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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Remarks to the East-West Center

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Honolulu, HI
December 3, 2010


Aloha and good afternoon. It is great to be here at the East-West Center.

When you look back over the past fifty years, the East-West Center has played a critical role in enhancing and promoting U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. We appreciate the Center’s longstanding and leading role, amplifying through public diplomacy and through your vast alumni network a message of international engagement and cooperation.

I am particularly honored to be here a little over a month after Secretary Clinton spoke at an event the East-West center co-hosted on America’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. She spotlighted that “much of the history of the 21st Century will be written in Asia – by the next generation of regional and global leaders in business and science, technology, politics, and the arts.”

As Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs at the Department of State, I run the bureau that manages the United States interaction with a host of international organizations, including the United Nations. In our engagement at the UN and internationally, I work on a wide range of critical global issues, including peace and security in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan; safeguards to prevent nuclear proliferation, human rights, economic development, climate change, global health, food security and much more.

Since taking office, the President’s repositioning of the United States internationally has both strengthened our security through concrete actions, and revitalized the multilateral system, giving hope to many around the globe.

Last May, the President released the U.S. National Security Strategy, which emphasizes that the United States must sustain international cooperation to meet the global challenges of the 21st Century.

The  National Security Strategy focused on the critical need to “spur and harness a new diversity of instruments, alliances, and institutions… requiring enhanced coordination among the United Nations, regional organizations, international financial institutions, specialized agencies, and other actors that are better placed or equipped to manage certain threats and challenges.”

To meet these global challenges, the United States has advocated a vision of a common security, based on mutual respect, mutual interest, and mutual responsibility within the international community, and bolstered by investments in our common humanity.

As the National Security Strategy makes clear, it is inconceivable to divorce our national security priorities from the sort of robust, sustained multilateral engagement envisioned by the Administration.

International organizations also allow the international community to set global standards, and provide support to help states to meet these standards, thereby reinforcing global norms.

Now, we fully understand and are cognizant that there are shortfalls in the international system. That is why we are looking to shape and create stronger international standards and institutions.

Vigorous American engagement in international and regional organizations is not without precedent. President Obama highlighted this point in a speech delivered last May at West Point, noting that, “America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation – we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don’t. We have to shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation.”

As the United States looks for common solutions, we are casting a wide net to work with many partners – including the United Nations, which remains the central organization in the web of international organizations – but with increasingly leading roles being played by regional bodies.

Today, I would like to focus our discussion especially on how these regional organizations are addressing many complex problems we face.

The Role of Regional Organizations

For the common solutions we seek to work, they need to have sufficient resources -- very often resources that far exceed what a single nation can muster. At the same time, programs often work best when applied as close as possible to the problem at hand – implemented with an understanding of the unique circumstances involved.

In between the UN and its technical agencies at the global level, and national and provincial governments at local levels, regional and sub-regional multilateral organizations are playing a unique and positive role, combining the power and resources of collective action with a keen understanding of local perspectives. These organizations draw their strength naturally from regional affinities in history, culture, language, climate, and trade.

Regional organizations are often the best place to deliver training and other capacity-building assistance to governments requiring priority attention. For example, the Inter-American Network for Labor Administration (RIAL) was created four years ago as the cooperation and technical assistance mechanism of the OAS Inter-American Conference of Ministers of Labor (IACML) to strengthen their human and institutional capacities. The Organization of American States also launched the Inter-American Social Protection Network in September 2009 to identify and promote proven ways to foster more equitable access to food, health care, education, housing, and jobs for the most vulnerable communities of the hemisphere.

Regional organizations have also been effective in mobilizing and legitimating cooperation among countries closest to the problem. We have seen this clearly in Haiti where – in cooperation with the UN – the OAS (Organization of American States) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have worked closely with Haitian authorities in building democratic institutions. Both the UN and OAS have been engaged consistently, in Haiti both before and after the earthquake, to support the country’s development.

We see the same pattern in Africa, where the African Union is working with the U.N. on peacekeeping operations in Somalia and Sudan, increasingly playing a direct role in helping to maintain international peace and security, as provided in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter.

At the same time, sub-regional organizations, like ECOWAS, the Economic Commission of West African States, are playing a greater role. Last year, the UN, AU, and ECOWAS cooperated in managing the response to violence in Guinea, in which over 100 people were killed. They worked closely to engage Guinea’s leadership in the wake of that crisis and to contribute to the work of the UN Commission of Inquiry that investigated the violence.

Moreover, regional organizations are becoming crucial in ensuring that their members follow through on their UN commitments. For example, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the OAS, CARICOM and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum have all taken steps to affirm the commitment of their members to implement UN Security Council resolution 1540 to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We know in the context of 1540 that that these organizations can use regional forums to discuss implementing legislation and how to share costs especially when resources are scarce.

And our ability to successfully combat terrorism and transnational crimes depends in large part on the extent to which we are able to engage the UN, regional groupings and nation states in a cooperative effort.

The U.S. Approach towards Regional Organizations

The Obama Administration is expanding U.S. engagement with regional bodies – both those in which we are a member, such as the OAS, NATO, OSCE, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and those in which we are only formal or informal observers, such as the AU and ASEAN.

We are open to establishing and enhancing our links with virtually all of them, with the goal of building partnerships to achieve results that benefit the United States and people around the globe.

To meet the challenge of expanded engagement, one of my first initiatives as Assistant Secretary was to create a new office of within the International Organizations bureau to focus especially on policy and regional organizations.

The State Department has also emphasized closer linkages with existing U.S. Missions to core regional institutions. For example, we have Ambassadors representing the United States at the U.S. Missions to the AU in Addis Ababa; the OAS in Washington; European Union (EU) in Brussels; and OSCE in Vienna. As you may be aware, the U.S. Ambassador to the ASEAN in Jakarta has been named and we expect will be confirmed soon.

While we are aware that these geographically distinct regional organizations differ greatly in their membership, political makeup, histories, and orientation, we believe that each can contribute to global security and to address global challenges.

To that end, the National Security Strategy outlines a flexible blueprint for U.S. engagement in regional organizations.

We are encouraging continued innovation and development of enhanced regional capabili­ties in the context of an evolving division of labor among local, national, and global institutions that seeks to leverage relative capacities.

Where appropriate, we use training and related programs to strengthen regional capacities for peacekeeping and conflict management to improve impact and share burdens.

We will also encourage a more comprehensive approach to regional security that brings balanced focus to issues such as food security, global health, and education, access to more affordable and greener forms of energy; access to fair and efficient justice; and efforts to promote transparency at all levels and to fight the corrosive effect of corruption.

I would like to touch quickly on regional organizations, in ASIA, that the United States is working with to further illustrate these points and highlighting our engagement and investment in regional organizations. I will focus today on ASEAN and APEC; of course the United States also has an intensive and productive relationship with the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), including on global multilateral issues such as climate change.


Given this continent’s dynamic economic growth and its new centers of influence, the President’s National Security Strategy spotlights Asia’s growing impact on American prosperity. It also highlights the need to take “substantial steps to deepen our engagement in the region, through regional organizations, new dialogues, and high-level diplomacy.”

The need for greater engagement is particularly acute in Southeast Asia, where ASEAN is an indispensable partner of the United States on a host of important global and regional issues. The U.S. and our ASEAN partners face similar challenges from climate change, the recent global financial and economic crisis, as well as traditional and non-traditional security concerns, and we want to work together to develop a more comprehensive and effective response to these pressing issues.

For example, we are actively engaging ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum to address nuclear proliferation and other persistent threats of the 21st century, including the full implementation by the international community of UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874 on North Korea and Resolution 1929 on Iran.

The Administration is working hard to strengthen our partnership with ASEAN and Southeast Asia. We have done this through our accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) in 2009, the nomination of the first-ever resident U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN (which I mentioned earlier), the opening of the first U.S. Mission to ASEAN in Jakarta, and Secretary Clinton’s recent participation in the East Asia Summit in Hanoi.

In addition, President Obama hosted the second U.S.-ASEAN leaders meeting in September. The results of this meeting were substantial for both sides. The Joint Statement of the Second U.S.-ASEAN Leaders Meeting expressed appreciation for the United States’ sustained engagement at the highest level with ASEAN Member States, and highlighted the idea of elevating the US-ASEAN partnership to a strategic level.

I also want to mention that our strong support for the creation within ASEAN of an Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), established one year ago. ASEAN has an important role to play in promoting human rights in the region, and its work can and should reinforce the work of global bodies.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with the members of the Commission during their weeklong visit to the U.S. for consultations with the U.S. government and UN institutions like the office of the UN High-Commissioner for Human Rights and with UNIFEM. We discussed U.S. human rights goals in the UN and encouraged engagement and cooperation by ASEAN member states with UN human rights bodies. It is also worth noting that Commission members were interested in deepening the exchange of best practices with our own regional human rights system, through the Inter American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), which we strongly support.

I want to reemphasize the message conveyed by colleagues at the State Department that the United States wants to assist ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries realize their goals for the promotion of human rights. We look forward to working with the Commissioners and ASEAN member states to strengthen the independence and impact of AICHR.

We appreciate the role that ASEAN member countries are playing in addressing the human rights challenges in the region. To that end, on Burma, I want to reiterate that we welcome the long-overdue release of Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. As Secretary Clinton stated, “we urge Burma’s leaders to break from their repressive policies and begin an inclusive dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratic and ethnic leaders towards national reconciliation and a more peaceful, prosperous, and democratic future.”


As Secretary Clinton often has stated, America’s future is linked to the future of the Asia-Pacific region. Therefore, I would be remiss, here at the East-West Center and in Hawaii, if I did not highlight our strong commitment to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. As you know, the East-West Center is playing an integral role in kicking off the APEC 2011 U.S. host year by hosting the Informal Senior Officials Meeting and Symposium next week (8-9 December).

It is not lost on any of us that APEC’s 21-member economies account for approximately 41percent of the world's population, approximately 50percent of world GDP and about 50percent of world trade.

Over the past twenty years, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) has successfully focused attention on the Bogor Goals of trade and investment liberalization, business facilitation, and economic and technical cooperation.

As a member of APEC, the United States is committed to working with the other economies in the Asia-Pacific region to promote economic recovery and ensure long-term economic growth and prosperity. In fact, in October, Secretary Clinton spoke about working through APEC, the G-20, and our bilateral relationships to advocate for more open markets, fewer restrictions on exports, more transparency, and an overall commitment to fairness.

The United States works within APEC to open markets in the Asia-Pacific region and connect them to American exporters. This includes eliminating barriers to trade and investment, creating better business environments, and building a level economic playing field in the region that will help Americans compete and succeed. APEC initiatives also lay the foundation for high standard; comprehensive trade agreements – including the Trans-Pacific Partnership – that will help the United States strengthen economic ties with the region.

APEC’s broader efforts also include enhancing energy security and efficiency, improving food and product safety, and empowering women as contributors to economic growth. I want to join Secretary Clinton in applauding APEC for hosting the first-ever APEC Women’s Entrepreneurship Summit in October. In addressing participants at the Summit, Secretary Clinton spoke about the critical role of women in “fulfilling the promise of this new century.”

The United States is looking forward to hosting the 2011 APEC Summit here in Hawaii. As Secretary Clinton has pointed out the U.S. wants APEC to “embrace a 21st century economic agenda,” and we stand ready to assist APEC as an important, results-oriented forum for driving shared and inclusive, sustainable economic progress.”


As you can see, the importance and influence of regional organizations are on the rise, and the U.S. government is committed to opening a new era of consultation, collaboration, and coordination with them, along with the UN, international financial institutions, specialized agencies and other international actors, to meet the global challenges and the threats before us.

I will end here. I look forward to your comments and questions regarding U.S. multilateral engagement with regional organizations, at the United Nations and across the international system. Thank you. Mahalo.

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