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Diplomacy in Action

Remarks Before the World Affairs Council of Northern California

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
San Francisco, CA
October 29, 2009


I’d like to begin by expressing my sincerest thanks to the World Affairs Council of Northern California and the Commonwealth Club for so graciously offering to organize this event, and to you all for taking time from your busy schedules to discuss what I think you would agree is a remarkable evolution in U.S. foreign policy.

My intention this evening is to spend some time describing a few of the salient features of what President Obama has termed an ‘era of engagement,’ as well as some of the early frontiers of that era. Before I do that, however, just a word on why I’m here.

I’ve been in my current position at the State Department for about seven months, but in and around government for many years, and I came to this position determined to seize frequent opportunities to meet with interested Americans around the country to discuss and explain foreign policy priorities, and to listen to their thoughts and recommendation on those same priorities.

Over the coming year, I intend to make several trips like this one to discuss the value and direction of U.S. engagement with the United Nations, and to solicit feedback from some of the great many Americans, such as yourselves, who are interested in and knowledgeable about multilateral affairs.

With one of the world’s largest and most globally integrated economies, and in light of the leading role the state is playing on global issues such as climate change, California was a logical starting point for this effort. And, frankly, where better to discuss the Administration’s multilateral agenda than in San Francisco, a city inextricably linked to the birth of the United Nations?

I’d like to frame my thoughts about this new era with an important and I believe self-evident premise – that we live in an increasingly interconnected world, and that those connections encompass a broad and growing network of actors and decision makers in international society: individuals, national governments, media, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector.

This expanding network is perhaps most visible in and through the family of UN and other international organizations, a fact which I believe argues for invigorated engagement across the spectrum of multilateral institutions.

I believe that for two key reasons – first, because engagement with these various multilateral bodies directly supports U.S. national security interests – interests, I might add, that encompass classic security challenges such as nuclear proliferation as well as new concepts such as food security and civilian protection issues.

Secondly, because our active engagement with a host of UN and other international organizations secures and extends significant and tangible benefits to American citizens and the American economy. Let me elaborate on the second of these points before discussing in greater detail the Administration’s early multilateral priorities.

I’ll begin by noting that while some Americans are longstanding supporters, others express outright hostility toward what they consider an inefficient and anarchic institution, and many other Americans have what I would term ambivalent feelings toward the UN and our participation therein. While most of us are familiar with the fact that our country is the leading financial supporter of the UN, and perhaps with our leading role as part of the Security Council, far fewer Americans are aware of the return on this investment in international cooperation and dialogue.

Take for example, intellectual property rights – an issue of considerable interest and concern to states like California that are home to some of the most innovative and imitated industries in the world. How do you as California businesses and investors ensure that your intellectual property rights are respected and protected outside the borders of the United States? How would the state’s film and music industries, for example, survive without a legal framework through which to protect their products?

The World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, is a specialized UN agency charged with addressing just that challenge. Every year, WIPO facilitates more than a quarter of a million international patent applications from American individuals and businesses, and maintains the system to safeguard those patents under a regime of several international treaties.

This global system, though imperfect, advances the protection of these crucial rights, which in turn encourages continued creativity, innovation, and economic development in California and around the world. WIPO does what no single state or nation, and certainly no single business can achieve, and it does so with the active support and participation of the United States.

Consider another of California’s signature economic engines –shipping. Long Beach Harbor, for example, is among the busiest seaports in the world, handling more than 5,000 ships and 80 million metric tons of cargo a year. The global shipping industry’s regulatory framework, including safety, security, and environmental standards, security, are overseen by another UN specialized agency, the International Maritime Organization, or IMO.

IMO treaties, standards, and guidelines ensure the smooth and efficient flow of trade between seaports around the world, and more specifically advance important industry norms, such as Long Beach’s pioneering environmental protection programs. IMO oversight also directly serves the larger national interest by applying security requirements to foreign vessels entering ports in Long Beach, San Francisco, and throughout the United States.

In a similar vein, the International Civil Aviation Organization or ICAO (eyeKAYo) ensures that international passenger and cargo flights are handled in a uniform manner from takeoff to landing. Think about that for just a moment. Pilots departing San Francisco International going to Manila, Tokyo, or Hong Kong do so in full confidence that they will be able to communicate with air traffic controllers at their destination, receive necessary flight and landing data, and understand airport layout upon their approach. This is no accident.

ICAO’s standardized procedures enhance technical and operational aspects of international civil aviation, including safety, security, air traffic services, training and technical assistance, and environmental matters. As with the International Maritime Organization, ICAO facilitates efficient and secure trade and transport, without which the global economy would be severely inhibited.

One final example that should resonate with California audiences – global communications. Since the first International Telegraph Convention was signed in 1865, the world community has adopted a cooperative approach to the development and coordination of new communication tools. As the telegraph gave way to telephonic and radio communication, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was born to coordinate international standards of electronic communication.

That role continues today through ITU’s management of global radio frequencies for broadcasting, mobile phones, satellites, wireless internet, and disaster operations. Imagine the implications for California’s multi-billion dollar tech and communications industries of a world without such an institution, or without U.S. support for that institution.

So when you consider, for example, how the world is responding to the threat of pandemic influenza, how letters and packages get delivered around the world, or how nations exchange important weather information, you should assume a UN organization is playing a role, and that the United States is a supporter of that role.

Now, I also noted at the outset of my remarks that multilateral engagement directly serves U.S. national security interests, and I would like to take a few minutes to elaborate on that statement.

In the largest sense, credible U.S. leadership at the United Nations diminishes operating space for those who might desire weakened global systems. The President understands this truth, and speaking at the UN last month, he said:

"I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust. Part of this was due to misperceptions and misinformation about my country. Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others. And this has fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism, which too often has served as an excuse for collective inaction."

And so, the President has launched the era of engagement, and has called upon the nations of the world to forsake the old pattern of seeking refuge in our differences and instead assume shared responsibility for tackling the pressing challenges of our time.

This era is already changing the multilateral landscape, opening doors long shut, restarting conversations long ceased, and giving new impetus to efforts to address our most vexing shared challenges, from classic security challenges such as nuclear proliferation, to new concepts of security such as the threat posed by climate change. Ultimately, it is the decision to take these issues back to the United Nations and other international organizations, to enable multilateral institutions to fulfill their intended roles, that makes real the President’s commitment.

Take, for example, nonproliferation issues. Early in his Administration, the President took the momentous decision to recommit to the goal of a nuclear free world. As the world’s original nuclear state, the U.S. action has particular resonance. But the President went much further. He determined that the goal can not be reached in isolation, but rather in partnership with the international community.

Last month he took the issue to the UN Security Council, where he became the first U.S. President to chair a session of that body. The symbolism notwithstanding, the President had a specific objective, an objective that found form in Security Council Resolution 1887, which expressed the Council’s grave concern about the continuing threat of nuclear proliferation, and called for concrete actions by all UN member states, not just the United States, to work toward a world without nuclear weapons.

The United States will lead this effort, including working diligently towards a START follow-on treaty, seeking ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, moving toward restarting negotiations on a verifiable Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, and preparing for next year’s Non- Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

Climate change is also an illuminating example, and here too the President has charted a bold course – a key feature of which is of course investment in domestic action – action often best viewed right here in California. At the same time, he has repeatedly underscored the need for assertive global action on what must be a shared global response.

As a result, he has triggered a fundamental shift in the U.S. approach to this issue, a shift which includes assuming a leading and constructive voice in the ongoing UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations. These negotiations are intended and expected to yield a meaningful successor to the Kyoto Protocol, a result the United States is eager to see realized.

I mentioned at the outset that the President’s era of engagement encompassed both classic and new concepts of security. One of the issues that until recently fell outside the classic concept of security is gender-based violence, including violence against women and girls in post-conflict zones.

The fact that Secretary Clinton is a global figure on women’s rights and empowerment issues goes without saying. Among the most recent demonstrations of this fact was her trip to Africa where she spent time in the Democratic Republic of Congo meeting with victims of gender-based violence and exploring the many vulnerabilities women and girls face in conflict and post-conflict situations. She returned from that trip to chair a September session of the UN Security Council, specifically called to address Women, Peace and Security in Armed Conflict. The result of this groundbreaking session was Security Council Resolution 1888 outlining the need for urgent action to meet the needs of women and girls in post-conflict situations.

I am very pleased to note that there has been exciting recent multilateral action. In early September, and with firm U.S. support, the UN General Assembly approved Resolution 311, which establishes a path toward a consolidated and strengthened UN gender architecture.

The intent of this resolution is to create a single UN gender entity that will be empowered to more effectively, more coherently, more globally promote women’s rights, gender equality, and empowerment. Frankly, for too long those efforts have been segmented and at times disassociated, poorly resourced, or without clear authority.

Despite being more than three years in the making, this effort now has new momentum, and the goal of a unified gender platform combining the skills and energies of four existing entities* should be ample motivation to move quickly toward that goal. The United States will work vigorously with other member states in that effort.

(* UNIFEM, the Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, and the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women)

Another of the issues which falls inside this new, expanded concept is food security. Indeed, given the fact that upwards of one billion of the world’s people are undernourished, it can hardly be viewed in any other context. Here again, President Obama is taking bold action to not just respond to the challenge, but to materially alter the global architecture and approach underpinning current food security efforts.

In April, the G20 met in London, where the President again prompted international action first through his domestic leadership. In this instance, he announced his intention to ask Congress to double U.S. agricultural development assistance to more than $1 billion in 2010 and at least $3.5 billion over the next three years. This request, and the President’s accompanying vision, effectively catalyzed an invigorated international response that has to date generated more than $20 billion in new resources to tackle this challenge.

The intent here is clear. We must identify and support a more comprehensive global approach that closes the gap between development and humanitarian assistance. Secretary of State Clinton elaborated this approach last month, and it includes:

  • increased investment in sustainable and country-led agricultural-led growth;
  • expanded efforts to prevent and treat under-nutrition;
  • alignment of U.S. policy and development efforts around common goals; and
  • accountable programs, with benchmarks and targets.

Just to further clarify, this new effort will in no way diminish U.S. leadership in humanitarian food assistance programs. The United States is and will remain the world’s largest contributor to such programs, including through the UN World Food Program.

A word about another key issue that is undergoing an important evolution at the UN with key U.S. input: peace operations. Here again, the President has identified a key security issue that merits enhanced and expanded attention on the UN stage, and he has taken steps to invigorate the related conversation. While in New York, we met with leaders from of Top Troop-Contributing Countries to discuss means of strengthening peace operations and hear their views on steps toward that end. As a result of that meeting and additional consultations, the Administration is working to:

  • Ensure that mandates for peacekeeping operations are credible and achievable;
  • Intensify efforts to mediate conflicts and revive flagging peace processes;
  • Expand the pool, capacity, and effectiveness of troop and police contributors;
  • Help the UN mobilize critical enabling assets, such as field hospitals, engineers, transport, and aviation units and is willing to consider contributing more U.S. military officers, civilian police and civilian personnel to UN missions; and
  • Increase attention to peace-building activities that can build up the national governments capacity to take over from UN peacekeepers, particularly in the realms of governance, security, and the rule of law.

One final example of this changing multilateral landscape, this time in relation to human rights and specifically the U.S. decision to join the UN Human Rights Council. The Council has been the target of some justified criticism, particularly with respect to their repeated and largely unhelpful treatment of Middle East issues. As a result, our decision to join the Human Rights Council was not entered into lightly, and was reached based on a clear and hopeful vision of what could be accomplished there.

Here again, the President recognized an opportunity to reinforce the crucial purpose of multilateral fora, and the U.S. voice therein. We assumed a seat on the Council in June with a clear sense of the associated challenges, and I am pleased to report that we have had an early success. Earlier this month, the Council adopted by consensus a resolution affirming the fundamental universal values of freedom of speech, opinion, expression, and freedom of the media.

The obvious importance of such a resolution is amplified by a twist: This resolution had two sponsors; the United States and Egypt. The President took office talking about extending an open hand, looking for new avenues of cooperation and understanding. He expanded on this spirit in his June 4 Cairo speech. I would suggest to you that this resolution, and on a larger scale, the full range of issues upon which the United States is reengaging, is exactly what the President intended.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I do not want to leave the impression that the Administration believes engagement renders all adversaries powerless and overcomes all obstacles. There will be setbacks, member states will disagree. Diplomacy is not a zero-sum game, and will harbor both discord and harmony. As the President has said, the UN is an imperfect, yet indispensible organization.

So, we will engage. We will work with the UN to make it more effective, more efficient, more agile, and fully intent upon its founding ideals. I am firm in my belief that this is an approach that will lead the United States to a more secure future

Ladies and Gentlemen, I will end my comments there, am eager to hear your thoughts and recommendations on the Administration’s approach to multilateral affairs.

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