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The U.S. Role in Our Changing World: Navigating the Globe’s Transnational Challenges
April 1, 2011

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs

World Affairs Council/University of Washington School of Law
Seattle, Washington

I am truly grateful to the World Affairs Council in Seattle for inviting me to speak today. It is also an honor to be at the University of Washington which has graciously opened its doors for this event. My father is a proud alumna of “UW”, so it is especially nice to be here.

One of the highlights of my job is spending time outside the Beltway, as they say, hearing from you about the challenges you see facing the United States and our rapidly changing global landscape, and speak about the importance for Americans of the work we do are doing multilaterally and at the United Nations.

So it’s great to be in Seattle and in the Pacific Northwest. This region, and particularly Seattle, is the emblem of American innovation, ingenuity and leadership. You are often the first to identify, embrace and advance new ideas, new technologies, and new opportunities. (Coffee joke will fall flat)

These characteristics make Seattle an ideal venue for a conversation about the changing nature of American diplomacy, and how the United States is working through the United Nations to respond to the transnational challenges of our changing world.

I’m with you today at a remarkable time, punctuated by the events in Japan and in Libya. The U.S. response to these extraordinary events provide a useful context for my comments this evening. You all know that the President spoke on Monday about the U.S. approach to the situation in Libya. The speech was about more than just Libya, however. In it, the President clearly enunciated his approach to global issues. He said:

“As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action. Because contrary to the claims of some, 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.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is as concise a definition of multilateralism as I have seen, and it frames the Administration’s approach to global issues of every stripe, large and small. Ultimately, it’s about shared responses to shared challenges, and the President has charted a clear course for U.S. foreign policy designed to maximize the benefits of multilateral engagement.

He has chosen this course because working with international organizations is fundamentally essential to modern diplomacy. International organizations are places where nations can find common solutions to complex problems.

He has chosen this course because international organizations provide the means through which the international community can set global norms and standards and help states meet these standards.

And he has chosen this course because international organizations enable us to rally global response to critical needs. We see this with unfortunate frequency, most commonly in response to natural disasters such as last year’s earthquake in Haiti and now in Japan.

We are currently witness to the application of the President’s vision on a very large and significant stage. Indeed, had I suggested to you three months ago that developments in North Africa and the Middle East would be unfolding as they have, you would likely have dismissed me out of hand. Yet we are seeing some of history’s next chapters being written 140 characters at a time.

The changes we are witnessing have implications for all of us, and particularly for cities such as Seattle which are already well- connected globally, technology driven, and energetically embracing international collaboration.

Twelve years ago, your city was the stage for powerful reminders of the realities of globalization. As governments met to further develop multilateral mechanisms for cooperation on trade, a broad range of nonstate actors demanded that their voices, too, must be heard.

The United States places technology and innovation at the forefront of our diplomatic and development efforts, not least because innovation continues to drive economic growth and job creation in Seattle and across the United States. That’s why emphasize the importance internationally and multilaterally of intellectual property laws – protecting patents, copyrights, and trademarks – which are essential for fostering innovation and creativity and contribute to American competitiveness and our economic well-being.

So we work every day, at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva, to strengthen global patent protection for innovative U.S. companies that are creating jobs at home. We’re continuously involved in ensuring that WIPO works efficiently and in an accountable and transparent manner, so we can ensure that U.S. tax dollars are being well spent. And we’re working to ensure other forms of IP protection that are strong as well as smart. So we’ve made progress at WIPO pursuing a set of exceptions to copyright laws, for products that will benefit the visually impaired, to help the largest number of people reap the benefits of globalization.

So, too, in the area of Internet governance, we are working to ensure that the greatest number of people around the world can tap into the truly awesome power of the latest platforms for networking and information-sharing. New media empowers individuals around the world to share information and express opinions in environments hostile to freedom of expression. But despots and dictators recognize the power of the Internet: that’s why so many of them, faced with protests in the Middle East and elsewhere, have tried to shut it down.

To highlight the U.S. commitment to freedom of expression, this year we will host World Press Freedom Day, a UNESCO event that will focus on digital media and its opportunities and threats for global press freedom, and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives. And in making decisions about Internet governance, we will continue to embrace, as Secretary Clinton repeatedly has emphasized, Internet governance that supports open technical standards and administrative foundations.

Our diplomats and experts work through a range of multilateral institutions – including to ensure that when international organizations address issues like cyber crime or Internet freedom, there is robust participation from all relevant stakeholders, including civil society and the private sector.

We also work multilaterally on a broad range of science and environmental matters. Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing our planet. So we are working with a number of multilateral institutions and environmental conventions, both within and outside the United Nations, to combat climate change, conserve global biodiversity, remove pollutants from the environment, and protect the lives of American citizens.

Under the auspices of the UN Environment Program, we are working with partners toward an international treaty to reduce mercury use. And at the recent meetings in Cancun of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the world took an important step in meeting the climate and clean energy challenge, agreeing that all major economies will take transparent actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And so too with the recent tragic events in Japan – a tragedy which I know for many of you has decidedly personal implications. The international network of agencies, organizations, and agreements is and has been very much in evidence as the world seeks to assist Japan. The Pacific Tsunami Warning System, which informed the rapid warnings issued within minutes of the earthquake, is coordinated by a UNESCO oceanographic commission.

The IAEA has sent radiation monitoring teams to assist Japanese efforts, and has been the focal point for international communication and information-sharing about the situation at the affected power plants. Even the CTBTO – the organization set up to monitor the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty – has played a role. Its global network of radiation monitoring stations have shared data about the path of radiation emissions from damaged Japanese nuclear reactors, and its seismic stations provided quick information to help inform the tsunami warning centers.

And of course, the United States is first among Japan’s bilateral allies in its commitment to support. As President Obama said shortly after this horrific disaster, “our commitment to our Japanese ally is unshakeable and we stand by the Japanese people in this time of trial.”

Our multilateral engagement in this area also intersects with other aspects of our work across the UN system, because environmental protection is important not only from an ecological perspective. Healthy, safe environments and biologically rich ecosystems are the foundation for food security, livelihoods, and sustainable development, a connection we are highlighting during 2011, the UN International Year of Forests.

The connection between environmental progress and human health is also clear. The Montreal Protocol – an example of exceptional multilateral cooperation – will be responsible for full recovery of the ozone layer by 2050. Because many of the ozone-depleting chemicals it phased out also are powerful greenhouse gases, it will result in climate benefits roughly five times larger than those achieved in the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. And the success of the Montreal Protocol in restoring the ozone layer will avoid more than 22 million new cases of cataracts and more than six million skin cancer deaths in the United States alone, saving trillions in U.S. health care costs over the coming century.

More broadly, global health forms a key part of President Obama’s development agenda. We’ve stated publicly that the UN Millennium Development Goals are America’s goals, and we’ve demonstrated our commitment to achieving these goals through the Global Health Initiative, a $63 billion program focused on strengthening health systems; fighting infectious diseases; improving maternal and child health, nutrition, family planning and reproductive health; and addressing neglected tropical diseases.

Like in other areas, we work through the UN system on public health issues not only to collaborate, but also to leverage financial and technical resources from a wide range of contributors.

The UN’s World Health Organization, the premier global public health body, has worked for years to provide technical support and guidance on infectious disease outbreaks and response, pandemic threats, and coordinating health efforts in emergency and disaster situations. So when the H1N1 influenza virus was declared a global pandemic, the World Health Organization was there to help countries with both preparedness and response. .

Our multilateral work on public health issues is also a great example of how globalization has brought more voices to the table. Today there are a variety of critical actors instrumental in advancing global health. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations. And many others. These NGOs and private-partnerships are playing a vital role in improving global health, and we’ve worked through a multilateral umbrella to coordinate and collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders.

Another priority for this Administration is promoting global respect for universal values, which is an enduring American interest and one we have long championed for over six decades at the UN. In 2009, we reversed the policy of the previous Administration, chose to run for – and won – a seat on the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Since joining, we’ve become the Council’s most active delegation. We chose to lead from within the Council rather than criticize from afar, because at the end of the day, the Human Rights Council will debate and respond to issues we see as important with or without us. And the protection of human rights is far too important to be left to the human rights abusers.

Since joining, the United States been exceptionally active and taken a leadership role at the Council. In just the past few weeks, we have seen dramatic and meaningful action on the situation in Libya – action which included the Council recommending that Libya be suspended. Similarly, the Council has shown significant leadership on the situation in Cote d’Ivoire, establishing a Commission of Inquiry to examine the violence and human rights situation in that country. And just last week the Council took groundbreaking action on the human rights situation in Iran by creating a Special Rapporteur to investigate that situation. It also charted a new course for global efforts to condemn intolerance, discrimination, and violence based on religion or belief while protecting and promoting freedom of expression, and took an important step to support the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Of course, the Human Rights Council is far from perfect. It still could do far more to address serious human rights issues, and it continues an unfair and imbalanced bias against Israel. Nonetheless, the U.S. presence on the Council has made a difference, and our active engagement with partners of all kinds has resulted in a new trajectory for the Council. As a result, we have made the decision to run for reelection to the Council when our term expires in 2012.

So I’ve walked through a few areas in which we work at the United Nations to embrace globalization’s new opportunities for cooperation and progress. But we all know by now that globalization brings not only increased opportunities for collaboration, but also opens the door to new transnational security threats, ones that don’t stop at borders.

Indeed, a capable and strong United Nations system advances U.S. national security, by countering nuclear nonproliferation, preventing international terrorism, and by promoting stability in countries around the world.

For example, inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency helped sound the alarm on Iran’s dangerous nuclear program. And to be effective, our response required that all countries abide by sanctions against Iran – so we worked in the UN Security Council to craft tough sanctions that even those countries that voted against them must implement. We already are seeing the effect of those sanctions.

In combating transnational terrorism, we also have worked across the UN system. Through Security Council sanctions, we imposed global asset freezes and travel bans on terrorists and their supporters. We also have bolstered aviation security, through the International Civil Aviation Organization, and worked through other UN counter-terrorism bodies to share expertise and build national capacity around the world, to address terrorism at its source.

The UN is also essential to addressing some of the world’s most challenging security situations. Take, for example, the situation in Cote d’Ivoire, where the international system is deeply engaged to promote a peaceful transition of power to the elected president and stem the threat of widespread violence. Former President Gbagbo’s refusal to step down is resulting in a serious humanitarian crisis that is having an impact on the entire region.

Here too, the spectrum of multilateral response is in play. The Security Council has expanded the size of the UN peacekeeping force in Cote d’Ivoire. The Human Rights Council has condemned ongoing human rights abuses and established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the situation. The UN relief agencies, including the UN Refugee Agency and the World Food Program, have responded to displaced populations with remarkable speed. And today the Security Council adopted targeted sanctions on Gbagbo and his immediate associates by a vote of 15-0.

Again, behind all these action is strong U.S. leadership, both in terms of prompting the international community to act and in terms of direct U.S. assistance and support to international organizations in need of resources to respond. Could the U.S. address effectively the crisis in Cote d’Ivoire alone? No. Our most urgent and vexing global challenges must be tackled through international cooperation and partnership.

In countries where the United States has deployed our armed forces, including Afghanistan and Iraq, the United Nations and international organizations such as NATO are crucial partners. UN political missions in both countries work to strengthen democratic institutions, and our close engagement with them makes U.S. efforts to responsibly draw down our military forces – as the President has committed to doing – all the more possible.

The United Nations recently renewed the mandate of the assistance mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which will play an increasingly pivotal role in mediation, conflict resolution, human rights, and capacity-building as the United States and others nations begin transitioning security responsibilities to Afghan authorities.

Similarly, in Libya responsibility for enforcement of the Security Council mandate has shifted to NATO, which has unique capabilities and also allows the United States to share the burden of operations with NATO members.

The Administration’s approach on these issues, particularly with regard to the United Nations, has its critics. We all recognize that the United Nations has its flaws, challenges, and shortcomings when it comes to management, transparency, and efficiency. The United States is second to none in pushing for a more efficient and effective UN – but we achieve this by working to build up the UN, not tear it down. Given how important our work in the UN system is to U.S. foreign policy, we must ensure the United Nations is strong enough to bear the burdens we must place upon it in the decades to come.

So we’re proud of the important UN management and reform accomplishments we’ve had over the past two years, which will help the UN improve its day-to-day administration, further increase accountability and transparency, and reinforce its effectiveness in key areas.

We won new standards to hold UN officials accountable for achieving results. We led the charge to institutionalize the UN Ethics Office, which is now headed by an American. We protected the authority of the UN’s oversight office to carry out audits, inspections, evaluations, and, where necessary, investigations of UN activities. We led the establishment of new oversight bodies at several UN agencies, marshaled efforts to put in place a support strategy to improve the UN’s capacity for complex peacekeeping missions, and were instrumental in establishing one new agency, UN Women, which consolidated several UN entities.

We will continue to push for UN budget discipline, and we expect that the UN will recognize that its ongoing process of reform must be accompanied by smart, lean budgets. I commend Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s recent announcement that he has asked his top managers to submit budgets that come in three percent lower than the previous budget.

Aside from promoting smart and disciplined UN budgets, we also will work to further embed and strengthen within the UN a culture of responsibility and transparency. We achieve this not only through our close daily collaboration with the UN, but also by promoting Americans for key positions within the UN system, so that they can share their experiences and values.

Ethics, oversight, and transparency are also key to an effective United Nations. In 2011, we will continue our push for a strong Ethics Office and a strengthened, independent, and fully-staffed oversight office. And we will press the UN in 2011 to expand ethics training and improve its financial disclosure process.

These accomplishments may not grab headlines, but they get results. And because this Administration takes seriously our responsibility to use taxpayer dollars wisely especially in these challenging economic times, results are what matter – which is why multilateral diplomacy is smart diplomacy.

You see, working through the United Nations – where the United States pays around a quarter of the budget – means that we don’t have to do it all, or pay for it all. Our dues for the UN system add up to about one-tenth of one percent of annual federal spending; and that investment leverages contributions by other countries totaling about three times what we contribute.

But our diplomats cannot continue to succeed if we hamstring them by running up new arrears at the UN. President Obama’s commitment to paying our UN assessments has earned us greater political capital and helped win support for our efforts to improve the UN’s effectiveness and achieve our policy goals. The United States must be a responsible global leader, and that means paying our bills and working for real renewal at the UN. Withholding a portion of our assessments, as some have called for, will only hamper our ability to deliver results at the UN that the American people want, and that the United States needs.

So because we cannot address 21st century challenges with 20th century tools, this Administration has committed to working closely with the United Nations to strengthen itself and better meet the challenges of today.

As I’ve outlined tonight, multilateral engagement at the United Nations is a key tool for the United States in achieving our foreign policy goals and advancing our values. It’s an important means of burden-sharing in tough financial times. And it benefits Americans.

Thank you again for hosting me this evening, and I look forward to your questions