President Obama promised a new kind of foreign policy, in which the United States would engage in active diplomacy even with countries considered our opponents. In playground terms, Obama said he wanted to play ball with the world, whereas President Bush had taken his ball away from multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, gone home and dared anybody else to play without him.
An early test of Obama's commitment to multilateralism is fast approaching, and so far he's looking like a bigger spoilsport than his predecessor.
On April 20, the U.N. will conduct a follow-up to its first international conference on racism. That meeting, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, is often cited by conservatives as Exhibit A in the case against multilateralism. A conference that was supposed to address serious issues of racial discrimination was overshadowed by criticism of Israel by Muslim nations, prompting the U.S. and Israeli delegations to walk out.
The latest conference, commonly known as Durban II although it will be held in Geneva, is shaping up to be even more contentious. The Obama administration made a show of participating by sending negotiators to discuss the wording of the draft statement, which will be approved at the event by the nations that attend. Sadly, it was only a show; the State Department announced late last month that it had given up. Unless the draft is substantially changed before April 20, the U.S. won't go to Geneva. That makes Obama more intransigent than Bush, who at least sent a delegation, even if it did walk out.