Global Challenges Require Investment in Multilateral Diplomacy

The U.N. General Assembly prepares for the opening of general debate at its upcoming 68th session at U.N. Headquarters in New York.
The U.N. General Assembly prepares for the opening of general debate at its upcoming 68th session at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

By Merle David Kellerhals Jr. | Staff Writer
20 September 2013

Washington — The global challenges that nations face today require a determined investment in multilateral diplomacy, and the United Nations system is the best place for it, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Dean Pittman says.

“As the president stated very clearly in 2009 when he made his first speech to the U.N. General Assembly, the U.S. sees great value in engaging on the multilateral stage,” Pittman said in a recent wide-ranging interview from his office at the State Department in Washington. “Not only to help join with our allies to provide global solutions to these global challenges, but also to help advance U.S. interests.”

“It is in our interests to build more secure, stable states overseas,” Pittman said. Providing better health care globally, protecting the environment and related issues are “all benefits to Americans as well as to the rest of the world.”

Pittman, who heads the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, noted that these are issues that the United States cannot resolve unilaterally or bilaterally, but must work in a “concerted effort with our global partners.”

“The U.N. system is the best place to do that,” he said.

What President Obama and the United States will do at the opening of the 68th session of the U.N. General Assembly September 23–27 and after will be to emphasize the importance of multilateral diplomacy and the U.S. commitment, Pittman said. General debate among the nations begins September 24. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will host a high-level meeting on disabilities on the opening day, September 23.

“There are challenges, but none represents a threat too dangerous to diminish our commitment to building and employing multilateral institutions that serve our national interests,” Pittman said in a recent speech at Georgetown University in Washington.

“In fact, in spite of these challenges there is more than ample evidence that U.S. leadership, in combination with efforts by our allies across the U.N. system, is making a critical, positive difference,” he said.

Traditionally, the U.S. president addresses the gathering of world leaders on the first Tuesday morning of general debate, and President Obama is scheduled to make his address on September 24. The week of general debate is one of the more intriguing moments at the United Nations, because the leaders of the 193 member nations are invited to address the General Assembly. The subjects and themes presented are often as broad as the membership.

Pittman says the United States has three broad objectives for the new session:

• Fostering a more peaceful, secure world.

• Advancing efforts on sustainable development and human rights.

• Working “very hard” to make the U.N. a more effective system.

“One of the key elements that will be the focus for this year’s [General Assembly] will be the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals [MDG] agenda, which have been successful but not completed,” Pittman said.

“And so as we move forward with how we’re going to address sustainable development, environmental issues, global health, the whole range of issues to help improve the lives of people around the world, we’ll be looking at the framework of the 2015 agenda as a way to define that going forward,” he said. “It’s critical that we look at this in a holistic way, because there’s so much interconnection between development and stability and education and economic opportunity.”

Pittman noted in his Georgetown speech that the first MDG target of reducing extreme poverty rates by half was actually met and exceeded in 2010. Another example is an MDG goal of reducing the mortality of children under 5 from 12 million children in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011, he said.

President Obama will participate in an event on civil society that emphasizes how the United States views the importance of individual citizens and nongovernmental organizations to the work that the United Nations and others do around the world. “It really is the involvement and engagement of civil society that is a critical element,” Pittman said.

He also noted that significant progress has been made across the MDG spectrum on access to education, combating HIV/AIDS and malaria, and reducing hunger.

Pittman said the United States strives to strengthen U.N. peacekeeping missions, working closely with the United Nations and troop-contributing nations to help improve their capacity, provide training and ensure that they have the tools and the mandate necessary to accomplish what is everyone’s objective. “And that’s really providing the space to build stable societies,” he said.

Pittman also said there is a noticeable increase in the meaningful voice of young people in foreign affairs. “I think we can safely say that every generation since the end of World War II has been more internationally engaged than the previous,” he said.

“We know what is important to young people: opportunities for effective political engagement, access to education, the hope for meaningful employment, and the desire for a safe and healthy future for themselves and their families,” Pittman said in his Georgetown speech.

For that reason the United States sponsors a U.S. Youth Observer program to amplify the youth voice in U.S. multilateral diplomacy efforts. Tiffany Taylor, a U.S. college student, will be traveling to the U.N. General Assembly, participating in meetings and events and engaging in other U.N. venues throughout a one-year period, he said.

The State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs is the U.S. government’s primary representative in the United Nations and international organizations through a host of U.S. missions with teams of diplomats.