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U.S. aims to show U.N. it can still drive diplomacy

By Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
President Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly in September 2009.
President Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly in September 2009.
  • A bolder assertion of U.S. power is expected from President Obama
  • The Middle East, Sudan and Iran are among the issues that loom large
  • Iranian President Ahmadinejad is on a PR offensive

Editor's note: Since becoming State Department producer in 2000, Elise Labott has covered four secretaries of state and reported from more than 50 countries. Before joining CNN, she covered the United Nations. Follow her on Twitter at @eliselabottcnn

New York (CNN) -- Oh, the motorcades. Those endless traffic jams. The security barriers one must navigate just to cross the street for a cup of coffee. New Yorkers know the madness can only mean one thing: the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

All world leaders making the annual pilgrimage for the UNGA ("UN-GA" as it is affectionately known by those who attend) are entitled to their 25 minutes (or if you are Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, two hours) on the podium to push their agendas and air their grievances on the world stage.

But over the years, the gathering has evolved into an unofficial reckoning on both the United States' role in the world and the strength of its president.

Last year at President Obama's first General Assembly, his administration promised to work with the United Nations to cure the world's ills -- offering U.N. member states the kind of international cooperation, or multilateralism, many felt was sorely lacking during the eight years of the Bush administration, which was marked largely by confrontation.

This year, the same nod to multilateralism is there, but with a much bolder assertion of U.S. power.

When he takes the podium this week, Obama will seek to project the image of a nation taking the lead, highlighting the benefits of renewed U.S. leadership on foreign policy, from reviving the world economy to pushing tough new sanctions on Iran and North Korea through the U.N. Security Council, to renewed momentum on nuclear disarmament and rejoining the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Obama also will reaffirm U.S. support for the Millennium Development Goals, an ambitious agenda world leaders set 10 years ago to tackle global poverty, which has grown amid the world economic recession. His administration also hopes to rally continued support this week for Haiti's reconstruction after the earthquake and to help Pakistan recover from devastating floods.

There is no shortage of diplomatic hot spots for Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to review with world leaders on the sidelines of the U.N. debate, starting with the Middle East peace process and the war in Afghanistan.

With less than a week before the deadline for a moratorium on Israeli settlement construction is set to expire, Clinton is hoping to get some momentum on peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Regarding Afghanistan, as the Taliban continues to gain traction throughout the country, the administration wants to consult with allies about the road ahead as it gears up for its own policy review this December.

This week, Obama also will participate in a high-level meeting on Sudan, to help boost U.N. efforts to oversee a referendum on independence for southern Sudan, a step that risks reigniting the decades-long civil war. The United States has stepped up efforts in recent weeks to help mediate between Sudan's rival factions in the hope of securing a peaceful vote.

Iran also looms large, as it seems to each year. The nuclear standoff between Iran and the West is a common theme during every modern-day UNGA. Last year, Iran was a main topic when leaders from Security Council nations gathered to talk nuclear disarmament, and the United States disclosed the discovery of a secret nuclear facility at Qom just days after world leaders gathered in New York.

This year, Obama is expected to use his speech to argue that is it not the United States but the whole international community that has problems with Iran. He will stress the door to engagement with Iran is still open.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for his UNGA-week theatrics, arrived in New York this weekend on the heels of Iran's release of American hiker Sarah Shourd, which he is said to have helped facilitate.

Facing pressure from within his regime at home and sustained heat from abroad over Iran's nuclear program, Ahmadinejad is hoping to rehabilitate himself in New York with a PR offensive, including several speeches and interviews. He maintains he is ready for talks with the United States and other world powers over its nuclear program.

U.S. administration officials don't expect any breakthroughs this week but say some progress could be made on the sidelines of the U.N. debate over a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the group known as the "P5 plus one" -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.

This year, Turkey and Brazil are trying to insert themselves into Iran diplomacy, to the chagrin of officials in Washington and Europe. The two emerging democracies on the Security Council have been eagerly flexing their muscles on the international stage for some time. Both countries offer a world view differing from that of the United Nations, one which includes the notion that sanctions are not an effective means of diplomacy and lead only to escalation.

Obama also is confronting an increasingly emboldened China, which wants a greater say in international affairs and the world economy. The so-called BRIC countries -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- now account for about half of global growth and represent 40 percent of the world's population.

As Obama seeks to reassert American leadership at the United Nations, he will have to acknowledge a changing world in which U.N. members still appreciate the U.S. role in the world, but may well have moved beyond the need for the United States to be the only superpower.

To live up to his UNGA promise of true "multilateralism," the U.S. president will have to make way for these emerging nations who want their time at the podium to mean something, too.