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Bush and the U.N.: a reluctant embrace

The administration's attitude toward the UN has evolved from antipathy to engagement.

By Staff writer / September 22, 2008

President George W. Bush spoke at the 62nd session of the United Nations General Assembly in Sept. 2007 and will address the UN on Tuesday.

Ed Betz/AP/FILE

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United Nations, N.Y.

When President Bush stands at the podium of the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday morning, his last speech as American president to the global forum will mark the administration's trajectory from disdain and disregard for the UN to pragmatic acceptance and even, according to some US officials, whole-hearted engagement.

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That shift has come in part because the United Nations has proved to Mr. Bush to be an essential partner in his central national security focus – the battle against terrorism. The body Bush once said risked "irrelevance" has taken a number of actions since 9/11 – targeting the finances of terrorist groups, enacting controls on the spread of weapons of mass destruction, approving sanctions to halt nuclear proliferation – that reinforce US national security goals.

The UN "looks very different today than it did on Sept. 10 of 2001, and those changes put the UN on better footing to prevent future terrorist attacks," says Brian Hook, acting assistant secretary of State for international organization affairs. Noting that the UN's charter calls for it to address threats to the world's peace and security, Mr. Hook says, "This president has worked very hard to help the UN give meaning to its ideals."

Bush's evolution from skepticism and antagonism toward the UN to embracing it is reminiscent of the path taken by another US president, Ronald Reagan. President Reagan was another two-term president who initially had little use for the unwieldy international body but left the White House with a better appreciation for the world body, UN scholars say.

As a budding conservative leader, Reagan wrote of the folly of "subordinating American interests" to the United Nations, and, through most of his presidency, dismissed the UN as a den of authoritarian regimes and small despots. But he sang a different tune by the time he addressed the General Assembly for the last time in September 1988. Saying he "stood at this podium … at a moment of hope," Reagan reviewed freedom's advance over the previous eight years, lauded UN reforms, and cited specific issues such as terrorist hijackings where the UN had played a crucial role.

"Yes, the United Nations is a better place than it was eight years ago," Reagan said, "and so, too, is the world."

Parallels with Reagan

Bush's speech may strike a similarly conciliatory and hopeful tone, given the two presidents' parallel tracks. "Reagan ended his tenure with one of the warmest speeches to the UN I can ever recall hearing," says Edward Luck, senior vice president of the International Peace Institute (IPI) in New York with long experience at the UN. "He really treated the UN as if he were coming home for the last time."

Mr. Luck, who says he has "never seen an administration so engaged in getting things done though the Security Council as the Bush administration in recent years," believes Bush is likely to offer an inventory, as Reagan did, of areas in which the US both challenged and worked with the UN.

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