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Diplomacy in Action

The Role and Relevance of Multilateral Diplomacy in U.S. Foreign Policy

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Washington, DC
January 11, 2011


(As prepared)

Esteemed colleagues and guests,

Before I begin, I’d like to express my appreciation to the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) for proposing and organizing this valuable event, and for dedicating the December issue of the Foreign Service Journal to the topic we gather to discuss today - multilateral diplomacy.

To begin, I’d like to take a moment to say how grateful I am for the opportunity to speak with an audience that is deeply committed to advancing American goals and priorities through diplomacy, and one that is full of women and men whose careers have featured significant accomplishments in the multilateral arena. It is a pleasure to engage you today on what is a rapidly evolving multilateral playing field – an evolution that might even surprise some of you who have recently worked in or on related issues.

This new reality stems partially from the rapidly expanding international system, which is ever-more integrated, more interconnected, more globalized. And while we often talk about globalization, or global systems, that shorthand truly fails to capture the true breadth and depth of this new era of international interaction. It’s trade, political, security and economic interaction, of course. But it’s also transportation, research, educational and cultural exchange, development, health, science, electronic communications, and a list that continues to grow.

For the United States, and particularly for the Department of State, this global evolution presents challenges, to be sure, but also and more importantly, new opportunities for the exercise of American diplomacy in pursuit of our national interests.

Indeed, it was at least in part the rapidly changing nature of how we conduct diplomacy that prompted the Secretary to launch the QDDR.

In releasing the QDDR last month, she neatly summarized its intent, noting “It’s not enough simply to keep up with all of this change. We must stay ahead of it.”

I’m sure you all have had time to read the entire QDDR cover to cover by now, and in so doing you no doubt noted the invigorated emphasis on multilateral diplomacy threaded throughout its pages.

From my own active involvement in the QDDR process, I was impressed by the overwhelming consensus within our own foreign affairs community on the need for more robust and sustained multilateral diplomacy. Music to my ears, I can assure you.

On the other hand I was not surprised. We know that it is inconceivable for the United States to divorce our national security priorities from the sort of robust, sustained multilateral engagement envisioned by the Administration. The United States embraces multilateral engagement at the UN and elsewhere, not for the sake of engagement alone, but because it benefits our security, prosperity and freedom.

So how do we imagine the QDDR and its findings, which emphasize multilateral diplomacy, play out in the short and medium term? Let me begin by saying that some of the changes envisioned in the QDDR are already underway, and indeed I would go so far as to say that when it comes to how we think about multilateral issues, the Department already is exercising some new muscles.

When I became the IO Assistant Secretary almost two years ago – incidentally, I was charged with, among other things, helping the President make real his era of engagement – an era when the U.S. voice would be heard across the broadest spectrum of multilateral channels, U.S. leadership would activate the positive development of troubled institutions, and U.S. initiative would ensure more effective UN action in a host of areas.

In support of this vision, with the determined support of Secretary Clinton I launched an effort, early on, to reorganize the IO Bureau to enable a more integrated view of U.S. engagement with the multilateral world. That reorganization included improved alignment of personnel within and across three organizing cones: peace and security, human security, and global systems.

Peace and security is self evident. Human Security relates to those issues that promote wellbeing, including food security, health and sustainable development. Global systems refers to those frameworks that help us deal with transnational threats, such as nuclear proliferation, and global spaces such as telecommunications, maritime, air safety, space and postal operations.

That realignment was part of a broader process designed to promote a more integrated view of the full scope of international organizations and their activities, and the important foreign policy work the United States undertakes at international organizations. This process is improving our ability to identify gaps in U.S. engagement, overlap in resources and priorities, and perhaps most importantly, to fulfill one of the key mandates in the QDDR – to integrate our bilateral, regional, and multilateral diplomacy.

In that context, I note with some pride that in all the 200-some pages of the QDDR, only one State Department office is mentioned by name, and that is IO’s new office of Policy, Regional, and Functional Organizations. PRF, as we call it, was launched just over a year ago, and is helping bridge a gap probably all too familiar to many of you: – regional and functional organizations, despite their growing influence, have to date not consistently been included as part of the Department’s broader multilateral conversation.

In this category, belong political and economic bodies, that bureaus across the Department deal with intensively on a daily basis, such as the G-8, G-20, World Bank, and IMF; important regional organizations worldwide, including the Organization of American States, the African Union, ECOWAS, and ASEAN; cross-cutting entities like the Organization of the Islamic Conference; and others.

In the past, these organizations were not fully included in U.S. discussions of how to exercise our multilateral influence, but today we can apply lessons, and mesh our broader multilateral diplomatic efforts seamlessly from the UN system to non-UN international organizations.

Recent events in Cote d’Ivoire underscore the importance of these very efforts, where the U.S. response to a worrying situation on the ground blends bilateral diplomacy and activity in the UN system, but also integrates our approach not only with states in the region but also the regional organization (ECOWAS) as well as the African Union.

In short, the effort I’m describing is not only a response to the changing multilateral landscape; it also stems from the reality that for a growing number of transnational challenges – including climate change, nuclear proliferation, regional conflict, and economic development –our policy goals are more likely to be effective if we integrate all the tools at our disposal.

Today many of our foreign policy priorities we address in the multilateral system are by definition among the most difficult and complex ones we face – for if they could be solved solely through traditional bilateral diplomacy or settled at the regional level, chances are they would not have found their way onto an already busy multilateral agenda.

Even for these pressing challenges, the QDDR recognizes that the United States is not faced with an either/or situation: we must approach complex and transnational problems from multiple perspectives, blending bilateral, regional, and multilateral responses to achieve solutions.

In an expanding multilateral world with numerous borderless challenges, the United States cannot expect a return to the days when statecraft meant two Foreign Ministers speaking across a boardroom table. The QDDR makes it clear:

“The United States cannot and should not shoulder the burden of the range of transnational threats and challenges facing the international community alone. It is imperative that we partner with other countries, enlist their support, and expect that they shoulder their share of the burden. That burden-sharing is facilitated by a strong relationship with states that share our interests, U.S. leadership in global institutions like the United Nations, and a pragmatic approach to scores of multilateral institutions and agreements.”

Now, let me share just a few thoughts on what I believe the increased focus on multilateral engagement means for today’s Foreign Service. First, I am convinced that this changing diplomatic landscape requires the sort of professional agility for which the Service is rightly famous.

I noted in my Journal interview that multilateral diplomacy requires a particular skill set –including a flexible mind set. I see those skills on display every day at the Department, and not just in IO or at IO missions – but it seems apparent to me that we can and must do more to strengthen the Service’s multilateral muscles through new and better training opportunities, recognition, and reward.

We have taken some first steps in that regard. Last year IO helped launch a new interagency multilateral training seminar at the Foreign Service Institute. This is an effort we envision blossoming into a fuller range of exposure for FSOs at all levels.

Last year we also drew together Ambassadors who currently serve in multilateral posts – including both IO posts and other multilateral posts around the world, including the AU, OAS and OECD, for the first-ever Multilateral Chiefs of Mission conference, to discuss issues ranging from peace and security, management and reforms, human rights and greater collaboration.

We hope that these early actions can be continued and expanded, and that one day in the near future we won’t be talking about the importance of integrating multilateral engagement, we’ll just be talking about engagement.

I will take just a few more moments of your time, because I am as keen as you are to launch our discussion on these issues. In that light, I’ll make brief mention of key recent multilateral issues and note what I believe to be the Administration’s recent multilateral accomplishments and some thoughts on key directions for 2011.

On peace and security issues, for example, 2010 was exceptionally busy, and we have been constantly reminded of the important burden-sharing role that UN peacekeeping missions play.

For example, last January MINUSTAH, the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, was tragically crippled by its own loss of leadership and personnel. Bouncing back with the support of the U.S., UN and international community MINUSTAH responded admirably following the January 12 earthquake in Haiti, and it has continued to play a critical role in providing security and facilitating and coordinating the delivery of humanitarian aid.

In Sudan, the UN peacekeeping mission addressing the North-South conflict has played a key role in preparing for the referendum that began in Southern Sudan on Sunday. In Cote d’Ivoire the UN mission on the ground carried out its mandated responsibility to certify credible election results and UN peacekeepers are involved in physically keeping the peace in an increasingly tense situation on the ground. In these critical missions we see every day the valuable role UN peacekeeping missions can play.

To this end, U.S. leadership on the Security Council in this context remains absolutely vital, and we have renewed our efforts to ensure that peacekeeping missions have the proper leadership, planning, capacity and budget to accomplish their mandates. We have focused intently on persistent gaps in peacekeeping missions – gaps between ambitious mandates and the UN’s capacity to carry them out, between the political support needed and that provided, and between the material needs of the missions and the resources provided to them.

2010 also saw important Security Council action to devise and enact tough new sanctions in response to Iran’s ongoing nuclear program, modeled on the stringent sanctions the Council passed in 2009 against North Korea. It is in this context that the United States has exercised reinvigorated support for the various sanctions Groups and Panels of Experts. Their fact-finding work helps to bridge a crucial gap between sanctions enactment and sanctions enforcement.

On human rights issues, the last year has also been one of extraordinary activity. We marked our first year on the Human Rights Council, where we see progress toward our overarching goal of a more active and credible Human Rights Council that works to protect and defend universal human rights.

2010 saw increased focus by the HRC, frequently led by the United States in conjunction with key countries in the relevant regions, on country-specific human rights situations ranging from Cote d’Ivoire to Kyrgyzstan, reversing the Council’s too-frequent inattention to pressing areas of human rights concern. And in September, the HRC established a new Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and Association and the creation of new expert Working Group on Discrimination Against Women.

In the year to come, we will continue to exercise leadership on the Council to expand its consideration of country-specific human rights mechanisms, and make our voice heard in the ongoing review of the Human Rights Council to reinforce its intended role as the dedicated multilateral forum for the defense of universal human rights.

Even more briefly, I will note for the purposes of our discussion the President’s groundbreaking efforts to redefine U.S. development assistance, including his ambitious food security initiative known as Feed the Future, as well as the Global Health Initiative, a focused strategy designed to make significant improvements to health systems as they relate to child mortality, maternal health, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. These and other development initiatives, in which multilateral organizations play a central role, have as their impetus the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

I will conclude today with a quick thought on a theme which influences much of our strategic thinking, particularly with regard to the United Nations system, and that is ensuring that U.S. taxpayer funds are used effectively and efficiently.

It will astonish none of you when I say that we remain short of that goal – the UN’s management practices require improvement, and that necessity is a feature of all our conversations with UN leadership. I want to be clear that when the United States presses the UN to make management reforms or launches initiatives to do so, it is our goal to strengthen the UN, not tear it down.

To that end, we have been forceful but collaborative, leading the charge to improve accountability and ensure that UN officials safeguard resources; promoting new tools to improve the UN’s capacity to maintain those complex peacekeeping missions I just mentioned and working across the UN system to enhance transparency and develop a more rational budget process.

We’ve even expanded our own knowledge base in IO; I added an advisor on effectiveness to the bureau, whose role is to systematically review the effectiveness of international organizations and promote rigorous evaluation standards that the organizations themselves can take up, to expand their own capacity for self-improvement.

There is so much more that we can discuss from a multilateral perspective, but I will stop there, and look forward to your questions on these and other issues as part of our discussion. Thank you.

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