long-term military involvement on the ground in Afghanistan, in order to rebuild democracy and safeguard women's rights and generally achieve nation-building.