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Diplomacy in Action

The U.S., the UN, and the Emerging Post-2015 Development Agenda

Dean Pittman
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Annual Membership Meeting of the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area
Washington, DC
June 6, 2014


(As Prepared)

Thank you so much for inviting me here tonight. And particular thanks to Ambassador Bliss, who is as unabashed a multilateralist as you will find anywhere. I should note that Don was multilateral before multilateral was cool, so I think that should earn him some bonus points. In fact, Don’s old stomping grounds at ICAO have rarely been more relevant on the global stage, and I will endeavor later in my remarks to employ this small organization as an excellent example of 21st century diplomacy at work.

First, though, I thought I would begin tonight by returning your attention to the President’s foreign policy speech of last week at West Point. It was a powerful address, and if you haven’t had a chance to see or read it, please don’t rely on my thoughts tonight to do it justice.

Talking heads characterized the President’s speech as a new vision for American foreign policy, a departure from the past. In fact, in many of its most striking elements, it is nothing of the kind. President Obama has been committed to multilateral diplomacy from well before he assumed office. And upon entering the White House, the President charted a course for American leadership that intersects with the international system whenever such an intersection can advance U.S. national interest.

In the broadest sense, I would argue that, over the past five years, the United States has been the most effective and determined employer of multilateral tools since we helped establish the United Nations and define its purpose.

As the President noted at West Point, America is stronger on the international stage when we work with partners and in coalitions, working in multilateral spaces, and reinforcing international law. It’s a simple truth, but one that continues to run against the grain for some. And thus, it warrants repeating, even in the presence of such a skeptical gathering:

  • We live in a shrinking world with expanding challenges;
  • Many, perhaps most of those challenges are unresponsive to unilateral or bilateral initiative; and
  • The United States must lead efforts to address these many issues where those issues can be best addressed.

So, for example, when global attention is drawn to the mysterious disappearance of a commercial airliner, what tools are at hand to come to grips with questions such an event raises? If, as we have learned from Malaysian Airlines’ Flight 370, there are varying international standards for aviation tracking, how might concerned nations of the world take action to strengthen those standards?

Such challenges are why we have an international system – a network of agencies, organizations, treaties, conventions, and agreements that create space and direction for conversations and action on innumerable shared issues. ICAO has been very active since the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Just a few weeks ago – on May 12, to be exact – ICAO convened member states to spur deliberations on global implementation of worldwide flight tracking.

I know that UNA-NCA will be co-hosting a program in a couple of weeks on exactly this issue, to feature not only Ambassador Bliss, but also the Director of ICAO’s Air Navigation Bureau and our most recent Ambassador to ICAO, Duane Woerth. I applaud NCA for not only tackling this complex and compelling issue, but also using the opportunity to remind our often cloistered foreign policy community that the international system is crucial and often central to advancing our interests.

But I’ll stop preaching to the choir. My instincts tell me that none of you need to be convinced about the importance of multilateral diplomacy.

I want to spend a few minutes this evening on the advertised topic – the post-2015 development agenda. In so doing, I make no promises of expertise or insight. But I would like to discuss how the United States is approaching the process of defining new goals, while we simultaneously push for maximum accomplishment of the Millennium Development Goals, or the MDGs.

The process that established the MDGs, now nearly 15 years ago, was controversial, to say the least, for questions of both substance and process. There were many voices at the time arguing that the MDGs were too ambitious, not ambitious enough, too prescriptive, or not sufficiently prescriptive.

Still, here we are, nearly 15 years later, and the accomplishments could not be clearer:

  • We’ve cut the proportion of people living in extreme poverty in half;
  • We’ve made incredible gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis;
  • Child mortality for children under 5 has been cut from 12 million in 1990 to 7 million in 2011;
  • The hunger reduction target is within reach; and
  • There are many other successes that I won’t get into today.

Progress has been impressive and encouraging. It has also been uneven. So, as we talk today about a post-2015 development agenda, my first message to you is: let’s not lose sight of the unfinished business of the MDGs. With more than 1 billion people around the world living in extreme poverty, this is not the moment to declare victory.

As you know better than I, the global community is playing a huge role in shaping the next set of goals. That engagement has been prominent in a variety of ways.

Through the Sustainable Development Goals Open Working Group. Through the UN’s impressive “My World” survey, in which more than 2 million people have participated. And through the UN’s country and thematic consultations, and countless other listening sessions and dialogues that have taken place across the country and the world, the preparatory work that has gone into shaping the intergovernmental negotiations that will begin later this year has been remarkable.

UNA and UNF are among the many important civil society actors contributing to this process and advancing the idea that the post-2015 process must be informed by the broadest range of voices possible. Private citizens, NGOs, academics, the private sector, the scientific community, local communities – all of their voices are crucial for shaping the post-2015 agenda. I know that UNA has been deeply involved in this exercise, leading a nationwide conversation through its chapters (including NCA) about the post-2015 agenda.

That conversation is enormously useful and important. It serves to strengthen U.S. thinking on priorities, pitfalls, and evolving opportunities. Let me briefly offer just a few issue-specific thoughts as we continue to discuss and deliberate on priorities – keeping in mind that these discussions are very much ongoing.

First, the United States is determined to achieve a post-2015 development agenda that makes substantive, practical contributions to the world’s development needs. That agenda needs to express clear, ambitious, and measurable goals designed to:

  • Promote sustainable, inclusive growth and end extreme poverty;
  • Seek a new global partnership that goes beyond traditional aid and recognizes the role of private resource flows; and
  • Integrates environmental sustainability.

What could be easier? Clearly, a very simple task!

While the goals and specific targets associated with those priorities remain under discussion, the United States believes there are several major themes that should shape the eventual post-2015 agenda. Those include:

  • Eradicating extreme poverty: In spite of dramatic progress over the last 14 years, more than 1 billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day; 2.5 billion people still lack sanitation; and 29,000 children still die daily, mainly from preventable causes;
  • Empowering girls and women, and advancing gender equality: Including the elimination of sexual and gender-based violence, improved access to secondary education, equal access to productive economic assets like property and credit, and advances in political participation at all levels of government;
  • Ensuring healthy lives: Including through strong, well-designed health systems;
  • Protecting our oceans, seas, forests, and biodiversity: Because we all depend on healthy ecosystems and on a vibrant natural resource base, and because healthy ecosystems are crucial to addressing extreme poverty. In line with this commitment, Secretary Kerry is hosting, on June 16-17, a high-level international conference on steps needed to protect the world’s oceans.;
  • Promoting good governance and effective institutions: Effective, responsive, and accountable institutions are crucial to protecting fundamental human rights and fostering inclusive economic growth; and
  • Advancing stable and peaceful societies: Because we find the most intractable and extreme poverty in societies affected by conflict and violence.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of priorities. Rather, the priorities I just laid out are a sample to kick-start the conversation Other issues we are considering and that we think are important include food security and nutrition, education, sustainable energy, strengthened partnerships, and the importance of a data revolution for implementing and tracking the post-2015 agenda.

The UN Foundation has a very useful chart that shows just how complex the post-2105 agenda setting process is. Simple stuff, as you can tell.

The United States currently has several interagency working groups exploring all imaginable issues, challenges, and suggestions on these and many other development topics. Our internal process is feeding into the Sustainable Development Goals Open Working Group process in New York through our UN mission. That working group will issue its report in August, which will include a suggested list of goals and targets for the post-2015 agenda. The Secretary-General then will then issue a “synthesis report,” which will attempt to reconcile the various inputs to date. And only then will intergovernmental negotiations formally begin, set to commence in the fall. Negotiations will conclude with a summit in September 2015 where the new goal framework will be adopted.

The sheer complexity of the post-2015 process is enough to confuse most people – me included. But it’s an incredibly important issue, and one that will increasingly dominate the UN’s agenda in New York and our agenda here in Washington.

Ladies and gentlemen, the MDGs and the evolving post-2015 process reinforce the bedrock truth in the President’s recent speech: the United States can do more to advance its national interests through cooperation and coalition building than we can do by flexing our muscles in isolated channels. This is evident not only in the complex process to set the post-2015 agenda, but also in the global response to the loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the effort to improve international flight tracking, and in countless other international issues.

I’m going to stop here. Thank you UNA-NCA, and thank you NCA members. I would welcome your thoughts and questions.

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