UNITED NATIONS - After nearly a decade of an often tense and estranged relationship with the United Nations, Washington appears to be taking a much more conciliatory and multilateral approach to the world body.
U.S. President Barack Obama formally restored funding for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) Wednesday by signing a major spending bill, prompting U.N. officials to again welcome the policy shift on women's health-related rights.
In January, Obama issued an executive order lifting an eight-year ban on U.S. funding for overseas family-planning groups and clinics that perform or promote abortion or lobby for its legalisation.
"We are delighted that the United States will, once again, take a leading role in championing women's reproductive health, and rights," said UNFPA's executive director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid. "This is a great day for women and girls."
During the administration of George W. Bush, the UNFPA lost its U.S. funding on charges that it was trying to promote abortion, an allegation that Obaid and other officials strongly denied.
In a recent statement, Obama said the resumption of U.S. funding would help not only to reduce poverty, but also improve the health of women and children and prevent HIV/AIDS.
UNFPA says due to the U.S. restrictions on funding its programmes, millions of women in poor countries were unable to access health care during pregnancy and that many of them died as a result.
Earlier this week, Obama signed the legislative omnibus funding bill containing a 50-million-dollar contribution to UNFPA. The funding had been in limbo since 2002 when Bush began to implement his ideologically-driven policies towards women's rights.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who had a day-long meeting with Obama and other key political figures in Washington Wednesday, appeared equally pleased with the political leadership in Washington.
"The new president is enormously engaged and a visionary leader," Ban told reporters on his return to the U.N. headquarters Thursday. "I am confident that he will bring to the international arena the same ambition and appetite for bold measures that he is bringing to U.S. affairs."
Ban said he had lengthy discussions with Obama about the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti, and Congo. They also discussed the global economic meltdown and its possible adverse impacts on development, as well as international efforts to fight climate change.
"On the economic crisis, President Obama and I agree that the world's poorest and most vulnerable people cannot be left behind," Ban said.
"With U.S. leadership in partnership with the U.N., we can and will reach a climate change deal that all nations can embrace," he added.
Among the world's industrialised nations, the U.S. is the only country that has yet to sign the Kyoto treaty on climate change, which was rejected by Washington under the Bush administration.
Though supportive of global initiatives, Obama has yet to declare when the U.S., which accounts for more than a quarter of the world's carbon emissions, would embrace an international treaty on climate change.
However, Ban said he and Obama agreed that 2009 "must be the year of climate change. That means reaching a comprehensive agreement in Copenhagen by year's end."
Ban also said he and Obama are in agreement that "green" investments must be an essential part of any global stimulus plan. "If we are going to spend tremendous sums of money, let us be smart about it," he said.
Regarding the talks, the U.N. chief gave an impression that, despite agreements, they did differ on certain issues of war and peace. On the situation in Afghanistan, for example, Obama emphasised the need for a military build-up, whereas Ban holds a different view.
"The security [in Afghanistan] continues to deteriorate. The country is at another crossroads," he said. "I welcome the fresh thinking by the new U.S. administration. But any military surge, I emphasised to President Obama, must be accompanied by a political surge."
Ban is due to convene an international conference to be hosted by the government of Netherlands by the end of this month, which he believes would offer "an opportunity to define a common way forward."
On the question of the Middle East, however, both Ban and Obama seem to be on the same page: "[We] agreed on the need for an urgent push." He said donors at the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting on Gaza reconstruction made large pledges, "well beyond what was anticipated."
"The world has sent a clear message of solidarity to the Palestinian people," he told reporters. "We must turn this support not only into recovery for the people of Gaza, but also into a revitalised peace process in the Middle East and the Palestinians." At Thursday's news conference, Ban reiterated his gratification at U.S. pledges of support for the U.N., but, at the same time, criticised the world's largest economic and military power for failing to keep its word.
"Of course the United States is the largest financial contributor," said Ban in response to a question. "[But] with such a large sum of amount in arrears, it's very difficult for the United Nations to conduct smoothly all these peacekeeping operations and other activities."
The U.S. owes no less than 1.6 billion dollars in arrears. Long-time observers of U.N.-U.S. relations say this sum has accumulated over the years as a form of leverage for Washington to impose its will on the world body.
However, as many observers believe, the Obama administration is likely to behave in a different way. "Secretary of State [Hillary Clinton] and President [Obama] have showed their commitment to resolve this issue as soon as possible," Ban said.