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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

National Model UN

Dean Pittman
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Washington, DC
October 25, 2013


Thank you Shelly for that kind introduction and to Congressman Davis for so graciously hosting today’s opening ceremonies. I am delighted to be with you all today, and congratulate you on your participation in this terrific program.

You’re obviously a community of young people interested in international affairs, the art of diplomacy, and the concept of multilateralism. In fact, Model UN is pretty often the first step to a life of international engagement, so, welcome aboard!

I’d like to begin my comments today by making a bold but simple statement: the United Nations is important. Radical I know. But, to be fair, there are some who would disagree with that statement.

The UN has its issues, its weaknesses, its failures. Critics often suggest that the United States would be better off without the UN, better off not having to accommodate the views and positions of other nations, better off not seeking common ground on thorny issues like climate change, or food security.

I can understand that impulse, and with your experience participating in Model UN, I imagine you understand that impulse too. After all, wouldn’t it be easier to exist on an island of our own, separated from the perils of the modern world? Wouldn’t it be simpler to remain disengaged from conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, or difficult political evolutions in places like Afghanistan and Iraq?

Unfortunately, there are no islands anymore, certainly not for the United States. Our interests are truly global in nature. To protect and promote those interests, our engagement must also be global, and there must be a focal point to organize and facilitate that engagement. For the last 60+ years, that focal point has most often been the United Nations. Let me give you an example: World War Z. When the world was threatened by hordes of zombies, the first group called was the United Nations!

But seriously, year after year, challenge after challenge the UN continues to demonstrate its importance and its relevance. It has provided a space in which the nations of the world could address their differences and pursue a shared vision of peace, security, and human development. Has that space always been employed effectively? No. We need only look at the Security Council’s inconsistent performance related to Syria to answer that question.

But over that period, the UN has responded to conflict and potential conflict with undeniable, positive effect. It has gradually built a capacity to respond to humanitarian crises, natural and otherwise, that makes it indispensible in times of acute need. It has grown in scope and scale to include agencies and organizations that support shared aspirations on health issues, human rights, development, economic growth, and much more.

In other words, the United Nations responds to the demands of its member states in tackling a dizzying array of evolving challenges, providing a venue for deliberation of these challenges and a host of shared goals. I think that’s part of what makes Model UN such a popular and useful endeavor – recreating the diversity inherent in a typical UN meeting includes making space for all voices and all perspectives, even those we might at times views as outrageous or even obnoxious.

In my position at the State Department, I have the good fortune to see some of this diverse interaction play out in real time. Just a few weeks ago, we concluded the high-level segment of this year’s UN General Assembly. As you all know very well, this annual event draws together world leaders of every stripe, and is whirlwind of issues and events.

But this year’s UNGA, as we call it, was particularly dynamic, and for Model UN junkies such as yourselves, indicative of the growing importance of multilateral diplomacy. Take Syria, for example. After more than two years of frustration at the Security Council, the swift emergence of a plan to destroy the regime’s chemical weapons put a charge into the international community. That charge was palpable in New York, as delegations and other interested parties scrambled to keep up with the rapidly evolving initiative. This was old-fashioned diplomacy practiced in real time.

Consider also what has been called a “charm offensive” by new Iranian President Rouhani. In New York, the new tone presented by Rouhani sparked conversations across the assembled delegations, with many wondering if these comments represented a meaningful diplomatic opening. As you know, the United States and our partners have seized the opportunity to test that premise, and conversations with the Iranians have been ongoing since, all focused on the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

These two issues in particular revealed just how meaningful, dynamic, and real multilateral diplomacy can be. Look, there are lazy criticisms leveled at the United Nations all the time. You’ve heard many of these: when UN bureaucrats cut red tape, they cut it lengthwise.

We get it – the UN can be unwieldy. But give thought for a moment to whether or not the recent diplomatic progress on Syria or Iran would have been possible without it. Or how might we have proceeded with the program to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons without the Chemical Weapons Convention, which established the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons)? How would we be in a position to challenge the Iranian regime’s claims about its nuclear program without the International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring and reporting?

Or, what the world look like today without the contribution of UN peacekeeping over the last six decades? Today, there are more than 100,000 peacekeepers working in some of the world’s most persistent conflicts and fragile states. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Darfur, Lebanon, for example. These missions represent a collective international effort, and a cost-effective investment for the United States. We can’t be the world’s policeman and nor should we, particularly when we have this means of sharing the responsibility with the nations of the world.

There are many such examples, and they remind us that the assembled nations of the world have built an international system on purpose, and in response to needs that are shared and goals that are agreed. Perfect, no. Indispensible, yes.

Now, many of you have no doubt been participating in Model UN for a number of years, others may be very new to it. I hope that all of you, however, recognize that the Obama Administration has adopted a “bear hug” approach to the multilateral system. What I mean by that is that the President instructed the State Department and other federal agencies to identify every venue in which U.S. national interests could be protected or advanced, and engage in those venues with vigor.

The President refers to this as the “era of engagement.” Today, the United States is engaged across the international system as never before, in what I see as an unrelenting investment in multilateral diplomacy.

That investment is obvious in some places, such as the Security Council and the General Assembly. But let me give you an example that may be less known to you and also reveals the important impact of the Administration’s efforts.

In 2009, the United States sought and won election to the UN Human Rights Council. This decision was not taken lightly and was highly controversial. The Human Rights Council was the successor to the justifiably-maligned Human Rights Commission, and was intended to correct some of the institutional issues that had rendered the Commission a failure.

Unfortunately, the early pattern by the Council was not promising. It continued to give full voice to human rights offenders, not defenders. It continued the practice of focusing the bulk of its attention on one state – Israel. It failed to respond to human rights crises with meaningful action.

So, the United State had a choice – continue to criticize the Council from the sidelines, or jump into the mix and endeavor to redirect the Council from within. Given the President’s vision, that decision was obvious, and since we joined the Council, our presence, energy, and determination have made an important difference. We have successfully promoted Council action on country-specific human rights issues, including on Syria, Iran, Sudan, North Korea, Cote d’Ivoire, Cambodia, Belarus, Sri Lanka, and Eritrea.

We have built and strengthened coalitions to galvanize support for landmark action on LGBT rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. Those coalitions have often crossed traditional lines of division, demonstrating that common ground can be found on important human rights issues. Today, the Human Rights Council is a more active, assertive, and credible institution, and I think the United States can be proud of its role in that evolution.

My point is this. The United States does itself no favors by absenting itself from international conversations. We have a crucial voice on most of the issues under discussion, whether its internet governance, agricultural development, or maritime trade issues.

I want to applaud your interest in the multilateral world. It’s vital that your generation continues to expand the conversation. There are now more than 3 billion people under the age of 30. Around the world, we've seen these young people use their voice to demand opportunity and respect. Whether mobilizing for climate change, or demanding democracy and equality, young people are key drivers of change in our 21st century world.

With the explosion of new communication tools, connecting across cultures and communities has never been easier. It will fall to you, those young people most attuned to the issues of the day, to drive that conversation, to promote shared spaces, and shared aspirations.

In that context, I have a request. Yesterday my bureau launched an Instagram page – you can follow us at UNMatters (@UNMatters). As part of that launch, we are inviting young people just like you to tell us why you think the UN matters. Check out the page for details, and then when you have 15 seconds between sessions this weekend, post a video to your page using #UNMatters (hashtag UNMatters). We’ll share our favorites and give you a shout-out.

I look forward to answering a few of your questions, and thanks again for having me here today.

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