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Esther Brimmer on the Importance of Multilateral Engagement in U.S. Foreign Policy
The Role and Relevance of Multilateral Engagement in U.S. Foreign Policy
February 17, 2012

Remarks by Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs

World Affairs Council of Greater Atlanta

Atlanta, GA

February 16, 2012

Thank you, Cedric, for that kind introduction. I’m very pleased to be in Atlanta for a brief visit, and when I have occasion to travel around the country, I make every effort to meet with the chapters of the World Affairs Council.

I do so not just because you are a community deeply engaged on foreign policy issues, but because we share an obligation to explain to the larger American public the crucial importance of robust U.S. engagement on the international stage.

Now, we can debate the scope and flavor of that engagement, but I think we can all agree that the United States must remain a leading voice and a leading light in the world community.

Today I would like to take just a few minutes to discuss how the United States is demonstrating that leadership at the UN and in other international organizations. Let me begin by observing that the American public does not generally spend a great deal of time focusing on the actions and functions of the UN. When it does, it is often during a crisis and in the context of the UN Security Council.

We’ve witnessed this several times over the past year. First, when the Security Council authorized an emergency international response to the situation in Libya – an action that ultimately saved thousands of lives and hastened the end of the Gaddafi regime.

Even more recently, and significantly less laudatory, the Security Council was unable to reach consensus on a resolution calling on the Syrian regime to halt the ongoing violence directed against the Syrian people.

I’ll return to this issue in a moment, but I draw your attention to these two examples for a particular reason. It strikes me that when the United Nations and other important international organizations take assertive action on a burning issue, that action is frequently described as positive evidence of cooperation between nations.

However, when these same bodies are unable to take such action, as in the recent Security Council failure on Syria, that result is normally described as a failure by the United Nations itself, not its membership. I find that unfortunate, because it blurs who is really responsible for that failure—in this case, the two countries who used their Security Council vetoes to block international efforts to support the Syrian people—Russia and China.

In both of these cases as well, however, the Security Council may have garnered much of the attention, but a significant role also was played by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

For Libya, even before the first Security Council resolution, the HRC had unanimously condemned the Gaddafi regime’s human rights abuses. And ongoing attention by the Human Rights Council to the human rights dimension of the crisis in Libya helped maintain global support for accountability and protection of civilians.

On Syria, the members of the Human Rights Council have held multiple emergency special sessions to condemn the ongoing attacks on civilians by the Assad regime. The HRC has launched an international commission of inquiry, to document human rights abuses and build the foundation for international accountability. And through its repeated special sessions, it has maintained international attention and support for an end to the violence in Syria, despite the repeated decisions by China and Russia to block essential action in the UN Security Council.

In any event, I would be happy to chat further about these particular dynamics and challenges, but let me return now to the Administration’s effort to maximize our engagement in these many and varied international bodies – the President’s ‘era of engagement.’

Clearly, we face a expanding number of global challenges. Climate change, terrorism, food insecurity, water, non-proliferation, energy, health. The number and complexity of issues that require international collaboration is growing, and the advantages to the United States of that engagement are manifold.

We cannot effectively address any of these shared, global challenges by ourselves or solely through traditional bilateral interactions. Can we really imagine, for example, addressing satellite bandwidth questions or the sharing of weather data country by country? Should we engage individually with 192 other nations on each issue? What about the establishment of shipping lanes, territorial waters, or efforts to tackle pandemic diseases?

No, we live in a globalized, interconnected world – a world in which communities and cities such as Atlanta are closely and beneficially linked. So, U.S. engagement with the UN has never been more critical, if we are to find shared solutions to common challenges.

Of course, I say that in the shadow of the Russian and Chinese decision to block UN Security Council action on Syria. This shameful action underscores my larger point, however – the United States must be vigorously and comprehensively engaged with the fullest range of international organizations to advance its national interests.

In this case, we remain steadfast in our support of Arab League efforts on Syria, and we will continue to work urgently with that organization and the many other like-minded partners to make clear to the Assad regime that its assault on the Syrian people must end, and a political transition must begin. As I mentioned before, the Human Rights Council and the international Commission of Inquiry it launched have important roles to play as well, and we have been staunch supporters of those efforts to end the violence.

In Libya, much has transpired, of course, and much remains to be down to ensure Libya remains on its positive trajectory. Here again, the UN must and will play an important role – a role which synthesizes and focuses the collective commitment of the UN member states.

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

In fact, the range of peace and security issues that the United States advances through the UN and international organizations is quite dizzying. Consider the fact that there are currently some 17 UN peacekeeping missions around the world, with roughly 120,000 blue helmets helping ensure and secure peace and stability. The crucial work of these missions has been front page news just in recent weeks and months – in Cote d’Ivoire, in Sudan, in the Congo.

The United States is the largest supporter of UN peacekeeping activities, just as we are the largest contributor to the UN budget more generally. That level of commitment is a reflection of more than just our relative economic position – it’s a indication of our global leadership and of our understanding that such missions enable the United States to positively influence areas of conflict without having to commit U.S. military resources.

That leadership has been indispensable on a host of issues. Consider, for example, our continuing efforts to isolate Iran and hamper its efforts to pursue its illicit nuclear program. Consider the tough series of sanctions measure we have helped develop and institute on rogue regimes such as North Korea. Consider the tremendous progress over the last decade in the fight against terrorism through sanctions, improved cooperation on aviation security, strengthening national capacities, et cetera.

These many and varied efforts almost never grab the headlines, but they are one of the smartest investments the United States and the international community can make to advance our shared security. That is why the State Department’s first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, or QDDR, emphasizes preventing and resolving armed conflict, and why we are working across the UN system to explore new ways to promote those goals.

I have discussed how we work across the UN system to enhance national and international security, but our multilateral engagement also is an important means of advancing universal norms and values.

One of the President’s earliest decisions on UN issues was that the United States should seek election to the UN Human Rights Council. Now, this is an institution that has been rightly criticized in the past for being ineffectual and absurdly focused on excoriating Israel while ignoring burning human rights crises. We did seek election in 2009, and we were elected. Since that time, we have employed our voice and our moral authority on human rights issues to begin redirecting the ship, and with great success.

The Human Rights Council was among the first UN bodies to condemn and take action as violence and human rights abuses unfolded in Syria and Libya last year. We have created a host of new mechanisms and rapporteurs to address human rights issues in Iran, Cote d’Ivoire, Yemen, Belarus, and elsewhere. We have led a global effort to reframe the international debate around defamation of religions into a constructive conversation about advancing freedom of expression. And just last June, a diverse majority of states on the Human Rights Council adopted the first resolution in the history of the United Nations in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.

Our efforts on the Council have resulted in some broken china, to be sure. Some states have resisted and resented our leadership there – Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, and others. I can think of few better measures of success. And so, we near the end of our first term on the Council, and we intend to seek reelection later this year. We will do so because much remains to be done, and our voice, our leadership, has proven invaluable in the successes to date.

I’d like to stop there and hear some of your thoughts. I’ll close by noting that nobody believes the UN or international organizations are perfect. Multilateral diplomacy is a messy business. But we’re committed to improving the institutions we work with, whether on nuclear nonproliferation or food security, global health or urbanization. There is far too much at stake for the United States to diminish our presence on the international stage.