Bush Closes Out a Rocky Relationship With the United Nations

Fighting terrorism again tops his talking points, along with promoting democracy.

President George W. Bush prepares to speak at the 63rd annual United Nations General Assembly meeting at UN headquarters in New York City.

President George W. Bush prepares to speak at the 63rd annual United Nations General Assembly meeting.

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UNITED NATIONS—President Bush made his final appearance before the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday in New York, concluding on the same theme he began with seven years ago just after 9/11: the fight against terrorism. He also highlighted another favorite theme: promoting democracy and freedom.

The United Nations has been an uneasy venue for Bush, whose push for war with Iraq and other actions were regarded by many diplomats as riding roughshod over the concerns of the world body. And yet, with a new, lower-key secretary general in Ban Ki Moon, the press of new issues, and the passage of time, the closely watched U.S. relationship with the United Nations appears in better shape than it was a few years ago.

Some diplomats here consider Bush's second-term foreign policy to have shown more pragmatism and a greater willingness to stick with multilateral diplomacy, such as on the nuclear problems with Iran and North Korea, despite the frustrations and delays. And Bush, for his part, declared that in an age of extremism, the United Nations and other multilateral organizations "are needed more urgently than ever."

While Bush has been an unpopular figure in U.N. corridors, U.S. officials present the president as having been pragmatic and results-oriented in dealing with the 192-nation institution. The administration's attitude has been that if the United Nations can't fulfill its proper role on security or other challenges then the United States will seek out other multilateral groups to get the job done. "There's been a very flexible multilateralist approach," says Brian Hook, the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.

Some diplomats at the United Nations argue privately, though, that the Bush administration's overriding focus on countering global terrorism has been out of proportion to the threat and has diverted the world body from other pressing needs.

Fighting terrorism was a major theme once again for the president on his eighth appearance before the General Assembly. "The ideals of the [U.N.] Charter are now facing a challenge as serious as any since the U.N.'s founding: a global movement of violent extremists," he told a packed chamber.

Bush called on the United Nations and other multilateral organizations to "respond by taking an unequivocal moral stand against terrorism."

With questions of Bush's legacy at the world body in mind, administration officials cite the U.N.'s recent antiterrorism efforts. Hook cites three Security Council committees to show that the administration succeeded in changing "the architecture of the U.N." They are: a sanctions committee on the Taliban and al Qaeda, a general counterterrorism committee, and a panel dedicated to tightening controls on nonstate groups trying to get nuclear technologies possibly of use in a bomb. "We have certainly shifted the focus of the Security Council," Hook says.