The U.N. General Assembly: 5 Political Potholes for Obama

Tricky relations with an emerging Arab public, Netanyahu's shaming rhetoric and a growing China-Japan spat. What's to love about the U.N. for a President whose appointment with his electorate is just weeks away?

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Richard Drew / AP

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2012

4. China and Japan Square Off

China and Japan have long been the sort of U.N. member states that don’t like to talk about themselves. Instead, they’ve reliably offered speeches long on uncontroversial multilateral platitudes on the issues of the day — the sort of speeches that might as well be read into the record for all the interest they arouse in news editors and producers. This year may be different: in a time-honored symptom of economic anxiety, there’s been a fierce upsurge of nationalist fervor in both Tokyo and Beijing over rival claims to a splatter of uninhabited islets called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan. With Japan facing an election and China in the throes of its complicated once-a-decade leadership transition, neither side is showing any inclination to back down, instead allowing populist grandstanding in both countries to escalate.

(PHOTOS: Anti-Japan Protests Hit China’s Capital)

As my colleague Hannah Beech recently noted, the showdown is a headache for the Obama Administration:

Last year, President Barack Obama pledged to pivot U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, a shift designed to recognize the economic ascendancy of the world’s most populous continent. But the move was also viewed as an effort to contain a rising — and a more militarily assertive — China. During the Secretary of Defense’s visit to Japan, he unveiled plans for the two countries to develop a second missile-defense system for the island nation, which worries about a threat from a nuclear North Korea backed by the Chinese. The announcement of this joint U.S.-Japan radar shield naturally didn’t please Beijing.

At the start of his Asia trip, Panetta warned of how quickly regional territorial tensions could blaze out of control. (China is also sparring with maritime neighbors, like Vietnam and the Philippines, over disputed shoals and islands in the South China Sea.) “A misjudgment on one side or the other could result in violence, and could result in conflict,” Panetta said. By the time he arrived in Beijing, the U.S. Secretary of Defense was urging cooler heads to prevail: “With respect to these current tensions, we are urging calm and restraint by all sides and encourage them to maintain open channels of communication in order to resolve these disputes diplomatically and peacefully.”

But there’s no sign of tensions abating as world leaders head to New York: Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and the Chinese leadership have signaled their intention to take the dispute to the U.N. this week. Although Washington’s Asia “pivot” is all about containing Chinese ambitions, the Obama Administration is unlikely to welcome being drawn into a confrontation with Beijing at a moment when so many other foreign policy priorities, such as Iran and Syria as well as economic and financial concerns, demand that the U.S. seek a more cooperative relationship with China.

5. Ignoring the Perils of Climate Change

In the popular HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones, the phrase “winter is coming” is often invoked to signal a looming climate shift that will profoundly alter the security of a human realm distracted by its myriad power struggles. In the real world, of course, it’s not winter that’s coming but rather a warming of the planet that will bring with it catastrophic weather patterns that will in turn have a profound impact on global economic well-being and security. But you wouldn’t know that watching events at the U.N. this week.

(VIDEO: Chasing Ice: Time-Lapse Photography)

Boilerplate declarations on the need to tackle climate change have been de rigueur in U.N. speeches for the past decade, of course. But agreement on meaningful international action to curb the output of carbon gases is hopelessly stalled as major industrialized countries and emerging economies find their economic woes reinforcing a long-standing reluctance to agree to the terms of their interlocutors on how the burden of carbon cuts should be shared. The only speakers who’ll address the issue with passionate urgency in New York this week are the leaders of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Tuvalu and other tiny Pacific island nations whose very survival is threatened by rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. But as compelling as their pleas may be, they simply don’t carry any sort of geopolitical leverage. Still, President Obama and other leaders of major industrialized powers know the science and they’ve seen the statistics; they can’t be unaware of the dramatic shifts in the climate already under way and their potentially catastrophic effects on global security and power relations — even if it’s politically as inconvenient as ever, if not more so, to begin doing what has to be done.

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