Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Washington, DC
September 18, 2012

(As Prepared Remarks)

Thank you, Daniel, for that introduction. Let me start by thanking CSIS for the opportunity to speak with you today about the upcoming UN General Assembly session, and about U.S. foreign policy more broadly. Given all the outrageous violence against diplomats and diplomatic facilities over the past week, there’s been a lot of commentary and public discussion about the role of U.S. diplomacy and the shape of U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century. Obviously, it’s an emotional time for those of us at the State Department. But it is precisely in times like these that we need to maintain perspective about the U.S. role in the world, and how we approach international threats and challenges.

So what I’d like to do today is offer a bit of a scene-setter for the U.S. approach to the upcoming UN General Assembly, putting that in the context of our broader foreign policy under the Obama Administration. Now, I don’t think one can fully appreciate U.S. engagement at the United Nations, and U.S. foreign policy more broadly, as they stand in September 2012, without looking to where they were in January 2009, when President Obama took office.

At that time, the United States faced serious questions about the future of our global engagement. We were deeply committed to two long and expensive wars, which hurt our ability to achieve other national goals and strained the fabric of global cooperation. Many of our traditional alliances had become strained, at best. Our reputation and standing were seriously diminished. The perception of U.S. disdain for international institutions risked undermining their capacity. And let’s not forget that the President inherited the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, which generated calls from some quarters for America to focus inward, to turn our back on our global commitments in favor of addressing the home front.

Today, a little more than three and a half years later, things look quite different. As I stand before you today, it is clear that U.S. global leadership is back.

Since 2009, we’ve ended the war in Iraq, and U.S. troops in Afghanistan will draw down by 2014. In turning the page on a decade of war, the United States has expanded our pursuit of a smarter, more comprehensive engagement with the world, to better meet the challenges of the 21st century. We’ve spent the last three years reinvigorating our traditional alliances and partnerships. We’ve forged new avenues for cooperation with emerging powers and other actors. And we’ve expended real effort to reengage across the United Nations system, to bolster its capacity for action, and to build connections with other multilateral and regional organizations.

The end result is an America that is more respected, more engaged, and more secure. And frankly, this reinvigorated U.S. leadership couldn’t come at a more important time.

The nature of the 21st century means that American security and prosperity are inseparable from that of the rest of the world. Our world today is more interconnected, more networked, and more complex than ever. National economies are intertwined and interdependent. New technology spreads information and influence to more people than ever before – a phenomenon that is not always positive, as the events of the past week have highlighted. But as President Obama said last week, the United States cannot withdraw from the rest of the world.

On September 12, the President came to the State Department and he made it clear that amid grief, we should hold fast to the values the motivated the colleagues who were killed in Libya. He said:

" …one thing that I’m absolutely confident about is that when we lead with our values, we lead with our ideas, and we don’t shy away from the world, and we’re not consumed by cynicism, but the belief that we can make things a little bit better. But when we embrace that, then we’re securing a better future for our kids and our grandkids and all those Americans to come."

Working in the multilateral world is complicated, because the world is complicated. Global power today is more diffuse than it has been for centuries. Nonstate actors are more influential than ever. A number of countries are emerging as centers of influence with aspirations to global leadership, and bringing their own perspectives to global governance. For our part, the United States sees this growing diversity of perspectives as an opportunity to strengthen the international order. But these emerging countries must be willing to take on their share of the costs and burdens that come with that heightened responsibility.

Within this new international context, our most pressing challenges have become more complex and less responsive to unilateral action.

Unlike in centuries past, we are not facing a totalitarian threat, or an impending conflict between two major powers. Today’s challenges – nonproliferation, terrorism, climate change, attacks on human rights, pandemic disease, manmade or natural disasters – they pay no heed to national borders.

So if ever there were an era for a U.S. foreign policy anchored in cooperative responses to shared global challenges, this is it. As Secretary Clinton has said, America cannot solve alone the world’s most pressing problems, nor can the world solve them without America.

Yet even as the United States works to strengthen our foreign policy tools for this new era, economic conditions pose another challenge. Quick action averted the worst of our economic crisis, and our economy is heading in the right direction, but the recovery has not been as strong as anyone would like. That means tighter budgets. But the Obama Administration has been clear from the start that just over one percent of the federal budget that the international affairs account comprises – a small slice, even in this time of increased global responsibilities – is one of the best investments the United States can make, yielding huge dividends for our collective security and prosperity.

That notion of investment underscores the approach the Obama Administration has taken to U.S. engagement at the United Nations. Our belief from day one has been that a strong and effective UN is a key part of the foundation needed to confront the challenges all nations share. In less than four short years, we’ve begun to reverse years of neglect, indifference, and zero-sum international politics at the UN. We’ve done so by engaging in the painstaking, time-consuming diplomacy needed to translate the global responsibilities embodied in the UN Charter into effective international action.

If you look at U.S. accomplishments in the UN over the past three and a half years, and at our focus in the upcoming General Assembly session, that solid return on investment is clear.

First and foremost, U.S. engagement at the United Nations has made the United States – and the world as a whole – safer and more secure.

A top priority of this Administration has been combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the UN has been key in this regard. Over the past three years, we’ve worked with allies and partners to impose the toughest UN Security Council sanctions to date on Iran and North Korea’s nuclear program. President Obama has stated unequivocally that we will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, and our work at the UN Security Council is but one part of this policy. In addition, U.S. leadership at the International Atomic Energy Agency has helped marshal global opposition to Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA’s most recent report on Iran, which provided a credible and impartial assessment of Iran’s continued violations, is a perfect example of the value of U.S. investment in the multilateral system. Based on that report, last week the IAEA Board of Governors demanded that Iran cooperate fully with the IAEA, and address the international community’s serious concerns. That only Cuba opposed that resolution highlights how tough, persistent U.S. diplomacy, and our work through the UN system, has strengthened international resolve against Iran’s nuclear program.

Beyond these tough measures on Iran, we’ve also worked through the UN to advance President Obama’s deep personal commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. The United States provides extensive support for UN capacity-building efforts worldwide to prevent nuclear proliferation. As Energy Secretary Chu noted at the IAEA yesterday, the work done by the United States and our partners has helped reduce the global vulnerability of nuclear materials, and has made the world a safer place. Next week, Secretary-General Ban will host a high-level meeting on countering nuclear terrorism, where these and other contributions to nuclear security will be discussed.

Also in New York next week, there will be high-level events on a number of peace and security challenges around the world, including the Sahel, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Middle East. Yet these are far from the only situations since 2009 where the United States has worked through the UN to catalyze effective international action, protect civilians, and work to prevent armed conflict.

In Libya, quick action by the UN Security Council saved countless people from slaughter. Since then, the United States and the United Nations have been at the vanguard of assistance to the Libyan people. The tragic attack last week on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi underscored the risks that American diplomats face there and elsewhere. But it also drove home how important it is that the international community continue to help the Libyan people cement a peaceful and prosperous future. As Secretary Clinton said, Libyans did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob. So the tragedy in Benghazi only fortifies our resolve to support Libya in its transition toward greater stability, democracy, and rule of law. Elsewhere around the globe, U.S. multilateral leadership similarly has helped assemble broad coalitions to address crises and avert or stem violent conflict.

Although attacks on civilians and a serious humanitarian situation persist, we have prevented a return to open war between Sudan and South Sudan, while ushering in Juba’s arrival as the world’s newest state.

In 2010, the United States worked with the United Nations to facilitate a rapid response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti, which counted among its casualties the leadership of the UN peacekeeping force.

U.S. leadership in the UN and partnership with allies and other countries also has been central to international efforts to stabilize Somalia, and reduce that country’s destabilizing exports of terrorism, piracy, extreme poverty, and migration.

In these and other countries, the Obama Administration has worked to strengthen UN peacekeeping missions, as they increasingly take on complex, difficult mandates to protect civilians and promote stability. We send UN peacekeepers – roughly 120,000 of them are deployed right now – into many of the world’s most persistent and dangerous conflicts, places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Darfur, and Lebanon, places where the challenges are too thorny and too deep for any one state to fix single-handedly. Over the past three years, the United States has worked to ensure that these missions have mandates they can achieve, and the resources and political backing they need to achieve them. And we’re supporting the end of peacekeeping missions that have achieved their goals, as will occur in Timor-Leste later this year. We’re similarly working to support the increasing dispatch of non-military UN political missions into postconflict settings across the world, including in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The United States has been a strong supporter of these missions and the critical statebuilding expertise they bring.

In each of the countries I mentioned, U.S. multilateral leadership has been key to the global response. And although many of these challenges persist, it’s almost impossible to imagine how much more insecure they would be without action through the UN system.

But that doesn’t mean that multilateral engagement is a panacea, or that we are always able to immediately achieve the political will needed to halt a crisis.

On Syria, the United States – individually and as part of a broad coalition – has spent more than a year working to halt the attacks by the regime on its people. But we remain deeply frustrated by Russia and China’s continued support for Assad. We’ve said on a number of occasions that the Assad regime and its backers are on the wrong side of history, and an overwhelming majority of the international community agrees, as shown by the UN General Assembly vote last month. We continue to believe that a political transition in Syria, led by the Syrian people and supported by the international community, is the best path for Syria’s future.

And the United States is not allowing Russian and Chinese obstruction in the Security Council to halt the larger effort. Instead, we are continuing to work with partners across the globe to increase pressure on the regime. We have imposed stringent sanctions on the Assad regime. We will continue to provide humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people, having given more than $100 million to date. We will continue to support the opposition, including with nonlethal assistance and direct financial assistance. And we’re continuing our strong support for the UN Commission of Inquiry, to enhance accountability for serious ongoing human rights violations.

That commission of inquiry is another good example of the value of U.S. investment in multilateral institutions. It was launched by the Human Rights Council in 2011, and despite being denied access to Syria it has compiled perhaps the most comprehensive assessment of the myriad human rights violations committed since the violence began. It is a good example of how UN bodies – like the IAEA on Iran – can provide credible and impartial "eyes and ears" to monitor and call attention to pressing international crises. Because of the unrelenting work of these commissioners, the Syrian people and the international community will have a strong basis for identifying and holding accountable those who are committing these outrageous violations in Syria.

The Syria commission of inquiry is also a good segue toward discussing the value of U.S. engagement at the UN Human Rights Council. When President Obama took office in 2009, few parts of the UN system were as in need of change as the Human Rights Council. For three years following the creation of the HRC in 2006, the United States sat on the sidelines. In our absence, the HRC seemed to spend more time criticizing Israel than it did on all other countries combined.

But in 2009, this Administration ran for and won a seat on the Human Rights Council, so that we could work to improve it from within. And in the short time since then, U.S. leadership on the HRC, and our close collaboration with partners from all corners of the globe, has helped transform that body, into one that now regularly responds to pressing human rights situations with timely, concrete action.

In just this short period, U.S. leadership at the Human Rights Council has led to a series of important advances for the protection of human rights worldwide. With U.S. leadership, the HRC has turned the global spotlight on persistent violators of universal human rights worldwide. I mentioned earlier the important work of the Syria commission of inquiry, but the Council also has launched similar commissions to investigate violations in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire. It established the first-ever UN special rapporteur on human rights abuses in Iran, and appointed a special rapporteur for Belarus for the first time since 2006. And in passing the first-ever resolution in the UN system establishing that LGBT rights are, in fact, human rights, a broad, cross-regional group of countries took a historic leap toward ensuring that the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration are protected for all men and women, regardless of their sexual orientation. And just since 2009, the United States and our partners on the Human Rights Council have expanded international mechanisms to monitor and protect core human rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and the rights of women to live without discrimination.

None of this has been easy. And our work is not finished, which is why the United States is running hard for a second term on the Human Rights Council this autumn. We’ve succeeded in greatly reducing the HRC’s unfair bias against Israel, although more remains to be done. The Council has taken up a number of pressing human rights situations, but still could do more. But without U.S. leadership, there’s no telling whether the Human Rights Council will continue to be as effective as it has been since we joined in 2009. For the United States, the protection of universal rights is simply too important for us to cede leadership at the Human Rights Council.

The United States has pursued a similar approach of deep and broad multilateral engagement on development issues. For twelve years, the international community has been working through the Millennium Development Goals framework to dramatically reduce poverty worldwide, and we’ve made real, measurable progress in advance of the 2015 deadline. Extreme poverty has been reduced by half, as has the proportion of people lacking dependable access to clean drinking water. And there have been real improvements to the living conditions of the more than 200 million people worldwide who live in slums.

These are huge advances in human well-being the world over, and they wouldn’t be possible without the kind of international engagement and cooperation I’ve been discussing today. U.S. initiatives on global health and food security partner extensively with the UN system. But there still remains much to be done. At the General Assembly next week, Secretary-General Ban will inaugurate his High-Level Panel on the post-2015 global development agenda. The United States is pleased to have John Podesta as a member of this esteemed group, and we support its mandate to carry forward the global fight against poverty beyond 2015.

Over the long term, sustaining these efforts to mobilize an effective international response – on peace and security, human rights, and development – requires serious attention to the fabric of global cooperation. We agree with emerging powers who state that the international order must be renovated to better reflect the contemporary landscape. But as I mentioned earlier, those changes will require an expansion of responsibility alongside any increases in membership.

Aside from member state bodies, when it comes to operations on the ground, in too many ways the UN system remain stuck in the last century. In this vein, the United States has gone to great lengths to build a more sustainable, just, and effective international order, including working to improve the UN’s effectiveness and operations where it counts. We’ve worked closely with UN leadership and a number of other countries to increase transparency, oversight, and accountability for results across the UN system. As a result, we’re seeing real, tangible improvements. We’ve helped establish strong UN institutions focused on oversight and accountability, and made real gains on transparency, including recent decisions by several UN funds and programs to publish their audit reports online. And now, we are in the process of joining other major donors as members of MOPAN, the Multilateral Organization Performance Assessment Network, to enhance our ability to assess and promote the effectiveness of international organizations.

We’ve done so by making clear that our UN reform efforts are focused not on tearing the UN down, but building it up. We’re working to help strengthen the UN’s contributions to U.S. national security, to global security writ large, to the advancement of universal rights and values, and to fighting global poverty. At the same time, we’ve been careful stewards of taxpayer dollars. Last December, we worked with partners to achieve a five percent reduction in the UN regular budget, the first time since the 1990s and only the second time in history that has happened. And the implementation of the UN’s Global Field Support Strategy, which the U.S. strongly supported, has saved tens of millions of dollars.

Unfortunately, in some cases we’ve been unable to fully engage to protect U.S. interests in the UN system. Palestinian membership at UNESCO has triggered 1990s laws that prohibit U.S. contributions to that agency. So right now we cannot provide support for invaluable UNESCO programs, like Teaching Respect for All, an initiative that is developing a global educational curriculum promoting respect, human rights, and tolerance – the need for which is abundantly clear after last week’s events. Or SESAME, a UNESCO-backed research center that fosters scientific collaboration across the Middle East, including Israel and the Palestinians. Or UNESCO’s global efforts on Holocaust education. I will be clear: U.S. support for Israel is unwavering, and we will oppose any and all attacks on its legitimacy in UN bodies or elsewhere. But the legal prohibition on U.S. funding means Palestinian UN membership efforts degrade U.S. influence, and damage the very UN bodies they seek to join.

To conclude today, let me point out that all of us have the privilege of living during a remarkable chapter of the human story. We are witnessing and addressing firsthand events that will form much of the history of this already-tumultuous century.

For our part, the Obama Administration has sought to address that tumult by forging the conditions for effective international action, and by reinforcing the global and regional architecture to better stand the tests we know it will face. As I’ve mentioned throughout my remarks today, all of these issues and dynamics will be on display next week in New York. But those high-level meetings will mark but one point along a longer history of U.S. leadership at the United Nations, leadership that will continue long after the motorcades recede from First Avenue.

With that, let me end my remarks, and thank you again for the chance to speak here this afternoon. I look forward to our discussion and to any questions you may have.