The Obama administration has a host of challenges waiting for it in the realm of multilateral diplomacy. Some of them have been building for years, others the administration quite deliberately kicked down the road in hopes of a less fraught political climate. Here's a partial list:
The Arms Trade Treaty: In July, negotiations on a treaty to provide standards for arms shipments across borders foundered at the last minute, in large part because the Obama administration didn't want the treaty to become a campaign issue. The process is still alive at the United Nations, however, and British foreign minister William Hague (a key supporter) indicated just hours after the president's reelection that his government will make it a priority. The Obama team appears inclined to support the draft treaty text, and a UN committee just called for new negotiations in March. Whether the administration could get any final treaty through even a more friendly U.S. Senate is uncertain however.
Palestinian statehood: The Palestinians have made clear their intention to push for a new status at the United Nations: recognition as a non-member observer state. In contrast to full UN membership, this change in status can be accomplished through the General Assembly (where the Palestinians are all but assured of broad suport). The Palestinians agreed to defer their diplomatic push until after the U.S. election, but it seems likely to come to a head in the next few months. According to this report, Palestinian representatives will make the case to EU officials next week that the time has come for the UN to recognize Palestinian statehood. Even with the U.S. election done, the issue promises to be nettlesome for the administration; Congress may seek to cut U.S. funding to the United Nations if the Palestinian bid succeeds.
The Law of the Sea Convention: Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate came close to finally ratifying this treaty, which enjoys support in even some conservative circles. Massachusetts SenatorJohn Kerry--a strong contender for second-term Secretary of State--led the fight for ratification and likely will push the issue again from wherever he sits. He told an audience in Texas last week that the treaty "is about whether America will continue to lead the world or be left
behind, less prosperous in our own land and less secure abroad.” The Senate's new composition means that the convention stands a good chance of passing.
Quota Reform at the International Monetary Fund: in 2010, the IMF's members approved what was hailed as a groundbreaking reform of its quota and governance system. The reform package shifted some weight from advanced economies to the major emerging economies and to certain developing world states. But there's a hitch: the measure requires the formal approval of a supermajority of IMF shareholders, and the United States has not yet moved on the issue. Fearful of Congressional opposition, the Obama administration never advanced the necessary legislation on Capitol Hill. The U.S. hesitation hasn't affected IMF finances or operations yet, but it is keeping the vaunted reform package from coming into effect.
UN Security Council reform: The first Obama administration made little headway on this perennial global governance issue, but some in the administration might want to take a crack at it in the second term. The composition of the Security Council is an irritant to most states, and there is a broad consensus that its membership is anachronistic. In some respects, the United States is content to leave well enough alone, since it benefits from that outdated structure. But if administration officials calculate that reform will happen eventually, the United States may have an interest in shaping the process that produces reform.
In late 2010, President Obama endorsed India's candidacy for a permanent seat, but the administration did little on the issue since then (and the performance of some emerging powers as elected Council members dulled any appetite in the administration). I expect that there will be an active debate in the second Obama administration about where to go on this issue.
The Doha Round: The latest round of international trade talks has been on life support for years now, and the administration will need to consider whether and how to revive it. There are hints of movement in recent talks, and the level of U.S. engagement will help determine whether they amount to anything. If, as some predict, the administration does tack toward increased compromise with Congressional Republicans, a more robust international trade agenda may be one way to build goodwill.
The International Criminal Court: Despite a very different ideological starting point, the first Obama administration didn't depart radically from where the second Bush administration ended up on this issue. The United States has indicated that it will support the ICC's work when it serves the national interest but that it has no intention of joining the court. A move to join the court, which would require Senate ratification, appears highly unlikely (for more on that see this post by Mark Kersten); the current U.S. posture allows Washington to support international justice á la carte--without exposing U.S. officials more than they already are to the court's jurisdiction.
Even assuming that full membership is off the table, the administration will face important questions about how assertively to back the ICC. An array of individuals indicted by the court still walk free (including Joseph Kony, Bosco Ntaganda, and Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir), and some key voices in the administration would probably like to see U.S. power used more assertively to make the court's writ run.