Speeches: Remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations
Thank you first and foremost to the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting today’s conversation and to Stuart for guiding it, and for that kind introduction. Thanks also to all of you for coming this afternoon for a discussion of the status, purpose, and value of multilateral diplomacy.
I’m here today in the context of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, whose Charter was signed in San Francisco on June 26, 1945. That Charter, and the lofty aspirations contained in it, remains very much at the center of today’s international system, a system that has evolved and expanded well beyond the vision of its earliest promoters. But a system that has endured – remarkably – and a Charter that retains relevance even some seven decades on.
My comments today are not intended to be retrospective, but rather a brief survey of the UN and the larger international system as it is today, and the qualities and capacities that I believe will be crucial for its continued relevance.
As I begin, I take the liberty of assuming your stipulation to some guiding realities:
First, that pressing transnational challenges are only growing in scope, scale, and variety. In this category, I might offer climate change, food security, pandemic health challenges such as Ebola, the threat of violent extremism, and more.
Second, that these varied challenges require often urgent and sometimes simultaneous multilateral action. This truth is perhaps most evident often in the case of humanitarian crises.
Third, that today’s remarkable connectivity accelerates the pace at which events become available to global audiences, and thus in turn accelerates the pace at which the international community is expected and called upon to respond.
And finally, that an international system unable to respond to these truths would quickly become irrelevant on the global stage.
Seventy years ago, the need for an international body to provide a convening authority and a constraint for disputing nations was obvious. And though it is true that since that day in San Francisco there have been few constants on the international stage, it is also true that a body that was conceived primarily as a means to prevent war among the great powers of the world has met that fundamental objective.
The original 50 signatories of the UN Charter have grown to 193. The modern international system comprises dozens of organizations and agencies, with responsibility for engaging on innumerable shared priorities, and – let’s be honest – more than a handful most of us have never heard of. Civil society networks have emerged as a powerful complement to multilateral tools, and globalization has fostered economic and cultural linkages that would have been unimaginable at the end of World War II.
And yet, across that timeline and in all those categories, American leadership within the international system has been steadfast and instrumental. Now, in making that statement, I acknowledge that from its earliest moments, the UN has been the source of discomfort in some segments of the U.S. political universe. That said, it is notable that for all of its seven decades, the UN and the evolving international system have enjoyed the strong support of U.S. administrations and the Congress.
But why? Why is the vitality and agility of the United Nations and other international organizations of such importance to the United States?
In its most simple expression, it comes to this – we ask the international system to do a great many things on our behalf, and on the whole it is genuinely and actively responsive in that regard.
Yes, there are failings in the system, frustrations inherent in its history and exploited by its membership. There are recurring instances of mismanagement and inefficiency. There is a deeply-rooted anti-Israel bias that rears its ugly head across the system. And there is a persistence of division, call it North vs. South, NAM vs. the West, or G77 vs. the likeminded, that seems almost unthinkable given how much has changed on the global stage since 1945.
But the challenges we face today require as never before the multiplier effect of an effective international system. And the reality is that with the UN, that means we must take the good with the bad – accept the shortcomings, because the benefits to the United States still far outweigh the stories that grab headlines.
So today I will briefly discuss the UN’s unique capability and capacity, where today’s international system succeeds, where it falls short, and why we must remain relentless in our efforts to push it toward improved effectiveness, efficiency, and innovation and expand our efforts to encourage UN member states to break through tired voting habits and stale thinking. Any discussion of where the international system works must be predicated on an acceptance that the system is messy. With 193 UN member states, division is not uncommon – but we also have to remember how much gets done by consensus, even in the unwieldy UN General Assembly.
And, frankly, if member states were all of one mind, the need for an international system would be far from obvious. No, clearly our differences illustrate the need, create opportunities for unanticipated partnerships, and can make multilateral accomplishments all the more resonant. They are, in fact, the source of the legitimacy that the UN bestows when it speaks to an issue of global concern.
So, where does one look for such accomplishments? I’ll offer a few examples in three broad categories. First, we find accomplishment where the international system effectively channels shared aspirations.
Take, for example, human rights and the UN Human Rights Council. This is a body that has been fairly criticized as providing solace and protection to some of the world’s worst human rights abusers while focusing with unrelenting, unhealthy attention on a single nation – Israel.
When the United States decided to seek election to the Council in 2009, it was with a determination to redirect the Council’s energies, refocus its purpose, and begin strengthening its reputation as the global focal-point for universal human rights.
In the succeeding years, we’ve achieved a great deal. In 2011, we led an effort to pass a groundbreaking resolution on the rights of LGBT persons – the first such resolution in the UN system. We supported the Latin Americans in taking the lead on the follow-on resolution this past September. We have worked with our partners to lift the veil of secrecy on the horrendous human rights abuses in North Korea at the hands of the regime and to get this issue on the agenda of the Security Council – a huge accomplishment.
We have also led a sustained effort to promote the investigation of and accountability for human rights violations in Sri Lanka, and in fact consistently promote the utility of focusing on country-specific situations to highlight some of the most distressing human rights situations around the world.
That effort has resulted in Commissions of Inquiry and Special Rapporteurs on the human rights situations in Iran, Syria, Belarus, Burma, and North Korea and independent experts on the situations in Sudan, Somalia, and Mali. We have also led efforts to pass important thematic actions to bolster freedoms of expression and association, the rights of women and girls, the protection of civil society, and much more.
And, I would note, that we have achieved this level of success in spite of the recurring presence on the Council of some of the world’s worst offender states.
It is also true that we have not succeeded in ending the ingrained bias against Israel, but we continue to advocate forcefully against that bias in the Human Rights Council and across the international system. In fact, as Secretary Kerry pointed out earlier this month, we have intervened on Israel’s behalf over the last two years a couple of hundred times in more than 75 different multilateral fora, both to defend it and to support its positive agenda.
This recent progress notwithstanding, the Human Rights Council will obviously never be flawless. But consider the outsized influence of this relatively small body of just 47 member states and the small Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. We measure that influence not just in the allergic responses often displayed by offender nations, but more meaningfully in the feedback we receive from civil society in those nations, who remind us frequently that Council action has a powerful impact on the ground.
Today, shared aspirations are evident across the UN system, from the heightened focus on gender issues, to strengthened humanitarian coordination across UN agencies, to the elevation of climate change and other (inaudible) issues, and in the energy and ambition fueling negotiations toward a Post-2015 Development Agenda.
Obviously, shared aspirations do not immediately or even necessarily equate to agreed action, but they serve to shape many of the conversations defining today’s multilateral diplomacy.
We also find accomplishment in the international system where it acts to promote peace and security. The headline institution here is of course the UN Security Council, which has not always warranted or enjoyed universal admiration. At times, disagreement between permanent members has inhibited action on urgent crises and Syria is an obvious example here.
But it should come as no surprise that in situations closest to our core interests, the United States and other permanent members won’t always – or even often – agree. And indeed the Council was created to give us a mechanism to air our differences and try to foster solutions without resorting to open conflict.
And where the P5’s interests align, the Security Council plays an indispensable role. We have continued to work effectively with Russia and the rest of the Council on combatting the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, on substantive actions to counter terrorism, counter piracy, on robust nonproliferation regimes targeting Iran and North Korea, on authorizing peacekeeping missions, and much more.
To be sure, the Council’s failures on matters such as Syria are as inexcusable as they are unsurprising. And over time, failure to act time and again to address front-burner issues could undermine the body’s legitimacy. But as often as that has been predicted it has been disproved, as even when we and others have acted without Council authorization, we have generally returned to the Council to bestow legitimacy and to coordinate on additional actions.
UN peacekeeping is also a widely-known UN peace and security tool, and lends itself well as an example of multilateral burden-sharing. UN peacekeepers, in fact, are currently the largest deployed military force around the world, with 16 missions and over 130,000 personnel today. We’ve had UN peacekeeping missions nearly as long as we’ve had the UN itself, and like the parent body, they have not always measured up. In particular, we see the challenge when missions are mandated to take actions they don’t deliver on, such as the protection of civilians.
We learned from the experiences of Rwanda, of the Balkans, and elsewhere that missions needed strengthened mandates to make clear the authority to use force and protect civilians. Today, more than 95 percent of peacekeepers serve in missions with a responsibility to protect civilians. Today, the problems we see relate more to how to plan for such operations, how to get host nations to do their job, how to make sure troop contributing countries are able and willing to enforce robust mandates – and a lack of the political underpinning needed to ensure missions’ success.
We are committed to modernizing peacekeeping missions and pressing to fill critical gaps and as the nation contributing over 28 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget and with a seat on the Security Council, we obviously have strong views. We are engaging with and support the new Independent Panel chaired by former President Jose Ramos-Horta to review UN peace operations, and in fact held serious discussions with panel members at the State Department on Tuesday.
Also earlier this week, both Ambassador Power and Deputy Secretary Blinken spoke forcefully on the continued U.S. commitment to peacekeeping and the gaps we are focused on filling, and President Obama will host a Peacekeeping Summit in New York in September.
Finally, we find accomplishment where the international system provides unique specialized and technical expertise. Consider, for example, the ongoing negotiations related to Iran’s nuclear program. While I want in no way to prejudge the outcome of those negotiations, I do think they offer an important reminder of the need to invest in credible international organizations. In this instance, I’m referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which occupies an indispensable place on the global stage as an authoritative technical entity.
As the Iran negotiations continue through the P5+1 process, the IAEA has the proven capacity to undertake the monitoring and verification roles that would likely be required of it under any agreement and that have been required to verify compliance under the Joint Plan of Action. Imagine how much more difficult these already highly technical and complex negotiations would be without the existence of this international agency.
In a similar vein, I think it fair to speculate that the international community would have struggled mightily to deal with the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles in the absence of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. I take little risk in suggesting that not all of knew about the OPCW before their services and capabilities were required in Syria, and the fact that those capabilities were employed effectively further endorses the sustained investment required to maintain the many and varied elements of our modern international system.
Now, these accomplishments are real, they are valuable, and in many cases they contribute directly to our national security. There are also, to be sure, areas in where the international system falls short, and while I have alluded to several already, they bear repeating.
First, there is one suite of issues that I believe represents one of the UN system’s biggest sustained failures. That is, of course, the treatment of Israel-Palestine issues.
There remains a persistent, corrosive bias against Israel in many UN fora, including the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, UNESCO, and beyond. It is made manifest in resolutions and commissions of inquiry, and reinforced by incendiary language and bloc voting. This bias diminishes every international body in which it is allowed to persist, and does nothing to advance the vision of a two-state solution in the Middle East.
Recently, more assertive Palestinian action has compounded the challenge. They have sought to elevate their status in the General Assembly and elsewhere across the UN system. They sought and won member state status at UNESCO, which triggered a legislative requirement that the U.S. cease funding that organization. They signed the Rome Statute and are seeking to employ the ICC to adjudicate questions that should be left to negotiations to resolve.
This appropriation of the international system is more than a dangerous precedent. It poses a threat to the legitimacy and viability of institutions, and provides ready ammunition to those who would seek to diminish U.S. leadership across the international system.
In a similar vein, the UN system is frequently and justifiably criticized for providing open venues for rogue states and bad global actors. I’ll brace myself for the laugh track when I tell you that Venezuela is on the Security Council and China, Russia, and Cuba are members of the Human Rights Council. Bloc voting can result in counterintuitive outcomes, and bad actors are sometimes determined to employ multilateral venues to advance goals antithetical to the hosting organization.
I think we can all agree that these realities are unfortunate at best and all too often corrosive and damaging. And there are times when the system in which we’ve invested so much just doesn’t perform as well or as quickly as we’d want – for example WHO being so slow off the mark in responding to the Ebola crisis.
Finally, in the category of shortcomings we need to make special note of continued management, transparency, and accountability failings. Such failings have a profound impact on the international system – damaged credibility, diminished impact, and justifiable exposure to critics. In this category I would include a long history of poorly managed or mismanaged budgets, a sclerotic personnel system, an opaque response to crises such as sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers.
The United States is at the forefront of efforts across the UN system to promote the positive evolution in the management cultures of all organizations and agencies. Sometimes we feel a little lonely in that position, but our sustained focus on these issues is beginning to make a difference. There is more budget transparency and accountability in many organizations today. There are more robust investigation tools. There is momentum toward addressing the lack of uniform whistleblower protections.
These steps and others are important, but we must be unrelenting in our demand for continuous, thoughtful evolution of the UN’s psychology and physiology.
In order to see that evolution realized, member states must care, and many do, including of course the United States. We care because we’ve built this system to manage shared responses to global challenges. As many before me have said, if the United Nations didn’t exist, we would almost certainly have to invent it – and I’m not sure in today’s world, that we could.
The United Nations at 70 shows some of its age, to be sure. But the questions facing the global community today demand an invigorated international system, not an internment. And that system is trying to get a lot done this year – in its 70th year – from major negotiations on post-2015 and climate, to peacekeeping reform, to addressing the threats of (inaudible) by violent extremism, to negotiations around the UN budget, to major discussions on internet governance and cyber security and Security Council reform. And let’s not forget the geopolitical shifts that underlie all these questions – from a revanchinist Russia to an increasingly assertive India, China, and Brazil.
Indeed, in some ways this seems like a test year for the UN system: can it still deliver on the kinds of big-ticket multilateral agenda items it is trying to get done? Can it prove that it has evolved and is continuing to evolve to take on new challenges? Will we and other member states continue to see value in using this system – will it continue to deliver for us?
These important questions will all be tested as the year proceeds, and I hope I’ve given some flavor today of why it’s so important that the answers continue to be “yes.”
For now, I want to thank you very much for your attention this afternoon, and I look forward to our conversation.