EXCLUSIVE: Obama Will Personally Chair U.N. Security Council Meeting

President Barack Obama chairs a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in 2009 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK
President Barack Obama chairs a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in 2009 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK

President Barack Obama will preside over a meeting of the United Nations Security Council during his attendance of the U.N.’s annual General Assembly, ThinkProgress has learned, marking the second time in history that a U.S. president has done so.

The last time the U.S. was president of the Council during the weeklong opening of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) was 2009, the year that President Obama assumed office. Then the meeting was convened to discuss the spread of nuclear weapons and material, and Obama’s presence ensured it was a widely attended event that lead to the unanimous passage of a resolution meant to strengthen safeguards against nuclear proliferation. According to a draft schedule for this year’s UNGA week, seen by ThinkProgress, the current plan is to have President Obama take advantage of the Council’s presidency once again, this time to discuss counterterrorism.

Specifically the meeting will cover the phenomenon of foreign fighters travelling to conflict zones and joining terrorist organizations, as seen in the surge in foreigners joining ranks with such groups as Jahbat al-Nusra in Syria. “Certainly the problem of terrorists traveling to foreign conflicts is not new, but the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters has become even more acute,” a U.S. Mission to the U.N. official told ThinkProgress when asked about the meeting. “The internet and social media have given terrorist groups unprecedented new ways to promote their hateful ideology and inspire recruits. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have highlighted this threat, with an estimated 12,000 foreign terrorist fighters joining that conflict.”

Currently the plan is to have a U.S.-drafted resolution to address the phenomenon negotiated and ready to pass during the September meeting. During the last time Obama chaired the Council, the leaders of Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China — the other permanent members of the Council — were all in attendance. This time, the audience is not guaranteed to be quite so lustrous. France’s mission to the United Nations told ThinkProgress that French president Francois Hollande should be attending the General Assembly but would not confirm whether he would be attending the Security Council meeting. A spokesperson for the British mission said that plans were still being finalized for that week, but “will take into account” President Obama chairing the meeting. Neither China nor Russia’s missions responded to queries from ThinkProgress, but Russian president Vladimir Putin has proven himself an infrequent attendee at the annual General Assembly meeting.

Every month, the presidency of the Security Council rotates between the 15 member body, giving them the chance to set the agenda and lead meetings of the body. September, the next time that the U.S. is slated to hold the gavel, is also when the General Assembly — which comprises all 193 member-states — holds its annual meeting at U.N. headquarters. World leaders and other high-level dignitaries flock to New York and diplomatic meetings on the sidelines often produce results, including last year when the U.S. and Iran spoke direct at the highest level since 1979. Obama’s presence will make the upcoming meeting the first Head of Government-level Security Council session since 2009.

“When President Obama first chaired a Security Council meeting, the question of the US relationship with the organization was much more salient than it is today,” David Bosco, an assistant professor at American University and author of a book on the workings of the Security Council, told ThinkProgress in an email. “Obama’s first time in the chair was an opportunity to very visibly distance himself from what was perceived — not always fairly — as the hostility of the Bush administration to the UN’s work. The US/UN relationship has now become much less fraught. There are plenty of frictions, but there’s no sense of hostility from Washington.”

Richard Gowan, associate director at New York University’s Center for International Cooperation, agreed that Obama’s first time at the U.N. was a success, noting that the president “didn’t just chair the Security Council but gave an expansive speech to the General Assembly about common interests and convened a special meeting with other leaders on UN peacekeeping.” While this drew a line under the Bush years, Gowan continued in his email to ThinkProgress, “this was a prelude to repeated multilateral setbacks like the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit mess, the Syrian horror story and the South Sudan debacle.”

“Counterterrorism is a smart topic for a top-level Security Council debate,” Gowan wrote, pointing to the fact that such disparate Council members as France, China, Nigeria, and Russia would all want to discuss the issue because of their relationship with Mali, worries over the Xinjiang provence, the rise of Boko Haram, and unrest in the Caucasus respectively.

“But there may be blowback too,” Gowan cautioned. “This being the UN, someone inside or outside the Council will equate Israel’s behaviour in Gaza with terrorism. The Russians may well talk about the ‘terrorists’ that overthrew the government in Kiev, while Western governments could push back and accuse Russia of supporting terrorists in eastern Ukraine. Perhaps everyone will be on good behaviour and show President Obama due deference, but at a minimum there will be a lot of barely-suppressed political tensions around the Security Council table.”