Dean Pittman
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Georgetown University
Washington, DC
September 12, 2013

(As Prepared)

Thank you Professor Arend for that kind introduction and to the University, the Mortara Center, and the School of Foreign Service for so graciously hosting this morning’s conversation. I would also be remiss in not mentioning the important role in today’s event played by two members of the extended IO Bureau family, Ambassador Mark Lagon and Kali DeWitt.

In the interest of arriving at that conversation, my intent this morning is to discuss briefly the scope and flavor of the upcoming UN General Assembly, and particularly in the context of today’s most pressing challenges, including the situation in Syria.

Let me begin with a simple statement that will frame the direction of my remarks. Today’s global challenges require a determined, unrelenting investment in multilateral diplomacy.

I hope and trust that in a crowd of foreign affairs professionals and those aspiring to such a profession, this statement falls somewhere short of controversial. The importance of this investment is something President Obama signaled clearly in his very first address to the UN General Assembly in 2009, noting his “deeply held belief” that“…the interests of nations and peoples are shared.”

This belief is evident through the Administration’s committed and energized engagement across the UN system. The result of this recommitment to the principles of multilateral coordination and cooperation has been, I believe, a positive impact on both the direction and effectiveness of UN agencies that help advance U.S. national interests.

And in that context we’re currently preparing for the 68th iteration of the UN General Assembly. As we prepare, we do so within three broad objectives for our work in multilateral spaces. Those objectives are:

  • fostering a more peaceful world;
  • promoting sustainable development and human rights; and
  • working towards a more effective, accountable UN system.

Now, those objectives notwithstanding, there is an elephant in the room, and that is Syria.

  • You are all aware of the rapidly evolving diplomatic effort surrounding Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. As the President stated on Tuesday night, there have been recent encouraging signs, including an expressed willingness by the Russians to join the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons.
  • The U.S. believes that the credible threat of U.S. military action contributed to that expression, as well as the Assad regime’s decision to admit that it has chemical weapons and indicate its readiness to join the Chemical Weapons Convention.
  • The President sent Secretary of State Kerry to Geneva to engage further today with his Russian counterpart to see if we can make real progress, because ultimately, we want a diplomatic solution, ideally in a UN context.
  • The current efforts underway in Geneva come in the context of a long period of UN Security Council inaction on the Syria crisis. Since 2011, Russia and China have vetoed several Security Council resolutions and blocked numerous statements by the Council designed to condemn the Syrian regime’s violence and promote a political solution to the conflict. That’s both a failure and a challenge.

The crisis in Syria and ongoing challenges on complex issues such as nonproliferation and human rights remind us that our values are not universally shared, and that our national interests are at times viewed as competitive in nature, not complementary. That’s just part of the deal.

This fact is perhaps not often in such plain view, but it is a reality that colors and shapes multilateralism, and reminds the United States of the important role we must play in leading and guiding global action. For, in the absence of such leadership, who will protect and promote our national interests? Who would speak up for our interests on our behalf?

Who would combat in our place the long pattern of some member states of using the United Nations as a platform for anti-Semitic rancor, or for actions intended to isolate and diminish a single nation – Israel?

Who would so resolutely champion efforts to strengthen the UN’s efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency?

At the end of the day, I believe it helps to view the UN as a work in progress. Yes, 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. We are not deterred by these challenges. We are not disheartened by the failings. 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 UN system, is making a critical, positive difference.

Indeed, when critics of the UN target weaknesses in the institution, misbehavior by member states, or mismanagement by agencies, I would respond by challenging those critics to imagine a world without the UN, because it really isn’t that hard to do. Imagine the aftermath of World War I, for example, and the intervening decades that led to World War II.

Critics of the UN tend to offer one prescription for these challenges which is to retreat from an institution the United States help create and withhold funding for the agencies and programs that advance our interests. Instead of working from within to improve efficiency and effectiveness, many critics would have you believe that we can somehow go it alone.

No one is suggesting that the United Nations is without its problems. Management and oversight weaknesses remain a challenge. Transparency in budgeting and expenditures must be improved. For the United States, meaningful reform of UN processes and procedures is not just a talking point, but a relentless objective.

But as its member states prepare to assemble in New York to open another UN Palooza, it is also appropriate to pause and recall the organization’s original purpose, its continuing utility, and the indispensable role the United States must play on this global stage.

In that spirit, let’s return for a moment to the situation in Syria. We know that efforts to employ the Security Council have to date been blocked by Russia and China. We hope this latest round of discussions yields a change in that reality. But Security Council paralysis aside, the UN has played an active and critical role, particularly in the humanitarian context.

The scale of the humanitarian need is daunting. The number of Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring countries has increased as violence has escalated, with that number now exceeding 2 million, including over 1 million children. Inside Syria, an additional 5 million people are displaced and more than 6 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The UN, despite gridlock in the Security Council, is there in force responding to the urgent needs of the Syrian people with strong, committed support from the United States.

That collective humanitarian effort includes the World Food Program, which is providing food assistance to almost 4 million Syrians per month. It includes the immunization of over 1.3 million children both inside Syria and in refugee-hosting countries by UNICEF, and assistance to over 1.5 million migrants, internally displaced persons, and refugees by the International Organization for Migration.

The UN Human Rights Council has also been an active, vocal body in condemning the atrocities in Syria, and taking meaningful action to investigate and report the regimes atrocities. Those actions include the establishment of an independent International Commission of Inquiry, a Special Rapporteur, and numerous resolutions outlining and illuminating the conduct of the Syrian government. These mechanisms are critical to documenting the abuses being committed and holding the perpetrators responsible once a resolution to the conflict is forged.

The point is this: the high-profile failure of the Security Council on Syria does not preclude urgent and meaningful UN action on the ground, and should not obscure the many other important accomplishments across the multilateral system and the U.S. role in defining and promoting those accomplishments.

Let me now discuss a few of those accomplishments, and you can measure that assertion for yourselves.

First, I’ll note the obvious – the nations of the world are increasingly faced with challenges that pay borders no heed. Climate change is perhaps the most obvious example, but consider also pandemic disease, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, attacks on human rights, and manmade and natural disasters. These and other emerging threats to our national security are by their nature less responsive to unilateral or even bilateral action than the traditional security challenges of the past.

As a result, the United States sees significant and growing benefit in exercising its leadership across the international system, including at the UN. We do so by:

  • working closely with the World Health Organization as it works on infectious disease outbreaks and response, pandemic threats, and coordinating health efforts in emergency and disaster situations;
  • by providing more than 40% of the World Food Program’s annual budget to feed millions around the world, and promoting sustainable global food security through our $3.5 billion “Feed the Future” program;
  • by consolidating disparate and disconnected gender agencies into one entity, UN Women, designed to bring new focus, energy, and determination to the goal of women’s empowerment; and
  • by addressing aggressively the threat posed by nuclear proliferation by working with Security Council members on tough sanctions on Iran and North Korea, and complementing that effort with leadership at the International Atomic Energy Agency to pursue rigorous monitoring and reporting of the Iran program.

We also exercise that leadership in organizations that you may know less about but are equally important, such as:

  • the International Civil Aviation Organization, which was formed in 1944 to establish standards and regulations necessary for aviation safety, security, efficiency and environmental protection; or
  • the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO!), which is dedicated to promoting the protection of intellectual property rights throughout the world; or
  • the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) which advances international cooperation on hurricane forecasting, natural disaster preparedness, climate issues, and the exchange of vital atmospheric and oceanic data.

And, we lead on issues familiar to us all, including UN peacekeeping, where the United States strives to strengthen UN peacekeeping missions and their mandates, as we support the more than 100,000 peacekeepers currently working in some of the world’s most persistent conflicts and fragile states. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, mandate strengthening includes the creation of an intervention brigade – the first of its kind, designed to reduce the threat posed to state authority and civilian security by armed groups in eastern DRC.

This effort is complemented by twin envoys to the region, one from the UN, Mary Robinson, and one from the U.S., former Senator Russ Feingold. This pairing not only underscores the shared determination of the UN and the U.S, but also of the important multiplier effect of such UN mechanisms.

UN peacekeeping, whether in the DRC, or Sudan, or Haiti, represents a significant and cost-effective U.S. investment. I say that because despite the fact that the U.S. pays over a quarter of the total UN peacekeeping bill, that means that the majority of those costs are covered by the other countries of the world.

On global human rights issues, we have a similar story of success. In 2009, we sought and won election to the UN Human Rights Council, fueled by a determination to alter the course of that body from within, rather than criticizing it from the sidelines. Over the last several years, that decision has made a significant, positive difference on the Council, where we have promoted assertive action on Iran, Sudan, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire, Cambodia, Belarus, Sri Lanka, Eritrea, and as already noted, Syria. We have built and strengthened coalitions to galvanize support for landmark action on LGBT rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly. These accomplishments are a good example of how, through U.S. engagement and leadership at the UN, we can advance our national interests more broadly than we can by acting unilaterally.

Let me say a few words about development issues and the expanding role for youth voices, and then I’d really like to hear from you.

We are rapidly approaching the Millennium Development Goal target date of 2015. At their establishment, many of the original goals were characterized as fanciful at best. Critics of the United Nations were quick to scoff at the notion of the UN playing a useful role in promoting such lofty goals. And yet. Thirteen years into this unique international commitment, the global community has made uneven but dramatic progress toward the MDG targets. The MDG 1 target of reducing extreme poverty rates by half was actually met and exceeded in 2010. And MDG 4 serves as another example, where combined and concerted global efforts have reduced mortality for children under 5 from 12 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011. One of the many pieces of that puzzle is improved access to vaccinations. Since 2000, expanded use of measles vaccines has averted over 10 million deaths.

Significant progress can be measured across the MDG spectrum, on access to education, combating HIV/AIDS and malaria, and reducing hunger. On all these issues and beyond, the United States has been a key player, including through focused initiatives such as the Global Health Initiative (GHI), the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief (PEPFAR), and Feed the Future (FTF).

As 2015 approaches, however, the world community is taking stock not just of the successes, but of the remaining work to be done. We need to accelerate efforts to meet the MDGs where they lag the most, and particularly in low-income, conflict-affected states. As the conversation about a post-2015 development agenda continues, we will push for renewed and strengthened focus on applying strategies and resources where the needs are greatest, and on improving the effectiveness, efficiency, and impact of UN agencies’ development activities.

Among the many high level events during the first week of the new UNGA is a forum hosted by the Secretary-General to accelerate further action to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Finally, just a few words about the increasingly meaningful voice of youth 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. Travel and communication has improved over that period, and opportunities to interact globally have proliferated. It’s only in the last several years, however, that those opportunities have become unhinged from gravity.

Today everybody in this audience under the age of 35 is likely engaged with individuals and communities beyond our borders. Perhaps you’re following hashtags related to Syria or climate change. Maybe you’re using Google+ (Google Plus) to interact on global issues. Or who knows, maybe you’re trolling Pinterest for a good quinoa recipe to use before the end of 2013 just because I said it was hard to pronounce? The point is, avenues for all of us, youth included, to think and interact in a global context have exploded.

There are now more than 3 billion people under the age of 30 worldwide. We've seen these young people use their voice to demand opportunity, access, consideration, and respect. Whether mobilizing for climate change, or demanding democracy and equality, young people are key drivers of change in our 21st century world, as they should be.

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.

You might already be aware, but last year we created a unique program designed to elevate and amplify the youth voice in our multilateral diplomacy efforts. We call it the U.S. Youth Observer program, and we intend this to be an annual application and selection exercise to identify one American youth to travel to the UN General Assembly, participate in meetings and events, and engage in other UN venues throughout a one-year period.

Last year we selected the first-ever such Observer, a terrific young leader named Brooke Loughrin, and we are currently finalizing the selection process for the 2013 Observer. I encourage you to follow the program @USYouthObserver, and give thought to applying to be the third annual Observer next year.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me conclude with this thought: We live in a complex, interconnected world in which power is increasingly diffused. Nonstate actors are more influential than ever, youth voices are finding new amplification, and a number of countries are emerging as centers of influence with aspirations to global leadership.

These truths do not, however, diminish the need for American leadership on the global stage, but instead reinforce its crucial importance. We do ourselves no favors by dismissing the United Nations as antiquated or ineffective, or threatening to decapitate an institution we played such a key role in building and continue to play in reforming its bodies to improve effectiveness. Our continued, robust leadership at the UN not only safeguards many of our core interests, it also promotes the living vision of an international gathering place sustained for the benefit of all nations and people.

Thanks very much for your attention, and now I’d like to open the floor for questions.