Flying into Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the early days of 2015, foreign diplomats could be excused for being disoriented. The news in the international press was focused on an impending offensive against Rwandan rebels in the east of the country, an area to which the United Nations peacekeeping mission––the largest in the world––had just relocated most of its troops and staff.
Russia and the United States, trapped in costly confrontations over Syria and Ukraine, may need to agree to a sort of “grand climb-down” that allows the two powers to get out of unsustainable positions as painlessly as possible.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least among American political analysts, that the struggle against violent Islamist extremism is back in play as an organizing principle in international affairs.
Russia and China are good friends these days. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Moscow last week and, by signing a bundle of economic agreements, demonstrated Beijing’s disregard for Western sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. Early in the Ukrainian conflict, American and European officials hoped that Beijing would take steps to penalize Russia over its annexation of Crimea. But it has confined itself to token complaints, while reinforcing its trade relations with its northern neighbor.
Throughout the Ukrainian crisis, Russia has demonstrated a keen appetite for both territory and power. While Moscow has largely kept the United Nations out of the conflict, it has permitted the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the situation on the ground.
Last week’s top-level session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York offered three basic lessons. The first is that the United States can still dominate the U.N. when it wants to. The second is that a clear majority of other countries’ leaders are quite relieved to follow an American lead. But the third is that the U.N. is only really still relevant in two—admittedly sensitive—regions: Africa and the Middle East.
Ban Ki-moon revealed a new side to his character over the past week: Action Ban. The secretary-general of the United Nations announced that he was tired of just talking about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. He outlined plans for an ambitious regional mission to fight the disease, then he hit the streets of Manhattan on Sunday, joining 310,000 marchers calling for urgent action over climate change.
Upon first taking office, Barack Obama promised that his presidency would be all about hope. He made this offer to foreigners as well as Americans. Five years on, Obama is fighting conflicts that stubbornly refuse to end, but he still has a potent diplomatic weapon. It is not hope, but fear.