Conversations With America: Addressing Global Challenges at the United Nations

Cheryl Benton
   Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Esther Brimmer
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Stewart Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program, Council on Foreign Relations; and Heather Hurlburt, Executive Director of the National Security Network
Washington, DC
September 11, 2012

MS. BENTON: Hello. I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs, and I’d like to welcome you to Conversations with America. Today, we are talking about the – addressing the global challenges at the United Nations. We’ll touch on some pressing issues, such as nuclear nonproliferation, human rights, economic development, climate change, global health, and of course, the 67th United Nations General Assembly.

So now let’s meet our guests. We are privileged to have with us Esther Brimmer, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, Stewart Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Heather Hurlburt, Executive Director of the National Security Network. Thank you all so much for participating in this program.

DR. PATRICK: Thank you.


MS. HURLBURT: Thank you.

MS. BENTON: Esther, could you please start us off by talking a little bit about your role as Assistant Secretary on this very, very important issue?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Well, Cheryl, thank you. I’d be delighted to. I’m delighted to be here for our conversation. Indeed, I have the honor of managing the United States relationship with the United Nations. The United Nations provides real opportunities for the United States. We’re able to advance our work on peace and security, helping to secure Americans, our work on international development, as well as on human rights and a range of global issues that help us advance our work to make lives better for the American people.

MS. BENTON: Now, that’s fantastic. Stewart, can you tell us a little bit about your role and how that impacts our discussion today?

DR. PATRICK: Sure. I direct a program, as you mentioned, at the Council on Foreign Relations that looks basically at how effective current international institutions are in managing some of today’s global challenges. And one of those, of course, and perhaps the most important one because it has universal membership and it also has the force of international law under the charter, is, of course, the United Nations.

And over the past four years, there’s been a tremendous amount of use of the United Nations, and some successes, some less than some successes, perhaps. But I think that the overall evidence is that the United States depends on the United Nations as an indispensible, if somewhat flawed, instrument and a major pillar of its foreign policy.

MS. BENTON: Right. Great. Thank you. Heather, can you give us your perspective and your role and how that impacts?

MS. HURLBURT: Sure. Thanks, Cheryl. I run the National Security Network, which was founded based on the idea that in our democracy there are a great many people who are making or influencing decisions on how the U.S. is in the world that, frankly, because we’re such an enormous country, don’t find themselves, as they ought to be, reading every word that Stewart writes – (laughter) – or following carefully every policy initiative that Esther puts out.

So we our job as acting as translators and bridges between the folks who are really engaged in depth and in the details of how – what the U.S. is doing out in the world and Americans at home who are engaged, first and foremost, in their own lives, but need to be able to have input in a democracy, which is how we make decisions about these things.

MS. BENTON: Well, very good. Thank you. Esther, I’m curious, what do you want Americans to know about the United Nations system?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Certainly, and indeed, it can look complicated looking outside. Indeed, the United Nations system is an organization that brings together over 193 countries to address the world’s problems. And what we try to do is advance working on some of the most difficult issues on peace and security.

For example, we try to address tough issues, like how do we address the spread and the effort for some to spread nuclear weapons? How do we band together to try to stop the spread of some of those dangerous weapons? How do we work together to stop the spread of contagious disease? We go – we work through organizations like the World Health Organization to try to advance global health. How can we make sure that all of us meet the highest human rights standards? The United States has always been an advocate of human rights worldwide. How do we work together to support the deep goals that America cares about? So we work on a whole range of issues across the United Nations system.

MS. BENTON: Keeps you pretty busy, right?


MS. BENTON: Absolutely, totally.

DR. PATRICK: One of the things – it’s a common misconception, I think, amongst the American people, because, as you said, the United Nations is an incredibly complicated instrument, is that there are many different UNs. There is, on the one hand, the UN General Assembly, which, as Esther indicated, has 193 odd members, some of them very odd. (Laughter.) It also has the premiere instrument for preserving international security in the Security Council.

But then it has a whole panoply of agencies, programs, and specialized organizations that deliver, on a day-to-day basis things, that Americans come to take for granted. And that includes everything from the World Health Organization, which is on the frontlines of looking for the next pandemic, to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is really the world’s watchdog for nuclear energy and nonproliferation efforts.

So it’s a huge body. There are bodies there that try to keep – the International Civil Aviation Organization, for instance, that makes sure that planes are staying aloft and that there are reciprocal agreements over use of each other’s airspace, things that one takes for granted, but that the UN is doing day in and day out.

MS. BENTON: Right.

MS. HURLBURT: Cheryl, the way I always talk about this is that there’s a whole set of things that Americans need from the rest of the world but we would never want to have to do and pay for all of ourselves. So for example, when there was the terrible earthquake and tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, where did we get the readings from about what the nuclear levels were? Actually, from the IAEA, fascinatingly enough.

MS. BENTON: Right.

MS. HURLBURT: Who even makes sure that you can get a letter – I don’t know if anyone sends letters anymore, but –

MS. BENTON: Oh, I do. (Laughter.)

MS. HURLBURT: -- when I was in college and studied abroad it was only because of the UN that my parents could get letters from me letting them know I was still alive, and of course, asking for money, which by the way it’s also a UN-funded agreement that allowed my parents to send me money. So there’s these practical things that Americans don’t tend to think of, and then at the same time as the very high politics of how do we know what’s going on in Syria? How do we track where there’s going to be a famine so that not just the government, but your church, your school can get involved and give aid? It’s because of information the UN has.

So the thing that we like to say is that, better or worse – and as you said, Stewart, like every other institution, it’s far from perfect, but the UN has really become very woven into our lives as we’ve become a more global society.

MS. BENTON: Right. Often you just hear about the United Nations leading the troops in Egypt or Libya or whatever. But you’re actually saying it impacts our daily lives, and that’s amazing.

MS. HURLBURT: Cheryl, I worked with someone who called that – he used to talk about the way we get news in the U.S. as being the daily bus plunge. And when we hear about things that happen overseas, they’re almost always bad things.

MS. BENTON: That’s true.

MS. HURLBURT: It is not news to go on TV and say 500 kids were vaccinated in country X today, or today scientists again didn’t find bird flu in country Y. And so something that the UN struggles with – and again, this is something that happens to agencies in our own communities – is only bad news is news.

DR. PATRICK: Can I say something?

MS. BENTON: No, just go right ahead.

DR. PATRICK: That’s something else that I think people take for granted and testifies to the fact that the United Nations is really, on balance, a pretty good deal for U.S. taxpayers. Now, Americans have every right to demand financial accountability and responsible management practices from the United Nations, and we can talk about this a little bit later, but there – and there are – the UN has a bit of a ways to go because of its internal organization.

But one thing that is a real benefit to the United States is UN peacekeeping. Around the world, there are approximately 100,000 blue helmets, so-called blue helmets, either who are soldiers or police officers that are deployed in something like 15 or 16 different peacekeeping operations around the world. The United States only pays about a quarter for every dollar of that expenditure. And so what this means is that –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: And Stewart, there are no U.S. troops there.

DR. PATRICK: Right. They aren’t there.

MS. BENTON: That’s a good point.

DR. PATRICK: There may be a few police officers, but no U.S. troops. But what that means is that we spend about – well all of UN peacekeeping is about the same cost, I believe, as a month of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and the United States only pays for about a week’s worth of those operations in equivalent terms.

MS. BENTON: Gotcha. Okay. So if you put that in perspective –

DR. PATRICK: If you put in perspective, it is not nothing, but it’s a bargain.

MS. BENTON: Gotcha. Gotcha. So Esther, I wanted to ask you what are the – if you could boil it down to just four, what are the top four priorities the United States has of the United Nations?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Indeed. And it’s a good time to ask, because we’re actually having the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations. It’s a bit like back to school, and everybody starts – well, it’s, in a sense, the academic year for the United Nations. So in a sense, what’s going on in class this time this year? So what are we doing? (Laughter.)

So the first thing, of course, will be working on continuing to strengthen the mechanisms of peace and security in particular. And we’ll be looking at, again, how we strengthen some of the nonproliferation elements. We’ll be working on that this fall in New York.

We’ll also be looking at how we take on and make sure the organization runs well. We will be looking particularly at the budget. As you’ve already noted, it’s a good deal for us, but we want to make sure the money’s spent well. So we look very closely at this. We are taking a special interest in the budget this year as well. For only the second time in 50 years the Secretary General has produced a lower budget than the year before. That’s the right direction. We want to keep up the emphasis and the rigor in that area.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: We’ll also be working on the rule of law and on human rights, and there will be a major focus on the rule of law, which is making sure that rules work. That’s a fundamental element of good society, something we want to support worldwide.

And we’ll be working – continuing to work on sustainable development, helping make sure that countries are developing economically, become good customers but also strong societies that are able to be part of our globalized world of the future.

So those are the big four areas we’re going to be working on this fall.

MS. BENTON: A big agenda. Big agenda. Lot of work. So tell me, why is the United Nations so important when it comes to combating global challenges? And I wonder, Heather, if you’d take that one first, and then everyone else can just chime in? Absolutely.

MS. HURLBURT: Oh, there’s again – first of all, there are some of these problems that no one country, even the United States, can deal with alone. You wouldn’t want the U.S. to be in charge of keeping all airplanes everywhere flying; you wouldn’t want the U.S. to try to fix everyone else’s global warming; you wouldn’t want the U.S. by itself to try to stop the killing in Syria. You want other countries’ resources involved, and you want other countries’ know-how and other countries’ soldiers and other countries’ advisors and other countries’ doctors involved.

Second, it’s much easier for the United States to lead if we’re leading with others and if we are perceived as folks with good ideas that we’re sharing with others rather than the neighborhood bully. And so the UN has always been – I mean, the UN was founded on American ideas, on an American proposal, headquartered in New York for a reason. And the UN has always been a place that people like Esther and her predecessors could go and work really hard and find it frustrating and sometimes, frankly, not achieve nearly as much as we’d hope but – and bring other people, other countries together around core U.S. goals and ideals.

And so really – and on your worst, most frustrating day with the UN – and all of us who’ve worked in government have had one – you ask yourself well, if this didn’t exist, we’d still have to invent it, because how would we marshal other countries together? And frankly, the fact that it’s right here in New York and contributes – I’m sure you know exactly how many million dollars to our economy every year, you really couldn’t do it better than that if you want back to scratch and invented it.

MS. BENTON: Right. And we can’t act on our own, I mean, consistently and constantly, we can’t. We need an international coalition.

MS. HURLBURT: We can act on our own, but we can’t get what we want on our own. There’s a crucial difference. You want to run off and do something on your own, you can. Americans have seen in the last eight years how that doesn’t necessarily get you the result you want. It’s like going back to school, Esther, as you said. You may be the biggest, strongest, smartest kid in the classroom, but you aren’t the only kid in the classroom.

MS. BENTON: That’s exactly right. So are there – and these are quite a lot of benefits we get. Are there – is there anything else that maybe we’ve left out that Americans need to know about the benefits we get from being a part of the United Nations?


DR. PATRICK: Well, I was going to say that there is a certain legitimacy that inheres to the United Nations by virtue of its universal membership and the fact that its charter is really – has the force of international law. And by – when the United Nations was founded, I think it’s very much as Heather described. There was a sense that it was very important, given the intense power of the United States as it was emerging from the Second World War, to give other countries confidence that they would have a voice and a place to make their feelings heard.

At the same time, it was also important that this institution reflected the world’s power structure, and that is obviously why we have the Security Council. Now, the distinction between the Security Council and the general membership of the United Nations is a frequent source of some frustration, and there are structural limitations within the United Nations that I think are frustrating to some folks, and they’ve been frustrating, I’m sure, to this Administration when it comes to the issue of Syria, for instance, which is probably going to be – if I were to look at the UN General Assembly and discussions during its opening, is going to be one of the most intense and (inaudible) lightening-rod issues.

But there are some fundamental just structural factors, facts of life, about the United Nations that we have to simply accept, and that it is that if there’s disagreement and irreconcilable disagreement amongst the permanent five members of the Security Council, you can’t always get things done. When there is agreement amongst them, you can handle virtually any international problem. And the United States always does reserve the right – as this Administration has agreed – if necessary to operate in national interest outside of the UN confines. But the first preference is always to go through the United Nations, if possible, to handle some of these major challenges to international peace and security.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: And indeed, just from another point, there really are some unique tools that we’re able to use in the United Nations system. And just to look particularly at one of the most difficult, which was relayed before, which is our concern about the proliferation, the possible spread of nuclear weapons, one of our most difficult challenges is dealing with Iran.

Now, indeed, there are many different ways to try to address this issue, and the U.S. is looking at all of them. But that said, of course, we have a vigorous diplomatic strategy, but that’s complemented by the effort to also work on sanctions, which means that through the Security Council we’re able to create a system where everybody is also part of trying to manage the situation on dealing with the material that might go to Iran to help advance their nuclear program.

So not only the United States, but then everybody has an obligation to deal with this critical issue on peace and security. These are unique tools, and one of the reasons we work in the United Nations system.

MS. BENTON: Great. We have actually received a number of questions today – questions on today’s topic. David in Wisconsin asks: What role should the United Nations or member-states of the United Nations play when seeking to resolve intrastate conflicts between state and non-state actors? (Inaudible) that’s a good question.

DR. PATRICK: (Inaudible) if that’s okay. If – that’s actually the vast majority of the UN’s work these days when it comes to international peace and security, at least when it comes to violent conflict. Because the UN was setup at a time after the most violent interstate war of all time in a war between sovereign nations, what we found, particularly since the end of the Cold War, is that the vast majority of the problems of internal – of violence and the death of many civilians as well as combatants and also regional instability is really the result of wars or conflicts between a ruling government, ruling regime, and insurgents or rebel groups within them.

So if we’re talking about those situations, the UN has a whole panoply of mechanisms from – the Department of Political Affairs has a mediation office there. The Secretary General can use his own good – what’s called good offices to try to mediate between parties to a conflict. The UN Security Council has the possibility of authorizing a peacekeeping mission. And in – probably some of the biggest debates come about when you have a situation of internal violence, where there is just a tremendous loss of civilian life or the threat of a tremendous loss of civilian life, as we saw in Libya, where the UN Security Council authorized a mission to end Muammar Qadhafi’s depredations.

The question now is that that sort of consensus is lacking in the case of Syria. And again, as I said, it shows the difficulties when you don’t get permanent-five agreement. And in that situation, you either have to continue trying to work the multilateral track through the UN, hoping that this peace mission that Lakhdar Brahimi is going to succeed, or you have to start considering whether you have an option to do – as the United States did in the situation of Kosovo – put together its own coalition outside of the UN framework, which would be a very pivotal decision and not an easy one.

MS BENTON: Yeah. That’s pretty dicey.

MS. HURLBURT: Just to push you a little bit, Stewart, in a way a good U.S. policy is always doing both things at the same time. And there is this principle called subsidiary, which, if I go back to Esther’s schoolyard analogies, is kind of a fancy word for saying don’t run to the principal with every problem – (laughter) – that in any case where you have a conflict between a state and a non-state actor, whether it’s Syria, whether it’s someplace much smaller scale, whether it’s even something that’s not yet violent, what are the other mechanisms, what are the tools, what are – and what do the country’s actors right around where the conflict is think and how do they want to solve the problem. And the UN, because it has to look at everything everywhere, and because – despite being, as we’ve said, unique and irreplaceable – is also relatively weak, shouldn’t and can’t necessarily be the organ of first resort.

And in a case like Syria, one of the things that that seems likely to mean is that, frankly, even if you had agreement among the five permanent members of the Security Council, if you didn’t have agreement among Syria’s neighbors on what the proper course of action was, you probably would see – you wouldn’t see anything happening. So there’s this complex dance between what do the affected actors in a region think, what do the world’s most powerful actors think, and then how do those things feed back. And the UN is the place where that gets worked out, even if it’s not sort of officially where it gets worked out.

The one other thing that I do feel like we should say – and then Esther, maybe you want to talk about this – is that, of course, the UN doesn’t formally reflect the existence of non-state actors because the world didn’t look like that in 1945. And that’s, in some ways, really a problem at a moment where guerilla movements but also corporations – Google or Facebook plays a very significant role in international affairs. How is that – how can we reflect that in the UN’s deliberations?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Well, indeed, there are very – really important relationships. As I said, first off, the United Nations is an organization of its member-states. And I should say that we think member-states have responsibilities as well. Many of these issues should start with states meeting their own obligations to their own people. That’s where the issue starts, and that’s often where it should be resolved. It’s only when it cannot be resolved that – which often then spills out to the international system, that it may – if there’s a crisis, then they, for example, create outflows of refugees or other forms of instability. Then you often see it come to the international stage. But indeed, there are many different places to try to address it, and maybe we need to gather the neighbors with a diplomatic effort, and maybe working through regional organizations.

One of the interesting developments in recent years has been the growth of and deepening of the work of regional organizations, and they’re often working with the United Nations. So for example, the African Union is working with the United Nations in ways we’ve never seen before, that on really tough issues on peace and security, you see these two different organizations trying to work more closely together. These are important developments that help deepen the network of cooperation amongst different organizations.

But indeed, the world is evolving and changing, and indeed, that – while of course while we have a world of member-states, there are many other actors as well. The first and most important is the individual, that ultimately, of course, as a liberal democracy, we recognize that we ultimately care about the well being of people. And one of the most important things is some of the work we do to support people. And even within the United Nations system, when we – even when we talk about peace and security, we talk about the protection of civilians. We try to do things like combat trafficking in people because we’re concerned about how we can promote the security of people.

But we also look at how we try to then address other actors in the system. And as indicated, companies are involved, indeed, so that if we look in many places – whereas two generations ago, economic development was spurred by official development assistance country to country –extremely important, remains extremely important – but now it’s often private investment that’s often helping drive economic growth. That’s a good thing. And so we look at ways to bring in other actors into the system.

And I would note that even in the United Nations now, depending on which United Nations body you’ll go to, you’ll see, of course, the member-states who are participating. But we also think it’s important that nongovernmental organizations have a voice, particularly on issues such as human rights. So we always support the ability for nongovernmental organizations, human rights advocates, to be able to talk to member-states. That’s an important thing to do.

And we think it’s important that we bring in multiple stakeholders, so on issues such as international economic issues, we often think that, depending on the different international body, that there may be a role for companies and others to be in the room or part of the discussion or contributing to the discussion. We recognize there’s wisdom in many places; we want to be sure it’s part of the discussion.

MS. BENTON: Perfect. I’m going to ask a question from Karl, but Esther, can you give us the five nations that are permanent members so that --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Yes, yeah. Just to share with people, the Security Council is composed of 15 member-states. Five are permanent members of the Security Council. It’s the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Russian Federation, and China.

MS. BENTON: Perfect.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: And so they are the five. The other 10 are elected to two-year terms.

MS. BENTON: Okay, perfect. I thought you educated me. (Laughter.) So we have Karl in Washington, D.C., who asks: Does the United States Government have any policy interest in global population growth? Human fertility rates seem to be an off-limits subject, but is the fundamental issue when considering environmental degradation, health and education, food security, global warming, et cetera.

MS. HURLBURT: Cheryl, you want me to start with this one?

MS. BENTON: Yes, yes, because --

MS. HURLBURT: Yeah. I mean, what Esther just said about the individual actually is really the key in understanding how I think the U.S., and now the UN, think about this, that the key thing here is empowering women and families to make their own decisions about fertility. And that’s the goal that the U.S. has set and has worked with the UN to improve the UN’s work on for a number of years now.

And this is because, first of all, we think that’s a basic human right, but second, we know from years of research and experience that when women and families can make their own decisions about how many children to have, when to have them, and how to space them, then actually those children will be healthier, they will go to school, they will do better economically, and their whole societies will do better economically. And that comes from – by the way, if you have the confidence as a parent that your kids are going to grow up, then you maybe will have fewer.

And we actually know – by the way, what’s the single biggest determinant in families choosing to have fewer children? The educational level of the mom. So – and this works much better and is much more morally palatable than some of the mandatory approaches to family planning that some authoritarian countries tried in the past and which are really repugnant to anyone who believes deeply in individual rights. And the UN is a real leader in providing assistance to educate women and provide women and families the option to do that. And frankly, again, there’s a lot of things that Americans support that the UN consistently does and pays for. And the numbers are pretty similar to the numbers, Stewart, you gave for peacekeeping, that for a little tiny U.S. investment, we leverage a lot more global support for women and families on this.

DR. PATRICK: Can I just pick up on the – on Karl’s question about whether or not this is a security issue or touches on the security issue?

I think that it certainly touches on long-term development and well-being. I fundamentally endorse exactly what Heather said about the approach and empowering the individual as being really the root of this, as sort of a fundamental human right to have a say in one’s own fertility and empowering people to do that. But what’s interesting is that the population pressures – the good news overall is that fertility rates have gone down in many parts of the world, but there are still some parts of the world where it’s growing very, very fast and it places enormous pressures on the environment, on social stability, and on long-term growth prospects.

The global population recently topped 7 billion people; it’s going to be going up probably by the midpoint of the century to 9 billion people. It’s estimated that we will have – given changing dietary preferences, we will have to double global food production by 2050, over the next 40 years. And we’re already quite at capacity globally in a lot of different ways, and obviously there’s been tremendous food shortages, et cetera, recently, a lot of inefficiencies too.

The other issue is water scarcity. There is a huge proportion of the world’s population that lives in water-stressed areas, but by 2030, China and India both will need to have much more water than they currently have, and in many parts of the developing world. And that’s where 95 percent of the population growth is going to occur. That’s going to be a factor.

And then of course, as people aspire to middle-class Western lifestyles, their economic behavior is going to be similar – not just their preference for eating more meat, but also for burning greenhouse gases or hydrocarbons that are going to --

MS. BENTON: Right, right. Moving into middle class --

DR. PATRICK: Right, exactly.

MS. BENTON: -- and just being a consumer, yeah.

DR. PATRICK: Right. So it places a lot of pressure. Whether one calls this security or whether one calls it sort of human sustainability, it’s – one could argue about that.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: And indeed – just to pick up on that point, indeed, as you talk about the pressures on food – and I think it’s particularly important to notice that – some of the particular initiatives that we’ve advanced, both on global health and on food security. So we recognize the huge impact this has on human well being, on security, on economic issues. And so we’ve worked with others to try to strengthen the mechanisms to support the ability to grow food and to get it to market.

And so that we’ve worked very closely with the United Nations food agencies that are based in Rome and particularly that are working on – whether it’s the Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Food Program that particularly works in the emergency situations, and the efforts – the global efforts we’ve done both through the UN, through the G-8, and others, and working with other donors to strengthen the world’s capacity both – as they – both to grow food, but actually get it to the right place. And to really work – for example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, we recognize that we both want to grow food and make sure that you’re – that the people who do – the farmers – 70 percent of farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa are women – make sure they have the tools, whether it’s literally the agricultural tools or the financial tools to be able to market their foodstuff. That’s crucial to be able to meet the growing needs for food security.

It’s also important because of another global trend, and that’s urbanization. For the first time in human history, we are an urban species. We know that because UN-Habitat tracks where people are.

MS. BENTON: Interesting, interesting.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: And they keep track – and they’re keeping data on the growth of cities.

MS. BENTON: Really?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: There are now many global cities. Even in our own country, the majority of the American population lives either in cities or in suburban areas. And – but this is becoming true worldwide. By 2050, 70 percent of the world –70 percent of the world – will live in cities.

DR. PATRICK: And 2 billion people will live in slums.


MS. BENTON: Is that right?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Without – exactly, without a plan, planning these issues, you end up with slums, and it’s a huge problem. And it’ll be an economic issue and a security issue.

MS. BENTON: Oh my God.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: And that’s one of the things we address in the UN system and with other partners. We recognize this is an important global trend, and we know that leaders here in this country, in our own country, learn about how you try to provide food, transportation, health in cities. And we try to exchange the best thinking about helping people live in cities worldwide, that – we just completed last week the World Urban Forum. It’s the United Nations group that brings together the experts trying to address these issues, and that matters to all of us.

MS. BENTON: Absolutely.

MS. HURLBURT: Actually, I think it’s worth bringing this back to politics, because one of the fascinating things that you have with this – if you look at an arc of countries across the Middle East where there have been revolutions or attempted revolutions in recent years – the so-called Arab Spring – also countries where 30 to 50 percent of the population is under 25 --

MS. BENTON: Is under 25, exactly. Africa is the --

MS. HURLBURT: My kids aren’t teenagers yet, so I can’t quite imagine this world. (Laughter.) It’s coming all too soon. And the idea that the guy who burned himself to death and sparked the revolution in Tunisia, which sparked the revolution across the Arab world – a young man who couldn’t find a job, who couldn’t support his family. And so when we think about – it’s easy to think about all of these issues as technical problems.

MS. BENTON: And in the abstract.

MS. HURLBURT: And in the abstract. And what they come down to is, on the one hand, the same thing Americans are talking about – jobs, jobs, I want a job. And what’s behind that is dignity, is human dignity.

MS. BENTON: Of course, of course.

MS. HURLBURT: And this – one of the reasons the UN is so complicated and so annoying and so frustratingly hard to track is there turn out to be all these facets to the simple question of how do we help human beings achieve and feel their own dignity --

MS. BENTON: Feel good about it.

MS. HURLBURT: -- and how do we recognize that it’s in our interest when they do that? And that is a really --

MS. BENTON: Right, right. That’s a great point.

MS. HURLBURT: On the one hand, it’s a very simple story. Everybody who wants a job wants that kind of dignity. On the other hand, it turns out to be this really complicated story.

MS. BENTON: Wow, that’s interesting. I’m going to go to another question, but I wanted to comment – you had mentioned about the farmers. And I have a friend who works in Sierra Leone and he discovered a small village, and they were great agrarians, they’re great farmers. They had no road to get their food to the marketplace. So he went about raising that kind of money. But that is the level of the challenge, I’m sure, in many places across the globe.

DR. PATRICK: Farm-to-market roads are one of the major banes of – the lack of them is a major bane to efforts to try to build sustainable and – sort of self-sufficiency. And not that you need to get 100 percent self-sufficiency, but also even export. And this has been a question in other places in Afghanistan, is how do we – in addition to the security situation is just how do you get agricultural products to markets where they can actually be bought.

MS. BENTON: That’s true. And then the safety, because so many women are left in the villages or in the towns. It’s the safety of these women as they go about their business of getting the water, et cetera, and that becomes a problem, so the challenges are enormous.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Indeed. One of our initiatives that Secretary Clinton has particularly advanced has been on cookstoves, which is the --

MS. BENTON: Oh, powerful.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: -- ability to be able to use the cookstoves – looks like a clay pot in effect.

MS. BENTON: Yes, they’re fantastic.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: And you put – and it allows you to cook a meal with less fuel, more efficiently, much more healthily. You’re not ingesting dangerous fumes from unsafe ovens. But it also means that often the women and girls do not have to go out and gather firewood in dangerous places as much as they might have.

MS. BENTON: Exactly.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: So it has both safety and health benefits as well, so that also --

MS. HURLBURT: And the girls can go to school --

MS. BENTON: There you go.


MS. HURLBURT: -- because they’re not gathering firewood all day.

MS. BENTON: That’s right.


DR. PATRICK: A trifecta.

MS. BENTON: Wonderful.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: And we should note, we’re just concluding the United Nations Literacy Decade, which was really a focus on literacy. We’re continuing that effort because, as you say, keeping girls in school is fundamental to societies, both for how they plan their own families and how they contribute to society. And so indeed, these different efforts are interlinked to figure out how you raise up everybody so we create a more stable world. That’s beneficial for Americans.

MS. HURLBURT: And there are amazing success stories on literacy, which I’m sure you know by heart, but it’s just incredible when you look at some of the numbers of places that fewer than one in three women could read when we were all kids in school, and now you have 60, 80 percent of what --

MS. BENTON: It’s phenomenal. So we have – I think our last question is from Margaret, also from Washington, D.C., who wants to know: To what lengths will the United Nations and the State Department work to alleviate the violence in Syria? Or, in the midst of the Arab Spring, how will the United Nations handle an issue such as civic violence while preserving the sovereignty of nations?

That’s a big question, so we’re going to give that to you, Esther. (Laughter.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Well, I’ll take these in two parts. The first is looking at Syria. Indeed, Syria is one of the most difficult challenges on the security agenda. We are all horrified with the massive loss of life. And we’ve been very clear for two years now that the Syrian Government must stop attacking its own people. I started off talking about the responsibility of states to protect their own people. And so clearly, we have both – as the United States spoken out about this issue very clear, and the President’s been very clear.

We’ve also looked to see how many tools we could use. And in particular, we, of course, first looked to the Security Council. Because as we’ve said, we’ve tried to bring this issue to the Security Council and say – to address one of the most pressing issues. However, the Security Council can work when all of its members agree and when its permanent five agree, because the permanent five have a veto. That means any one of the permanent five, including the United States, can ultimately say we support or we do not support action. If they do not, it does not happen.

And what we’ve seen is that three times Russia and China have vetoed the effort, which is clearly a global effort, to bring the Security Council’s work and the unique tools of the Security Council to try to help end the violence in Syria, because it’s crucial to end the violence. At this stage, we realize that it will probably not be possible at this point to move forward in the Security Council. We still think it’s important we use every tool available to us.

So for example, we’ve been very active in the Human Rights Council, and it’s been important to see that it’s been the Arab states, Syria’s neighbors and others, who have come forward and said we want to call attention to the human rights issues in Syria and had three special sessions in 2011 on this issue.

We’re also strong supporters of the humanitarian issue – humanitarian support. We provide support to the neighboring countries that are generously sheltering the thousands of refugees across the border. We also support the United Nations organizations that are still providing assistance in some of the most difficult situations. So we’re still looking at how can we support the political transition, how can we support the nonlethal opposition and the nonviolent opposition, and so then as the opposition – different groups are trying to come together on this issue, and we’re trying to support the humanitarian effort. But this is an extremely difficult issue, but it’s something that is top of the security agenda.

MS. BENTON: Absolutely. This is my least favorite part of the show. It’s actually that time. We’re coming to the end of our program. And first of all, I would like to have our guests share your final thoughts. We’re running up a little tight on time, so if we could be as succinct as possible, if you could please share your final thoughts with us, Esther, and then I’ll go Stewart and Heather.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BRIMMER: Again, as I said, it’s an honor to be able to work on behalf of the American people on our relationship with the United Nations.

MS. BENTON: Perfect. Oh, thank you. Stewart.

DR. PATRICK: I would just say that the United Nations is not the only game in town. There are regional organizations, there are entities like the Group of 20, the Group of 8, ad hoc coalitions, et cetera. But the United Nations is irreplaceable, and there really is no alternative but for the United States to roll up its sleeves, defend its interests vigorously, defend its values vigorously, and try to forge coalitions, and, if necessary, try to loosen up some of the blocks – sometimes ideological – that tend to muck up the works up in New York, at least in my opinion.

MS. HURLBURT: Well, the only thing I can add to that is that the UN belongs to all of us. As we’ve said, the world is changing. There’s more and more opportunities. And whether it’s by following what they’re doing here at State or following at the UN or following how folks’ national governments are engaging with the UN, to really feel like the UN belongs to all of us is the way to make it work better and do useful things.

MS. BENTON: Well, thank you so much. You all have extremely challenging jobs. I know firsthand from the Assistant Secretary how challenging her job is. And I’d very much like to thank you, Esther Brimmer, Stewart Patrick, and Heather Hurlburt for sharing all of your knowledge and your work with us.

I’d also like to thank each of you for joining us today. We hope that Conversations With America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to engaging with you again soon. Thank you.