Sustaining America's Global Leadership: U.S. Priorities at the United Nations

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
U.S. Institute of Peace
Washington, DC
September 7, 2011

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As prepared

Good afternoon. Thank you, Richard, for that introduction. I want to express my appreciation to the U.S. Institute of Peace for hosting today’s event. Congratulations on the opening of your new headquarters. We in the State Department are pleased to have you as our new neighbor, and I think we can agree which of our buildings is more likely to feature in an architectural magazine.

We are here today less than one week from the opening of the 66th UN General Assembly, when the eyes of the world turn to the United Nations in New York. At this year’s General Assembly, we will work with the international community on the next steps for assistance to the transition in Libya. We will address the mounting humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, and peace and security in Sudan and South Sudan. We will devote high-level attention to the urgent global public health challenges posed by non-communicable diseases. And on the sidelines of the UNGA, we will co-host with Brazil the first head of state-level meeting of the Open Government Partnership, bringing countries together to strengthen governance through transparency and citizen empowerment.

But the formal agenda will take place against a backdrop of global changes, historic challenges, and new opportunities too large to fit in any meeting hall.

Looking back a year ago, none of us could have imagined the seismic political transformation taking place across North Africa and the Middle East. Though incomplete, it holds great promise for a new era in which democratic impulses and human rights are embraced, not suppressed.

Today, new centers of emerging influence are identifying the bedrock principles for their foreign policies in the 21st century. From what we have seen to date, many current and future leaders shape their outlook and approach to the world in the UN’s halls and corridors, where we must highlight the expanded responsibility that comes with a greater presence on the global stage.

Here in the United States, we face our own challenges. This Administration has strengthened our national security and restored U.S. global influence by engaging multilaterally. Yet there are still some here in Washington intent on forcing a U.S. retreat from global leadership, by hindering our participation in the UN system, seemingly unaware of the profoundly altered global landscape.

It is against this backdrop that I want to discuss not only the U.S. goals for the upcoming session of the UN General Assembly, but also the Administration’s approach to the UN, and the centrality of multilateral diplomacy to U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century.

In short, U.S. engagement with the UN has never been more critical or more beneficial to our nation. We cannot turn back the clock to a time when the world was simpler and less interconnected, and multilateral engagement was less essential to core U.S. interests. And we cannot dispatch U.S. diplomats to the United Nations to pursue our 21st century foreign policy objectives hobbled by a 19th century worldview, one that ignores the role multilateral bodies play in so many of our most pressing challenges.

The importance to the United States of our engagement at the UN is hardly a new phenomenon; indeed, most Democratic and Republican Administrations have understood, regardless of party, the importance and benefits to our nation of multilateral engagement.

In advance of each year’s General Assembly, the State Department’s International Organizations bureau – which I head – drafts a memorandum for the President, framing the strategic context and highlighting the most session’s important debates. I want to share with you today a brief excerpt from a past such memo. It begins by stating that in September,

“nearly every major issue of American foreign policy will be before the [ ] General Assembly of the United Nations. This would be largely true even if we did not want it that way. It is all the more true because we have deliberately decided, on some very important matters, that the United Nations must be the central forum in which to pursue our objectives.”

This was written not last year or the year before; no, it dates to summer 1961, sent to President John Kennedy by my predecessor, Harlan Cleveland. And its principles are as true today as they were then, even though the world and the multilateral system have changed dramatically over the past half-century. To state them plainly: multilateral diplomacy is central to American foreign policy, and important issues will be decided at the United Nations whether or not the United States chooses to be actively engaged. But as the world has changed, our foreign policy – even how we engage multilaterally – has adapted as well.

Now more than ever, our economy and security is intertwined with that of the rest of the globe. We have seen the benefits that globalization can bring for our economy, as well as the threats and challenges that cross-border networks pose for our national security. So many of the threats we face are shared by the global community, and their solutions will require global cooperation.

Nuclear proliferation endangers the security of us all, regardless of nationality.

If not checked, the impact of climate change will further accelerate across the globe.

Attacks on freedom and universal human rights anywhere stain our collective conscience.

Terrorism and transnational crime do not respect national borders.

Pandemic disease requires no passport to move quickly from one country to another.

And we know all too well that conflict and instability, even when they fall within a single country halfway around the world, can unleash these and other dangers.

We also know that to respond to these and other threats, U.S. engagement at the United Nations works.

In Libya, the United States has worked across the UN system to marshal a robust international response to the crisis. With our allies and partners, we won tough Security Council sanctions and an International Criminal Court referral of Qadhafi’s depredations. We insisted that the world would not stand by as Qadhafi’s forces attacked Libyan civilians who dared express their desire for freedom. When that warning was not heeded, we went back to the Security Council and shaped a mandate to protect civilians in Libya.

Since then, an unprecedented coalition, including the United States, our NATO allies, and Arab nations, has conducted a military operation to save civilian lives. And in the course of the past few months, Libyans have stood up to Qadhafi and established a credible transition process, and are working with the international community – including the UN – to prepare for a bright, stable, and prosperous post-Qadhafi Libya.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the UN also plays an indispensable role to contribute to political stability. UN political missions in both countries work to strengthen democracy and mediate local conflicts, allowing us to draw down our military forces on schedule.

The UN also plays a central role in global efforts to combat nuclear proliferation. Security Council sanctions on Iran have hampered that regime’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Tough sanctions against North Korea allowed cargo vessels to be inspected and illegal arms shipments seized. The work of the International Atomic Energy Agency, too, has been invaluable in sounding the alarm on illicit nuclear activities in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere, and is a reminder of the value of investment in international institutions.

On counterterrorism, UN bodies are uniquely important. Security Council sanctions against al Qaeda have, through their universal application, isolated and frozen the assets of terrorists and their supporters. And by working through a range of other UN bodies, the United States and our partners help prevent and combat terrorism by building up national capacity, sharing best practices, and promoting aviation security.

UN peacekeepers also make an important contribution to global security and the security of the United States, one that has increased as their roles have grown more difficult and complex.

UN peace operations no longer are comprised of lightly-armed or unarmed observers, sent to monitor an agreed ceasefire line between two sovereign states. Instead, over the past decade. They have addressed some of the world’s hardest and most challenging security situations – Darfur, Congo, Haiti, Cote d’Ivoire. UN peacekeeping missions protect civilians, and work to prevent and end armed conflicts. They bring stability to parts of the world that for too long, have known too little of it.

They do all this at a fraction of the cost of sending U.S. troops, and mean that we need not choose between doing it ourselves, or doing nothing. And over the years, nearly three thousand have paid the ultimate price in pursuit of a larger peace.

Today, we use our influence to ensure peacekeeping operations have the full political support of the Security Council, especially when they face challenging deployments or hostile host governments. We work to ensure that peacekeeping missions are given mandates they can achieve, and that they have the personnel and equipment needed to achieve those mandates. And we have trained more than 100,000 peacekeepers in the last six years, and supported the training by partner countries of tens of thousands more.

U.S. support for peacekeeping crosses party lines. The previous Administration oversaw the largest increase in the number of peacekeepers and missions in the history of the United Nations, with deployed peacekeepers more than doubling over an eight-year period. We continue to pay increased overall UN peacekeeping assessments compared to the year 2000, because missions created over the past decade continue their valuable work in the field. But that investment in global security reaps returns unlike almost any other tool in our diplomatic or military toolkit.

Perhaps one of the most valuable roles the UN plays is in engaging in preventive diplomacy and other efforts at staunching conflicts before they start or worsen. From the “good offices” of the Secretary-General to the dispatch of special envoys, high-level UN involvement has saved countless lives by preventing violence or halting its escalation. Though many of these “quiet diplomacy” efforts by necessity go unheralded, the human and financial cost of violent conflict make them among the smartest investments the international community can make in our shared security. As we implement the first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which emphasized preventing and resolving armed conflict, we are looking at how the United States can further support the UN’s work in these areas.

Working through the UN, we also are developing new tools and updating old ones to better address the contemporary and changed nature of armed conflict.

Special Political Missions provide UN assistance to cement peace in fragile states, without deploying military peacekeepers. Peacebuilding missions coordinate international assistance to post-conflict states, avoiding duplication and sustaining international attention to root causes of violent conflict. Peacekeeping doctrine has evolved to incorporate protection of civilians as a core function of more and more UN missions. Undergirding these efforts, the UN’s Global Field Support Strategy and the New Horizon initiative are improving how UN peace operations are conducted, managed, led, and supported in the field, with logistics and support functions streamlined to reduce costs from startup through sustainment.

U.S. policy toward the UN system has evolved as well, given the myriad benefits of multilateral engagement to our national interest. I have discussed the how we work across the UN system to enhance our security, but our multilateral engagement also is an important means of advancing universal values that Americans hold dear.

Since 2009, when this Administration changed course from the previous one by running for and winning a seat on the Human Rights Council in Geneva, we have seen a dramatic improvement in that body’s effectiveness. In just two years, the HRC has gone from an institution that too often was incapable of addressing real human rights crises – yet was very capable at unfairly focusing disproportionately on Israel – to a more serious body, repeatedly responding to pressing human rights situations in real time, with concrete action and a unified voice.

In just the past year, we have engaged states on the Human Rights Council to call special sessions and launch international commissions of inquiry to investigate human rights violations in Cote d’Ivoire, Libya, and Syria, promoting international accountability and making clear that the eyes of the world are watching. The states on the Human Rights Council voted to appoint a special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, and for the first time in five years, adopted a resolution on human rights in Belarus. Through the HRC, we and our partners bolstered cooperative efforts with the interim government in Tunisia and the governments in Kyrgyzstan and Guinea, to ensure attention is paid to human rights obligations during their transitions. Through a joint statement by 74 countries, we set the stage for the HRC to consider this month the alarming human rights situation in Yemen. And in June, a geographically-diverse majority of states on the Human Rights Council adopted the first resolution in the history of the United Nations on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.

How was this change possible? How did the Human Rights Council, which for its first few years was criticized as being little improvement over the Commission on Human Rights that it replaced, undergo such a radical transformation? And how did we launch this change despite rigid bloc politics in Geneva, which in many ways were worse than in the General Assembly in New York?

In a word: leadership. Not by walking away and criticizing from afar. Not by marching in and demanding that other states choose between our way or the highway. In the real world, that is not how diplomacy works. In the real world, if you want to achieve your diplomatic goals, you need to approach your international partners with a certain seriousness and commitment.

Do not underestimate the hard work needed to make that happen. I know firsthand that the transformation at the HRC has come only through an immense effort by U.S. diplomats and our partners. It has required overcoming countries that would rather the Human Rights Council not be particularly effective. We have needed to find a diplomatic way to point out where governments’ words and actions in Geneva bear little resemblance to their domestic respect for human rights. More often than not, it has required utilizing bilateral diplomatic channels to pursue multilateral goals, an approach that has not traditionally been as fully employed as it ought to have been (although our regional bureaus and bilateral embassies have been strong partners).

And the change is real. Our closest allies both on and off the Human Rights Council have stated in no uncertain terms their gratitude for our engagement and for our success in steering the HRC away from its less-than-stellar history. Right now, the one thing we could do to reverse those gains would be to walk away and hand leadership back to those who would rather the Human Rights Council not be a serious human rights body.

Yet that is exactly what some are now proposing we do: pull down the flag and go home. Leave the Human Rights Council to the human rights abusers. Announce in a full voice that until HRC membership achieves perfection, the United States will treat the entire organization with contempt. And for good measure, broaden these self-inflicted injuries by withholding U.S. funding across the UN system.

This approach would restrict U.S. engagement at the UN and with the world. It is not in the U.S. interest. It would not actually achieve reform of the UN Secretariat or the Human Rights Council, or change the course of other states’ actions in UN bodies. And it conflates the roles played by the United Nations itself with the actions taken by sovereign governments in the UN’s chambers.

In real world diplomacy, it is pretty rare that much is achieved by standing outside the negotiating room with your arms crossed. And doing so is no way to support your closest allies when they need you most.

Now, of course the UN can be improved. For example, it is outrageous that the Human Rights Council has one agenda item focused solely on Israel, and one on all other country-specific human rights situations around the world. Item 7 should be eliminated. We have had major successes in keeping governments such as Iran and Syria off the Human Rights Council, but it is shameful when regional groups still sometimes select countries to represent their regions on the Human Rights Council that trample those very rights they should uphold and promote.

Unfortunately, Member States still sometimes take action in the UN General Assembly or elsewhere in the UN with which we vehemently disagree. We will continue to fight hard against any efforts to use UN bodies to delegitimize Israel, as well as efforts to unilaterally use the UN as the venue for addressing final status issues that must be decided in direct negotiations between the parties. When one such effort was made in February to inappropriately insert the UN into such matters, we vetoed it.

President Obama has been very clear that unilateral initiatives will not bring about a two-state solution and an enduring peace, which is what both parties and the United States seek. There is no substitute for direct negotiations between the parties. That is why the Administration continues to be focused on a negotiated outcome that will lead to the establishment of two states for two peoples, with an independent, viable Palestinian state alongside a secure state of Israel.

So while there are some legitimate criticisms of the United Nations, they frequently reflect the efforts some Member States pursue to divide and apportion blame instead of working together to solve the challenges of our time. But those missteps pale in comparison to the concrete benefits that our robust engagement at the United Nations provides the United States.

That is why we reject arguments made by some that would cede global leadership to those who would not act in our interest, or abandon the real, tangible gains that have come with enhanced U.S. multilateral engagement.

We reject also the alarmist suggestions that the UN is somehow running roughshod over U.S. interests. Aside from being factually wrong, they ignore the many ways that U.S. multilateral diplomacy advances our national security and supports the security of our allies, partners, and friends.

It misses the political reality of what actually happens across the UN system. For the most part, few substantive actions are adopted in UN bodies without U.S. support and leadership. That does not mean that achieving our goals is easy, or that we always get what we seek. There are plenty of instances where we have to press long and hard for an outcome that is not always certain. Yes, we have setbacks at the UN. Yes, there are times when we fall short, because other states’ interests clash with ours and those of our partners. But by and large, through engagement across the UN, the United States is able to advance our foreign policy, and find shared solutions to global problems.

That, in part, is why we oppose the backwards calls we again are hearing to withhold U.S. dues, given the impact doing so would have on U.S. influence and leadership across the UN system. For too long, the United States played games with our UN assessments, paying them when we wanted to and withholding them whenever we felt doing so was somehow justified. It undermined U.S. credibility, and hurt our ability to get things done at the UN.

But all this has changed. President Obama’s decision to pay our UN assessments in full has given us greater influence with allies, partners, and others, and helped us achieve both our policy goals at the UN as well as much-needed management reform and budget discipline. For too long, our failure to keep current on our UN dues hamstrung our diplomats and hurt our national interest. Our adversaries used to change the subject to our arrears when we pressed them on an important policy matter. But they no longer can do so.

U.S. global leadership at the UN means we pay our fair share of the burden – not more, but also not less. But do not misunderstand me: to be sure, we are all aware that there are shortcomings in the way the UN carries out its business. As careful stewards of taxpayer dollars, this Administration is proud of the management and budget reform initiatives we have worked with the United Nations to create and implement. The United States is second to none in pursuing a more efficient, effective, and transparent UN, and our reform efforts get results.

We have recently launched the second phase of our United Nations Transparency and Accountability Initiative (UNTAI-II). This will build upon our successes of the past four years, with specific benchmarks, to monitor and evaluate progress across the entire UN system. We will work to achieve even greater reforms and improvements in the areas of oversight, accountability, ethics, financial management, and good governance. Most importantly, these efforts will help ensure that the United Nations is strong enough to bear the burdens we must place upon it in the decades to come.

So amid these calls for U.S. retrenchment, our allies and partners are wondering whether robust U.S. engagement at the UN will be sustained. They are asking themselves whether, in this era of intense global interconnectedness, the United States will abandon our unique position as a beacon of freedom and democracy, and cede our global leadership role, by restricting our engagement with the United Nations.

Let me be clear: we must not, and we will not.

As the President stated in March,

“American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well, to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs, and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.”

With those words, President Obama honors a long and bipartisan tradition of U.S. multilateral leadership, one that is as important today as it was in 1945.

On this, my predecessor had simple words in 1961, words that have lost none of their force in the intervening half-century. He knew then, as we know now, that U.S. engagement at the United Nations must be robust if it is to succeed. “The luxury of sitting out every second dance,” he said, “is not for the leaders.”

As I have highlighted today, too many U.S. interests require strong multilateral engagement across the UN system for us to simply walk away and cede U.S. leadership at the United Nations. Too many of our most pressing foreign policy challenges require shared multilateral solutions for us to undercut our global influence by withholding our UN dues.

On the eve of the 66th UN General Assembly, there remains much work to be done to help the United Nations adapt structures built in 1945 to better address the challenges of 2011 and beyond. The world has changed faster than the United Nations has. But if we are to protect our security against transnational threats, advance our values as an alternative to extremism, and promote the international stability and interaction we need in order to advance our economy, U.S. engagement in the United Nations is more essential than it has ever been.

Thank you again for this opportunity to speak at USIP, and I look forward to your questions.