Dean Pittman
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
The Colin L. Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership
City College of New York, NY
September 25, 2013

As Prepared

Thank you Patricia, thank you Doug and thank you to the Powell School for this opportunity.

Ladies and gentlemen, you will be relieved to hear that I’m not inclined to make a long speech. I would rather this be a conversation about the UN, about multilateralism, about the key challenges we all face. I look forward to hearing your views on what the nations of the world can do, or do better, to tackle some of these challenges.

First though, I’ll offer some thoughts from the Administration’s perspective, and we can take it from there.

I think most New Yorkers, and indeed most Americans, believe that the United Nations is an important body. Of course, the United States was instrumental in creating the United Nations, and did so in the context of two global conflicts and the resulting misery and devastation. It was created to provide a gathering place for all nations, for all voices, as a means to avoid conflict and promote a vision of the world as increasingly peaceful, inclusive, and focused on human development.

Since 1945 the United Nations has evolved a great deal, and its membership has asked it to assume many new responsibilities to respond to a rapidly changing world. UN agencies, organizations, and programs have proliferated. UN peacekeeping has grown dramatically. Budgets have seen commensurate growth.

And in the course of its existence, the UN has had no greater supporter and no stronger critic than the United States. But in 2013, I believe there is a truth that must guide our thinking about the United Nations, whatever our impressions of its current character. That truth is that today’s global challenges require a determined, unrelenting investment in multilateral diplomacy.

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 so we arrived at this year’s General Assembly determined to continue and expand that effort, in three broad categories:

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

As we give thought to the many tasks and challenges that fall within those categories, I believe it helps to view the UN as a work in progress. We, the member states, must give constant thought to how the UN can best address our shared concerns. What multilateral tools can and should be applied in specific circumstances. What tools are obsolete, which need to be reformed, recast, or reimagined?

The example of Syria is instructive, I believe. Beginning in 2011, Russia and China vetoed repeatedly proposed Security Council resolutions and blocked statements by the Council designed to condemn the Syrian regime’s violence and promote a political solution to the conflict. That frustrating reality has evolved considerably in recent weeks as the international community has returned to the Security Council to pursue constructive efforts toward a strong UN resolution that brings about the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons so the regime can never again use such weapons against its people. This would be huge.

So, yes, there are challenges, there are failings, there are weaknesses. But none, in my view, represents a threat too dangerous to diminish our commitment to building and employing multilateral institutions that serve our national interests and address issues that simply cannot be tackled unilateral or bilaterally.

Ladies and gentlemen, the UN is a convenient punching bag. Its critics target weaknesses in the institution, misbehavior by member states, or mismanagement by agencies, and the most severe of those critics would have the United States withdraw from the institution and turn its back on its international obligations.

I would respond to those voices by challenging them 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. Consider the likely state of the world without peacekeeping missions in our most unstable regions. Ponder a world in which global health threats arrive at U.S. shores without warning, or where there is no coordinated response to the threat of terrorism.

No one is suggesting that the United Nations is without its problems. Management and oversight flaws remain a challenge. Transparency in budgeting and expenditures must be improved. In fact, the United States pursues reform of UN processes and procedures as a relentless objective, and I would note that in the absence of the United States making those efforts from the inside, the progress we are making on reform would be impossible.

Let’s turn for moment to just a few of the global challenges I suggested earlier that are most responsive to multilateral engagement. Take, for example, global health. Our shrinking planet offers no hiding places from infectious disease and pandemic health threats. Ease of travel, regional instability, and migration means that health challenges can move from doorstep to doorstep with frightening speed. To address these threats, the nations of the world have created robust UN bodies, and chiefly the World Health Organization.

The United States complements and reinforces its strong support for WHO with focused initiatives including the Global Health Initiative and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Consider food security, where the UN plays an indispensible role in responding to hunger and malnutrition through agencies such as the World Food Program, and to systemic challenges to sustainability through the Food and Agricultural Organization. In addition to providing over 40% of the World Food Program’s resources, the United States in 2010 launched the Feed the Future, which seeks to complement and expand efforts by UN and other organizations by increasing investment in agricultural development and improved food and nutrition security.

Or give thought to how the world would respond to the threat posed by nuclear proliferation in the absence of the UN and its affiliated organizations. The United States and its Security Council partners have developed tough sanctions on Iran and North Korea, and have supported parallel efforts at the International Atomic Energy Agency to advance rigorous monitoring and reporting of the Iran program.

On global human rights issues, a similar story. 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. A controversial decision, but over the last several years, that decision has made a significant, positive difference on the Council, where we have promoted assertive action on Iran, Syria, Sudan, North Korea, Sri Lanka, Eritrea, and more. We have built and strengthened coalitions to galvanize action on new issues, including the first-ever UN resolution on LGBT rights (2011).

This is a tiny sample group, of course. The United Nations works in a dizzying number and variety of sectors. Climate change, economic development, education, environmental protection, etc. It also has relevance in sectors that may be less familiar to you. Did you know, for example, that:

• the International Civil Aviation Organization 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) 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?

Let me revert for a moment to the situation in Syria, which I believe is additionally instructive. We all appreciate the challenges encountered in the Security Council over the last couple of years. However, as the situation in Syria has become increasingly dire, the family of United Nations organizations continues to play an active and critical role, particularly in the humanitarian context.

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.

The point is this: the absence of Security Council action on Syria has not precluded 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 offer just one more example of where I believe the UN system has demonstrated a unique importance. We are rapidly approaching the Millennium Development Goal target date of 2015, and this week has featured several high level events to reflect on the progress made toward those goals and deliberate on the outlines of a post-2015 path. Some of you may recall that when the original MDGs were established, critics of the United Nations were quick to scoff at the notion of the UN playing a useful role in their promotion. And yet thirteen years later, that role has been critical to the progress made, and it is impressive progress.

• The proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been halved at the global level;

• over 2 billion people gained access to improved sources of drinking water;

• remarkable gains have been made in the fight against HIV and AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis;

• child mortality for children under 5 has been cut from 12 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011.

• the proportion of slum dwellers in the cities of the developing world is declining; and

• the hunger reduction target is within reach.

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.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to thank you for your kind attention and I would welcome your thoughts on global issues, multilateralism, or the Midtown circus currently underway.