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Revitalizing the United Nations and Multilateral Cooperation: The Obama Administration's Progress
February 2, 2011


Assistant Secretary Esther Brimmer delivering remarks at a forum hosted by the Brookings Institution’s Managing Global Insecurity Project

Remarks by

Dr. Esther Brimmer

Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs

Delivered at the

Brookings Institution

February 1, 2011

Thank you, Ted, for that introduction and for the opportunity to speak here today. Before I begin, I want to recognize the contributions you and your colleagues at Brookings have made on the wide range of multilateral issues across the UN system that we work on every day.

Two years into President Obama’s first term, we see an ever-growing need for effective multilateralism, and recognize its impact on achieving U.S. foreign policy goals. We see it as we work to protect human rights in places like Iran. We see it as we work to ensure that elections in Haiti, Cote d’Ivoire, and Sudan are free and fair. We see it as we work to halt nuclear proliferation in Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

Yet despite important progress, we once again are hearing criticisms from a bygone era, which ignore our successes at the UN as well as changes to the global landscape that make effective multilateral engagement more important than ever.

So our discussion today is a perfect opportunity to review the Obama Administration’s multilateral efforts and progress, and look ahead at the challenges we face in the coming year. Today, I’ll highlight how the Administration’s engagement across the UN system has benefited the United States, and how our work to revitalize the United Nations is at the core of our multilateral priorities.

The rationale for heightened U.S. engagement at the UN is clear. In a 21st century world where threats don’t stop at borders, we tackle many of our most urgent problems with cooperation and partnership, and need shared solutions to common problems. But as any veteran of multilateral diplomacy will tell you, the importance of a global response is often matched by the challenge in getting there. It’s not always easy; it’s not always smooth. But U.S. interests benefit from our patient, dogged efforts across the UN system.

This Administration’s engagement at the UN is at the core of our efforts to build a global architecture to address the challenges of the 21st century. We’ve elevated the G-20, to successfully promote economic coordination in response to the world economic crisis. We are renewing U.S. leadership at the OECD, multilateral development banks, and the IMF. And we’re working with important regional organizations in East Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.

Yet the United Nations continues to be the most important global institution, and our robust engagement across the UN system remains essential to achieving U.S. foreign policy goals.

First and foremost, a capable and strong United Nations system advances U.S. national security. Indeed, President Obama’s National Security Strategy prioritizes multilateral engagement precisely because we cannot divorce core national security interests from robust and sustained multilateral engagement. Dangerous nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. International terrorism. Afghanistan. Iraq. Addressing these national security challenges requires cooperation, and our work in the UN system is key to that common response.

So in the Security Council, Ambassador Rice and her team in New York, working with our colleagues at the Department, negotiated the toughest and most comprehensive sanctions ever faced by the Iranian government, as part of our dual-track strategy to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. By engaging multilaterally within the UN and with its members, we crafted a tough set of sanctions that all states must implement – even those Security Council members that voted against them. Secretary Clinton noted recently that we already are seeing the effect of those sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency, too, has been invaluable in sounding the alarm on Iran’s nuclear activities, and the IAEA’s performance is a reminder of the value of investment in international institutions.

The UN also plays an indispensible role in two countries of enormous importance to the United States: Afghanistan and Iraq. In both, the UN has established important political missions – with real risk and danger, and tragic loss of life by UN personnel – missions that work with the sovereign Afghan and Iraqi governments to strengthen democratic institutions and promote constructive political dialogue. We have close and active partnerships with the UN in both these countries. And without the UN’s work in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. efforts to responsibly draw down our military forces – as the President has committed to doing – would be all the more difficult.

As both this Administration and our predecessors recognized, the United Nations is also an important forum for counterterrorism efforts. Through Security Council sanctions regimes, we have put in place global asset freezes and travel bans on terrorists and their supporters. Such universality is needed for sanctions to be effective, and the UN Security Council uniquely offers that capability. But our broader multilateral engagement on counterterrorism –through the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, or on aviation security at the International Civil Aviation Organization – helps us get there.

Let me turn for a moment to peacekeeping, one of the UN’s most important roles and another area where U.S. engagement directly benefits our national interests. As we all know, UN peace operations no longer only are deployed to separate warring parties. These missions address some of our hardest and most challenging security situations, including Sudan, Haiti, Cote d’Ivoire, Lebanon, Congo, Liberia, and others. They are charged with preventing and ending armed conflicts, protecting civilians, supporting the rule of law, and helping administer elections. To do so, UN personnel are regularly sent into dangerous situations, where states cannot ensure basic security, civilians live under threat of violence, and there is little peace to keep.

But UN peacekeeping missions can mean the difference between stability and violence, and can help transform a fragile ceasefire into lasting peace. And the stability these peacekeeping missions bring directly impacts U.S. national interests. We have learned all too well that an unstable country far away can pose a direct threat to U.S. national security. By working through the United Nations, we help bring security to countries where U.S. military operations aren’t feasible or desirable – at far lower cost to the United States – and where U.S. leadership can leverage important contributions by other states.

These are all areas where we have worked within the UN system on important peace and security issues. But our multilateral engagement has succeeded in part because it has been deep as well as broad. To achieve American objectives and bring to bear the full weight of our international partners, we must mobilize and use our leverage across the entire range of multilateral institutions.

In short, engagement cannot be à la carte.

So we have expanded the number of UN and other multilateral entities where we’re actively and seriously involved, working across the broader United Nations system to support U.S. interests and universal values.

That’s why we work at the IAEA to ensure that a nuclear lab half a world away is secure. That’s why we work at ICAO to build reliable global passenger screening mechanisms. That’s why we fight at the World Intellectual Property Organization to strengthen global copyright protection for innovative U.S. companies that are creating jobs at home. That’s why we’re ensuring that at the World Health Organization, public health officials can work together to respond to the next global pandemic.

We seek cooperation from others on issues of importance to us, so we must remain engaged when those states raise issues of importance to them.

Now, some condemn our broad multilateral engagement because some UN member states are, to borrow terms used recently, “bullies, thugs, and dictators.”

But a key part of our work every day is standing up to adversaries across the UN system. If we can’t persuade them to change their behavior, we out-maneuver them, and we achieve results. We’re tireless, because we have to be. We know the consequences of disengaging. If we cede leadership at the United Nations, other states will rush in to fill that vacuum – and they will not act in our interest.

But engagement across the UN system is more than cooperating with our traditional allies and partners, or standing up to our adversaries. It’s also an important element of our efforts to work with important emerging powers that are expanding their own international influence. Indeed, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa are among many countries that see multilateral diplomacy as key to their foreign policy. These countries send their best and brightest diplomats to postings in New York, Geneva, and other UN cities, where they are formulating their outlook on the world. So to engage these states effectively, we must be able to understand and address their multilateral priorities.

Now, global respect for universal values is an enduring American interest, and one we have long championed at the United Nations.

An important setting for these efforts is the Human Rights Council in Geneva. This Administration, reversing the policy of the previous one, chose to run for – and won – a seat on the HRC in 2009. And since joining, we’ve become the most active delegation on the Council, bolstering our engagement with a dedicated human rights ambassador in Geneva and a strengthened team working on the HRC within the State Department.

But our expanded engagement does not mean we have dived in with our eyes closed. Are we frustrated with the Council’s ongoing substantive shortcomings? Deeply. Could the HRC do more to address pressing human rights issues? Far more. And does it continue an unfair and imbalanced focus on Israel? It does. Will the session in March be tough? It will. But these criticisms, like many we face, tell only part of the story.

They fail to recognize how the Human Rights Council and other UN bodies have improved as a result of U.S. engagement, and how these bodies do advance U.S. foreign policy goals. And they ignore the reality that without U.S. engagement, these bodies likely would have been dominated even more by our adversaries.

Let’s look a little deeper at the Human Rights Council, and what took place prior to the U.S. joining the Council. Six special sessions on Israel in three years. A decidedly mixed set of special rapporteurs, including Richard Falk. Flawed mandates, including the Goldstone report on Gaza. Far too many unbalanced resolutions singling out Israel, and far too few resolutions, special procedures, and other attention to the world’s most troubling and urgent human rights situations.

And since the United States joined in 2009? The challenges continue, but the Council’s improvement – through U.S. engagement – is undeniable. Timely action in 2010 on human rights crises, from Kyrgyzstan to Cote d’Ivoire. New UN special procedures on countries with serious human rights situations, for core rights like freedom of assembly, and, for the first time, on discrimination against women. A strong statement in the Council by 56 countries on human rights in Iran. We defeated an attempt by Cuba to politicize the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a proposal by Pakistan that would have restricted free speech.

And since the United States joined the Human Rights Council, it has not held a single special session on Israel – but it has called special sessions to address pressing human rights situations in Haiti and Cote d’Ivoire.

In short, the United States took seriously our engagement on the HRC, and we already have achieved concrete results. We have more to do. But these accomplishments would not have happened without an American voice at the table.

Of course, the Human Rights Council is far from perfect, and so our hard work continues, session by session, as we knew it would when we joined. The upcoming March session will be a challenge, because Middle East issues will be raised. But at the end of the day, issues important to the United States will be debated and responses decided at the HRC with or without us. We’ve engaged with the Human Rights Council because this Administration cares deeply about international human rights – because we believe that the protection of human rights is far too important to be left to the human rights abusers.

I was proud to be the first American official to address the Human Rights Council as a member, and I remain proud of our continued engagement. The more I look at the HRC’s record – its resolutions, actions, and outcomes – the more I am convinced that U.S. membership on the Council marked a watershed moment. And even critics who disagreed with this Administration’s decision to join are admitting that U.S. membership has had a positive impact.

You actually can see some similarities between our strategy at the Human Rights Council and our approach to UN management issues.

Our policy toward UN management and reform issues has been to work in collaboration and cooperation with the United Nations toward renewal and increased effectiveness. All member states have a stake in a more effective UN, but as the largest single contributor to the UN system, the United States is particularly interested in ensuring that our taxpayer funds are effectively and efficiently used.

Our management and reform accomplishments over the past two years can be roughly divided into three categories.

First, we’re working to improve the UN’s day-to-day administration, supporting initiatives that are having a measurable impact. We won new standards that hold UN officials accountable for achieving real results. We led the charge to institutionalize the UN Ethics Office, with an American at the helm. And we worked to protect the full mission of the Office of Internal Oversight Services, to carry out audits, inspections, evaluations, and, where necessary, investigations of UN activities.

Second, we are further increasing UN accountability and transparency. We led the establishment of new oversight bodies at UNDP, UNFPA, and the International Telecommunication Union. And we fought back attempts to impose restrictions on oversight reporting.

And third, we are continuing to reinforce the UN’s effectiveness in key policy areas. We have led efforts to put into place the Global Field Support Strategy, to improve the UN’s capacity to maintain complex peacekeeping missions. And we were instrumental in establishing UN Women, merging four disparate UN bodies into a single new entity to effectively and efficiently advance women’s issues worldwide.

These accomplishments may not grab headlines, but they get results. Naming and shaming, loud and brash calls for tearing down the United Nations rather than building it up – these don’t get us closer to our goal of improving the UN’s effectiveness. Instead, we work cooperatively to further embed and strengthen within the UN a culture of responsibility and transparency.

Now, there has been some talk in recent weeks about UN funding, calls in some quarters for reducing our dues and withholding a portion of our assessments – despite our legal treaty obligations under the UN Charter. As someone who worked on multilateral issues in the Clinton Administration, I feel a little bit of déjà vu. These same calls were made fifteen years ago, and then as now, they were supposedly called “UN reform.”

Now, let me be clear: this Administration takes seriously our obligation to guard taxpayer dollars. We are second to none in pushing for a more efficient and effective UN. But gutting our assessments isn’t “UN reform.” It’s just paying less. And trying to avoid paying our bills hurts our ability to deliver results at the UN that the American people want, and that the United States needs. The United States must be a responsible global leader, and that means paying our bills and working for real renewal at the UN.

How could we have won tough Security Council sanctions on North Korea and Iran if we were continuing to incur arrears? How could we have championed any of our management and reform achievements just over the past two years if we had failed to keep current on our assessments? How can we work with other leading contributors to maintain UN budget discipline and hold down costs if we do not meet our own obligations?

No longer can our adversaries at the UN change the subject to our arrears when we press them on an important policy matter, as they did for so long. The President’s decision to pay our UN assessments in full means that we have had more political capital to galvanize support from allies, partners, and others for achieving our goals at the United Nations.

So given all this, our multilateral work in 2011 will consolidate innovation and the advances we’ve made in revitalizing the United Nations.

On peace and security issues, we’re continuing to work to close gaps that too often plague peacekeeping missions – gaps between ambitious mandates and the UN’s capacity to carry them out, between political support needed and that provided, and between material needs of the missions and the resources provided to them.

We also will continue our work to ensure that Security Council sanctions are respected and enforced, by bolstering the capacity of key states and drawing attention to sanctions-busters and peace spoilers.

But as the first QDDR made clear, we must continue to prevent conflicts and atrocities before they arise. This includes further enhancing the UN’s capacity to anticipate and address crises before violence erupts, through mediation, election assistance, political missions, and crisis response. And we’re increasingly looking at peacebuilding as a complement to UN peacekeeping missions.

But conflict prevention also means addressing human rights situations as they arise. I pointed earlier to some of our victories in pushing the Human Rights Council to play this role, and we’re working to expand the Council’s timely action on pressing human rights concerns. The ongoing 2011 HRC review is an important opportunity to move the Council closer to its envisioned role in defending universal human rights.

We’re also working multilaterally on global development. We give more official assistance than any other country, but cannot achieve the Millennium Development Goals unilaterally. Although the first responsibility lies with people themselves, international support can help.

So from our $3.5 billion “Feed the Future” food security initiative, to our $63 billion Global Health Initiative, U.S. development strategy recognizes that by working multilaterally, American leadership and resources can leverage a greater global effort to address the root causes of poverty advanced through country-led plans.

Ladies and gentlemen, I began today by noting that we live in a changed world. It has changed from just ten years ago, and certainly changed from when the UN was founded in 1945.

As Secretary Clinton said early in her tenure, “if we didn’t have the United Nations, we would have to invent one.” Given the many areas I’ve outlined where the United Nations system is critical to U.S. national security and foreign policy, it’s a good thing we don’t need to invent it today.

But just as we cannot hide inside our borders and disengage, nor can we address 21st century threats and challenges with 20th century tools. As the President has said, our international architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats, and new challenges. So the United Nations does need to reinvent itself – and it is doing so – to better meet the demands of our time. And in that effort, the United Nations will have no better partner than the United States.

Our work in this area is ongoing. But this Administration is proud of our achievements to date across the UN system.

Faced with tough challenges, we have chosen to lead, not retreat.

And given the continued need to develop cooperative responses to the shared threats and challenges of our time, we see no choice but to continue to work multilaterally, to ensure that the United Nations is strong enough to bear the burdens we must place upon it in the decades to come.

Thank you.