ANALYSIS - Struggling at home, Obama to get warm U.N. welcome

UNITED NATIONS Sat Sep 19, 2009 9:00pm IST

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's 32nd Annual Awards Gala at the Washington Convention Center in Washington September 16, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's 32nd Annual Awards Gala at the Washington Convention Center in Washington September 16, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

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UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama's popularity may be slipping at home, but he remains the uncontested favorite on a small patch of land in midtown Manhattan where U.N. member states will gather next week.

Obama's global popularity, diplomats say, may earn him a standing ovation when he addresses leaders, ministers and delegates from the 192 U.N. member nations, who begin gathering on Wednesday for the General Assembly's annual meeting.

Obama has been seeking to boost his falling popularity at home by highlighting signs that the weak U.S. economy is on the mend. But a heated debate over his plans to reform the U.S. health care system has thinned the ranks of his supporters.

The latest Gallup Poll put the president's domestic approval rating below 50 percent among middle class Americans. But outside the United States Obama, remains beloved. A recent European survey showed nearly 80 percent of respondents in the European Union and Turkey approved of his record in office.

U.N. diplomats say Obama's speech on Wednesday, in which he is expected to outline major U.S. foreign policy objectives such as the need for international cooperation and moving away from divisions of the past, is the top event of the week.

A warm reception for Obama's U.N. debut would contrast starkly with the U.S.-bashing that became so commonplace at the United Nations during George W. Bush's eight years as president.

This is partly due to the Obama administration's pledge to end what the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, described as the "condescension and contempt" that had come to characterize U.S. relations with the international community.

Even diplomats from so-called rogue states whose leaders are criticized by the U.S. State Department for their poor records on human rights, nuclear proliferation or other issues looked forward to Obama's speeches on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on climate general, nuclear arms and other topics.

"We will all be listening," said a diplomat from a developing country that has been referred to by U.S. officials a "rogue" state and supporter of terrorism. "Obama has promised change. So he should avoid the language of threats and intimidation. That belongs to a bygone era, of Bush."

Developing country delegates have said they expect to hear how Obama will push the world's wealthiest countries to help the developing world finance green technology so a deal to tackle climate change can be sealed in Copenhagen this year.

CURRYING FAVOR WITH 'ROGUE REGIMES'?

Peter Yeo, vice president for public policy of the United Nations Foundation, a charity that promotes U.N. causes, noted the new U.S. government already has taken steps to strengthen the United Nations, an organization Washington helped establish over 60 years ago.

"One, we paid nearly $1 billion in U.S. arrears with no conditions," Yeo said. "Secondly, the fact that we reversed course, ran for and won a seat on the Human Rights Council."

The Bush administration had considered the Geneva-based rights body as anti-Israeli and boycotted it. Obama's government agreed the Human Rights Council has had an anti-Israeli bent but has vowed to change it from within.

Yeo also pointed to the U.S. decision to sign a U.N. disabilities convention. The Bush administration made no attempt to hide its distaste for U.N. treaties and multilateral agreements.

Relations between the United States and the United Nations reached a low point in 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan branded the war an illegal act by the Bush administration.

Not everyone sees the improved U.S. image at the United Nations as a good thing.

"The Obama administration has made repeated efforts to curry favor with rogue regimes, and in particular, the Arab and Muslim states that control the balance of power in many U.N. bodies," said Anne Bayefsky, a human rights expert at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank.

"The consequences felt by Obama's approach include a defiant legitimized Iranian President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, a belligerent North Korea, (and) Sudanese indifference to the International Criminal Court," she said.

U.S. officials say Obama has no plans to meet with leaders of such nations as Iran or Libya next week. But chance encounters and quick handshakes cannot be ruled out.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations known for his harsh criticism of the world body, said it was no surprise Obama would get a warm welcome at U.N headquarters on First Avenue and 42nd Street, especially from left-leaning European delegates.

"He's one of them," Bolton said. "But fundamentally whether U.S.-bashing is up or down at the U.N. doesn't make any difference in the real world. It's just the twilight zone on First Avenue."

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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