A Misguided Assault: Why the United Nations Matters

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Center for American Progress
Washington, DC
September 15, 2011

(As prepared remarks)

Thank you, John, for that introduction. Before we begin, I want to recognize the important work that CAP is doing on a range of key national security issues. I want to specifically point out your recent report on U.S. multilateral engagement, which highlighted the importance of this Administration’s engagement at the UN and how it advances U.S. national interests.

And it is great to be joined today by Nancy and Rich, who I’m sure will share their valuable insight and perspectives as two people who have worked on these issues from both Washington and at our UN missions.

I would like to discuss today the tangible benefits that U.S. engagement with the UN provides Americans. I also want to make the case that if we are going to address 21st century challenges, in an effective and financially sound way, the United States must continue to embrace a global leadership role at the United Nations.

Glancing at the agenda of the upcoming General Assembly session, you can get a sense of the scope and diversity of those challenges, and the importance of sustained U.S. engagement.

Next week, during the high-level portion of the UNGA debate, the international community will formulate next steps for assistance to the transition in Libya. Governments will identify how to best address the mounting humanitarian crisis in Somalia and across the Horn of Africa. Senior government representatives, along with UN agencies, civil society, and the private sector, will collaborate on how to address to the urgent global public health challenges posed by non-communicable diseases, or NCDs, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and chronic respiratory disease, which kill more than 35 million people worldwide each year.

Indeed, this is an exciting time to be working on multilateral issues.

The seismic political transformation taking place across North Africa and the Middle East, though incomplete, holds great promise for a new era in which democratic impulses and human rights are embraced, not suppressed.

New centers of influence in the 21st century are deciding how to shape their foreign policies, and whether they will accept the expanded global responsibility that comes with a greater presence on the world stage.

Economic pressures are forcing many countries to reevaluate their own places in the world, and their roles in the international system.

And in the United States, there remain 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. These views stand in sharp contrast to the position held by a bipartisan majority here in Washington and by the vast majority of Americans, which supports U.S. leadership and engagement at the United Nations. These dismissive voices pretend that we just can turn back the clock to a simpler era, when the world was less interconnected and multilateral engagement less essential to core U.S. interests.

Yet today, our economy and security are intertwined with that of the rest of the globe. The benefits of U.S. multilateral engagement to our national security are well-known. In a 21st century world where threats do not stop at borders, the United States cannot tackle many of our most urgent problems alone.

Nuclear proliferation. Climate change. Attacks on freedom and human rights. Terrorism. Transnational crime. Pandemic disease. Armed conflict and instability that, left unchecked, can unleash these and other dangers.

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

  • It enhances U.S. national security.
  • It advances core American values, including human rights.
  • And it builds and maintains the global networks and systems worldwide, on which our 21st century economy depends.

It works, because as a tool for addressing these common challenges, multilateral engagement lets us share with other countries the financial and political burden of addressing global challenges.

I will be frank: important issues will be addressed at the United Nations whether or not the United States chooses to be actively engaged. So in reality, our choice is between maintaining global leadership at the UN, or ceding it to those who would not act in our interests.

So I would like to briefly walk through several of our most pressing foreign policy challenges, and highlight how multilateral engagement has been crucial to winning the strong cooperation we have needed to address each one.

In Libya, we and our partners worked across the UN system to marshal a robust international response. We won tough Security Council sanctions, an ICC referral of Qadhafi, and when the world’s warning was not heeded, an unprecedented Security Council mandate to intervene to protect civilians, and prevent atrocities. While U.S. diplomats in New York were pursuing that course, their counterparts in Geneva were achieving Human Rights Council condemnation of Qadhafi’s depredations. Libya was suspended from the HRC, and an international commission of inquiry was launched to investigate human rights violations and lay the groundwork for accountability. And next week, in New York the international community will come together to identify how we can best support the next phase of transition in Libya.

The UN also has been instrumental in combating 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. To make these sanctions most effective, they need to be global in their scope and implementation, and only the Security Council can make that happen. And two years ago, President Obama chaired a Security Council session that reinvigorated global efforts to stop proliferation of nuclear weapons and the materials to make them.

On this subject, I want to make a broader point quickly about the value of investing in multilateral institutions. We have relied upon the monitoring and expertise of the International Atomic Energy Agency as we have worked to develop coordinated international responses to cases of potential nuclear proliferation. The IAEA has been invaluable in sounding the alarm on illicit nuclear activities in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere, a reminder of the value of investment in these international institutions before we get to the crisis point.

The UN also is key to the international response after we have passed the crisis point, working to prevent further conflict and crisis. I am sure Nancy will talk more about UN peacekeeping missions, but it is important to note just briefly that with roughly 120,000 military, police, and civilian peacekeepers deployed in the field, we are calling upon them more than ever before, even as their roles have become more difficult and complex. Today, it is rare that we deploy unarmed observers to monitor an agreed ceasefire between two sovereign states. Instead, we increasingly are sending peacekeepers to some of the world’s most challenging security situations – Darfur, Congo, Haiti, Cote d’Ivoire – with mandates that include protecting civilians, and bringing stability to parts of the world that for too long, have known too little of it.

UN peacekeepers also can be deployed at a fraction of the cost of sending U.S. forces. The bottom line is that UN peacekeepers provide another tool, so that when faced with a threat to civilians, or violent instability that risks engulfing an entire region, we do not have to choose between doing it ourselves, or doing nothing.

Now, tough sanctions and peacekeeping missions are perhaps the UN’s two best-known tools for addressing threats to international peace and security. But they are far from the only ways our engagement with the UN benefits U.S. national security.

UN political missions in Afghanistan and in Iraq have been crucial partners for the United States. In both countries, the UN – with real risk and danger, and tragic loss of life by UN personnel – has worked with the sovereign Afghan and Iraqi governments to strengthen democratic institutions, and contribute to political stability. They mediate local conflicts, and sometimes are asked to address, on behalf of the international community, issues that, for one reason or another, a single country might be hard-pressed to resolve. We work closely with the UN missions in both Afghanistan and Iraq; without them, U.S. efforts to responsibly draw down our military forces would be far more difficult.

Engagement at the UN is also an important part of our counterterrorism efforts. Security Council sanctions against al Qaeda have, through their universal application, isolated and frozen the assets of terrorists and their supporters. Working through UN bodies like the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, we and our partners are helping to prevent and combat terrorism by building national capacity, and sharing best practices. And at the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal, we work to keep Americans safe when they take to the skies.

Beyond these tangible benefits to U.S. national security, our robust engagement across the UN system sends an important message to the world, namely that the United States remains a global leader. We have no intention of abdicating that role, or the responsibilities that come with it.

Global leadership means working in the Security Council to bring together representatives from all corners of the map, including emerging powers, to address the threats and challenges I have mentioned, as well as a host of others.

Global leadership means actively engaging other members of the Human Rights Council, to continue the transformation of that body into one that increasingly can respond effectively to pressing human rights situations, in real time, and with concrete action. I would be happy to discuss the HRC more during the question and answer period, but I will say now just that U.S. leadership has been key to that metamorphosis of the Human Rights Council into a body that can advance universal values that Americans hold dear, and validates this Administration’s decision to reverse course and win a seat on the Council.

It means defending our close ally, Israel, from any efforts to delegitimize or isolate it at the UN. We oppose all attempts to unilaterally use the UN as the venue for addressing final status issues, which must be decided in direct negotiations between the parties. And we have been very clear from the beginning that we think it is a mistake for the Palestinians to seek a unilateral path to statehood at the UN, rather than a negotiated peace, and that we oppose such a unilateral move.

Finally, U.S. leadership means paying our bills in full. 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. So we oppose calls to withhold U.S. dues, given the impact doing so would have on U.S. influence and leadership across the UN system.

Of course, the UN can be improved. As careful stewards of taxpayer dollars, this Administration works every day to achieve much-needed UN management reform and budget discipline. But withholding U.S. assessments would set back those efforts, not advance them. And it would undercut our influence at the UN, with long-term implications for our national security, our economy, and our efforts to promote human rights and universal values.

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.

The world has changed markedly since the United Nations was founded in 1945. But if to protect our security against transnational threats, advance our values as an alternative to extremism, and promote international stability to advance our economy, U.S. engagement in the United Nations is more essential than it has ever been. So this Administration remains committed to pursuing constructive multilateral engagement at the United Nations, and to continued U.S. global leadership across the UN system.