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Diplomacy in Action

Hangouts at State: The U.S. and the United Nations: The Case for Multilateralism

Dean Pittman
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Washington, DC
September 18, 2013


The video is also available with closed captioning on YouTube.

MR. GOLDBERG: Welcome, everyone, to the Google Hangout, Hangout at State. We’re here to talk about the upcoming United Nations General Assembly. In just a few days from now, hundreds of world leaders from around the globe will gather in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly, and assorted events are happening all around New York. And here to help make sense of it all, we have Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Dean Pittman; John Prendergast of the Enough Project; and the U.S. delegate – the U.S. Youth Observer delegate to the United Nations Tiffany Taylor. So nice to have you all.

We are going to turn it over now to Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Dean Pittman to give us a preview, an overview, of what American priorities are for the United Nations General Assembly next week in New York.

Over to you, sir.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY PITTMAN: Thanks, Mark. Thanks very much, and great to see everybody, John and Tiffany.

This is an exciting time of the year for us in the multilateral field because this is an opportunity for the United States to underscore the President’s commitment and this Administration’s commitment to multilateral diplomacy and multilateral engagement. When the President came before the UN in his first address in 2009, he made very clear that the United States was here to be engaged in the world, we were going to be part of the multilateral system, because what we found – and I think it’s clear to anyone – that these global challenges – and there are so many, and we’ll be talking about a lot of them today, I imagine – these global challenges could only be solved by – with global solutions. And an organization like the UN and its many technical agencies are going to be critical to that process.

We have three main overarching objectives. They’re really sort of 30,000-feet objectives, but they give you a sense of the range of issues that will fall under them. And so we’re going to look at fostering peace and security. We’re going to look at advancing human rights and sustainable development, which is going to be a critical focus of this year’s General Assembly. And then we’re going to be working towards just a more effective UN system, because if we want the UN system to work and to carry out our priorities, we’ve got to make it effective.

I can talk a little bit more about the high-level, sort of top-line events is that the President will be doing there, and that’s his opportunity on Tuesday to set our vision, the Administration’s vision. I think he’ll touch on a number of topics. I imagine Syria will be one of them, but I haven’t seen his speech. But this again will be his time to set the stage for the work we look to accomplish over the coming year.

But we’ll also be looking at other speeches. As you know, there are many leaders who will be at the GA this year, and they will be leaders like President Abbas, Prime Minister Netanyahu. The Secretary has been working very hard on advancing the peace process in the Middle East. So we’ll be listening closely to their words and what they have to say, because we’re hoping that this will provide an opportunity to provide momentum to the process that is already underway.

And we’ll also be looking to hear from the President of Iran. It’ll be his first speech. He’s been making some comments recently, so it’ll be an opportunity to hear what direction he sees Iran going in the coming months and the year ahead.

MR. GOLDBERG: Great. Well, thank you, Mr. Pittman. If I can jump in and ask one quick question before we move on, this – the UN General Assembly is often a good opportunity for the President to have bilateral meetings with other heads of state. One question – I’ll attempt to make some news – will he have a face-to-face meeting with the President of Iran? And if not, who else might we expect he would have face-to-face meetings with?

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY PITTMAN: Well, I can say that will not be happening. We don’t have any bilaterals with the President of Iran, but – and he will – but the President will be having several bilaterals in New York. And I have to say his schedule, as is the Secretary’s, is quite in flux, so I’m afraid I can’t be specific on those. But you can be sure that, again, the President will be meeting with a number of leaders. He’ll also be hosting his annual reception Monday night, and that will be for – an invitation for world leaders, and he’ll have an opportunity to see them – many, many leaders at that opportunity.

Of course, the Secretary of State will be seeing a lot of his counterparts. He’ll be up there most of the week. And then we have our under secretaries, myself, will be also meeting with a lot of our counterparts. So there’ll be a lot of meetings. (Laughter.)

MR. GOLDBERG: A lot of meetings. And John, John Prendergast, I wanted to turn it to you now. From an outside advocacy perspective, what are you hoping that the United States – what priorities are you hoping that the United States are going to push at this upcoming General Assembly?

MR. PRENDERGAST: Well, to build on – a little bit what – on Assistant Secretary Pittman was talking about, we – the U.S. can’t solve problems by itself. We can’t go it alone on the priorities that we have, the national security interests, the national interests that we have that we need to pursue around the world, and so the United Nations becomes an indispensable partner for achieving many of our objectives. The humanitarian relief efforts all over the world that we see are not only America. We often are the biggest donor, but we need to work in international and multilateral institutions. And the United Nations framework, UNICEF for children, and World Food Program for the big food aid deliveries and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for all the people that flow across borders because of wars and famines and other reasons, this is all – the UN is needed for all these things.

Development also. I mean, we have a declining development assistance budget for some of the least developed countries in the world, and we need the United Nations Development Program and, again, UNICEF and others to be able to step up into the region and be able to provide assistance for critical developmental needs to allow societies to grow, to become markets for American national interests.

Then thirdly, you have peacekeeping efforts. Those are the ones that get a lot of attention because they’re often in the middle of big wars. United States isn’t going to send peacekeeping troops most of these conflicts. There are peacekeepers that are recruited from around the world from UN member-states. The U.S. pays a portion of the bill, but it’s a global effort. And so at the United Nations General Assembly meetings next week, there’ll be a lot of discussion about making those peacekeeping missions that absorb so much money and attention and time to be more effective, especially ones in Congo and in Darfur and in South Sudan, or in the border between Sudan and South Sudan.

And then finally, you have diplomacy. As America’s role in the world evolves, it’s more and more critical that we work as closely as we possibly can with other states with influence on the big-ticket items that we see in our newspapers and televisions and webs – internet around – on a daily basis, like what is it precisely that America can achieve through our alliances. And usually we need to work as closely as possible through the United Nations Security Council and other UN member-states in order to achieve our objectives.

So you hope that next week – and I’m confident that next week – that the United States will have a very strong plan as we have a new United Nations – a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in Samantha Power, who has – who brings a wealth of experience. This’ll be the first United Nations General Assembly that Susan Rice is the National Security Advisor to President Obama. So this will be an interesting week to see how the United States plays ball with these other states with these new people in place. And as the Assistant Secretary said, President Obama will be there for the bulk of the time doing diplomacy himself, undertaking meetings himself, hopefully moving America’s interests forward.

MR. GOLDBERG: And John, I wanted to stick with you and ask you maybe to get down into the specifics a little bit. I know – what was it – three years ago President Obama co-hosted a meeting that featured the president of – or the soon-to-be president of South Sudan. That was really the first big international meeting to give birth before the – South Sudan’s independence and really helped lay the groundwork for it. I know you focus on Sudan and conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa in general. Is there anything specific either on the Great Lakes region, DRC, that you’re hoping to get out of this UNGA?

MR. PRENDERGAST: Well, I think that you cite, Mark, one of the major achievements of the Obama Administration’s first term. When President Obama engaged personally in the United Nations General Assembly three years ago, the meeting you referenced, and he worked diligently to get China and Egypt and other countries who were dragging their feet to be strongly supportive of a referendum held for the independence of South Sudan, a referendum that if it did not occur would have likely led, by all accounts, to a resumption of full-scale war between the North and South of Sudan, which was the second deadliest war in the world since World War II and which we’ve spent literally billions of dollar cleaning up after over the course of the last two decades. So it was a signature diplomatic achievement of the Obama Administration’s first term ensuring that that referendum – working closely with the United Nations to ensure that referendum occurred on time.

Again, Sudan is crying for attention. You have a proliferation of conflicts within Sudan. In Darfur, we’ve all forgotten about Darfur. Well, it’s reared its ugly head. The second highest level of human displacement in the world since the beginning of 2013 after Syria is taking place in Darfur today because of renewed conflict. And so we hope – and then, of course, there is additional fighting going on in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile on the area bordering North and South Sudan.

So we hope that the President and the Secretary of State and Ambassador Power will invest next week in a couple of different venues, particularly this consultative group that will meet on Thursday, the 27th led by the – ministerial meeting, so Senator Kerry – or Secretary Kerry will lead that. And we want to see the U.S. really take the horns again and really work with member states to ensure that there is forward movement in bringing about a comprehensive peace process for the conflicts that continue to bedevil the people of Sudan.

MR. GOLDBERG: Thanks. And Tiffany, I wanted to turn to you now. You arguably have the sort of freshest set of eyes to all these issues than anyone else on this Hangout as the Youth Observer Delegate to the UN. Explain sort of what will your role be next week. What are you planning on doing, and how did you get this position?

MS. TAYLOR: So I have a jam-packed schedule next week. I’ll be at the UN General Assembly, the 68th one, and I’ll be voicing youth concerns there. I’ll also be engaging with youth through Twitter and other media outlets. And then I’ll be attending the Social Good Summit, and from there throughout the year I’ll continue to engage youth through social media and through discussions and through traveling throughout the States.

The position came out because I applied online. And it consisted of an essay application and then an interview, and from there they chose the youth observer. So I’m really excited.

MR. GOLDBERG: Excellent. So I want to address all of you out there. Hit me up on Twitter @MarkLGoldberg using the hashtag #unmatters, and I will pose your question to the panelists here. And as I collect your questions, I wanted to keep it with Tiffany and ask you a pretty kind of broad question. But why should youth, why should American youth in particular, care about the UN? Why should we – and I’m in my early 30s, I don’t think I count anymore. (Laughter.) But why should you care about the UN?

MS. TAYLOR: Well, youth are nearly half of the country – I mean, well, not – half of the world. And so having our voice on both national and international issues is very imperative. And the UN is really passionate about engaging youth. They have me as a youth observer. They had it last year. They also have mini-conferences and other youth professional programs to get youth involved. They have women’s programs to get women involved. And really just to have our voices – just to hear – have voices of the youth heard, and also to gain the leadership skills that we’ll need when we – as we grow up and become leaders. Because like I said, half of the world is youth, so we want to make sure we’re doing a great job as we get older, too.

MR. GOLDBERG: Great, thank you. And as I’m collecting questions, Dean Pittman, I wanted to turn it to you. Obviously, Syria will dominate the – much of the high-level discussions happening in New York next week, and sort of I think the context of the conversations are – is a Security Council resolution that’s being drafted right now to back up that plan that was hashed out last week between the Foreign Minister of Russia and Secretary Kerry. What progress can we see toward that resolution, and how will sort of U.S. engagement on that – on Syria diplomacy sort of manifest itself throughout the week next week? What can we expect, for example, President Obama to say about Syria?

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY PITTMAN: Thanks, Mark. Well, I don’t want to guess what the President’s going to say. We’ve heard him speak. But this is obviously of serious concern to him and the Secretary of State and the entire Administration. I mean, let’s go back a little bit. We were – the Secretary made tremendous efforts and successful efforts in Geneva to work with his Russian counterpart to come with a sort of a framework for ridding Syria of its chemical weapons. This is a critical first step to sort of looking for a political solution to the continuing crisis in Syria. If we could get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons, we will have made huge strides towards that goal.

Now we’re looking back to the UN. I think this is interesting. We had the UN report on the chemical weapons investigation on Tuesday to the Security Council and to the General Assembly as well, and they left – they went very – they were very clear on what has happened and what they’ve found. And I think it sort of confirms what our own analysis has shown about that there were chemical weapons used in Syria and that the government was involved and responsible. So now we turn back to the Security Council where we’re discussing this issue, because I think it’s critical that we have global support for moving forward. That’s going on this week. There have been meetings today, yesterday, among the permanent five members of the Security Council, and those will continue through the week. And so we’re very hopeful that we will find a way forward that we can then move forward with actually getting rid of those chemical weapons, because that would be a tremendous step forward.

Now, we’ve been disappointed with the Security Council, I’ll just be perfectly honest, in the past. We’ve had vetoes; the Chinese and Russians have blocked us from pushing even the most – even sometimes just a very bare-bones sort of resolution or press statement. So we’re hoping now that we can make progress and move forward.

But I want to remind our watchers that it’s just not all about the Security Council. When we talk about what the UN is doing on the Syrian crisis, there’s quite a bit of other things going on. There are numbers of UN agencies who are working day in and day out in very difficult circumstances, whether it’s the World Food Program, which is providing assistance to 4 million Syrians and refugees, or whether it’s the International Organization for Migration who are working to support 1.5 million – I think it’s 1.5 million migrants and 1.3 million children. And so we’ve been able to work through the Human Rights Council to get a special rapporteur on Syria, to get a commission of inquiry which has been looking very closely at some of the abuses that have been going on there.

So the United Nations system, while it has not been able to reach a consensus in the Security Council, has been taking a lot of steps that has had a, I think, very – a tremendous impact on the situation in Syria.

That said, we’ll be working very hard through the Security Council over the coming days, and we’ll also be working with our allies. I’m sure when the President’s there and when the Secretary of State are there, many of their conversations will be focused on finding the best way forward to reach what we all want, which is a political solution to the crisis in Syria.

MR. GOLDBERG: And John, sort of building on that – so yesterday, Ban Ki-moon addressed the General Assembly, principally about the Syria issue. And he sort of decried the fact that the humanitarian appeal for Syrian refugees and people displaced inside Syria was funded only at about 40 percent. So there’s not enough money to buy the food and medicine and shelter that now millions of refugees and millions of people displaced by the conflict. You’ve worked sort of in sort of advocacy for a long time now. Why do you think that sort of the Syria humanitarian crisis hasn’t sort of captured Americans’ attention as much as, say, some of the crises that you work on, like Darfur or the DRC?

MR. PRENDERGAST: It’s a good question, Mark. I think that it’s very rare that the appeals that are issued by the United Nations for fast onset emergencies are fully funded in the short run. And you get a cycle of appealing and guilting and all the rest of it that goes on from the officials, understandably because the needs, the humanitarian needs are incredibly pressing. But I wouldn’t say that this is terribly different than many other crises over the last two decades when there are so many competing problems, and humanitarian – urgent humanitarian issues out there. And with the proliferation of nongovernmental organization sector and with the proliferation of social media that allows people to learn more and more about all these different causes, whether there’s slavery or whether it’s sourcing issues for companies or whether it’s children’s rights, or whatever the thing is – so suddenly a new emergency unfolds, made very, very dramatic by the chemical weapons attack, and there’s all – people are already committed in some ways. And so it’s sometimes very hard to galvanize the amount of money necessary to respond to very real needs that the Syrian people spilling over borders throughout the Middle East are experiencing.

So I feel like that in the next few months, we will see that number rise very substantially from 40 percent on. But it is a grueling process of trying to capture people’s attention and captivate them enough, as you infer from your question, to say, “This actually matters so much that I’m going to either advocate to my government that we need to do something about it” – i.e., send more money – “or I’ll personally send, myself, some money” through a CARE, or Catholic Relief Services, or World Vision, or Save the Children, or Oxfam, or whatever organization people support in their private capacity.

So you’ve got public and private efforts coming together trying to respond to this massive emergency, and I believe that, based on past experience, that the effort will, in fact, yield a full result, but it just takes time. And the President and the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development and private nongovernmental organizations are doing all they can, and the media is doing all they can to publicize these incredibly important and urgent humanitarian concerns of the people of Syria.

MR. GOLDBERG: And Tiffany – so John was just describing sort of the ways in which sort of people get activated around causes these days. And you just mentioned you were going to attend the Social Good Summit, which I will be at and looking forward to very much. And one of, I think, the goals of the Social Good Summit is to talk about ways in which new media is impacting advocacy and promoting sort of global social good. And your, I think, role as the U.S. delegate is to sort of at once sort of voice youth views to the UN, but also, I think, maybe help the UN reach American youth. How do you plan on managing that? How do you – are you – do you have sort of a social media plan? And how do you sort of – how do you sort of plan on acting as that intermediary?

MS. TAYLOR: Thank you. Well, I definitely will be using social media. I use Twitter and Facebook, and also have a blog where I talk about a lot of global issues. And I actually spoke a lot about this during the interview process, which is that I hope to really engage youth from more underrepresented backgrounds – such as religious minorities, new Americans, LGBTQ, and women – and get them more included in the discussions, and also those from different socioeconomic backgrounds. So in addition to using Twitter and Facebook and social media, I also hope to hear more from those people’s voices and get them more engaged so it can be a more inclusive environment.

MR. GOLDBERG: Good. So we’re going to take a question that was actually a fairly tough one, and I’ll direct it to Dean Pittman. (Laughter.) This was – came via – I’m reading from my screen now – this came via the Google Hangout. The question is this: “What is the United States doing to improve its engagement in the United Nations? Does the U.S. still have faith in the UN? If so, why the proposal for a military intervention without UN Security Council approval?”

A tough question, but no one more equipped to handle it than you, Mr. Pittman.

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY PITTMAN: Okay. Look, first of all, the first answer is we remain very much engaged with the UN, and we see it as a critical part of our own diplomacy. John was talking earlier about the peacekeeping efforts in Africa, and that’s where we really see the advantage of working collectively with other nations through the UN system to advance peace and security issues. We just appointed Russ Feingold as our Special Envoy for the Great Lakes. He will be working very closely with the UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland. I mean, that’s just an example of how we see the efforts that we can make individually expanded in a significant way by working through the UN system. So rest assured, this Administration is totally committed to continue to work and be a part of the UN system, and that’s where we see our best interests, as well as global interests, being resolved.

That said, there’s some times we have to take action on our own, and I’d leave it to the president to determine when he thinks American security requires we go it alone. But I can show you – I mean, it’s obviously for how – for where we are now that his preference and all of our preferences is that we’re able to work through the UN system to find a solution in the case of Syria. But again, across the whole UN system, because there’s so many things that we just can’t do unilaterally and can’t even do bilaterally, it really requires sort of the community of nations coming together to work for – to resolve some of these critical issues.

I mean, you look at what the World Health Organization is doing and some of the – UNICEF is doing in sort of reducing childhood mortality. That’s something the United States can’t do alone. We’ve decreased childhood mortality, I think, something from like 9 million to 6 million over the last decade, and that’s directly because of the work that we’ve been able to contribute to through the UN system. And that includes over 10 million – reducing the number of deaths – childhood deaths – by about 10 million, due mainly from measles, which I think has to do with the ability to get vaccinations spread out more broadly around the world.

So, look, we see the UN system and the multilateral system as a key part of protecting not just global interests but U.S. interests and advancing our own priorities, and that’s certainly what we prefer.

MR. GOLDBERG: Thanks. And Tiffany, the next question coming in over Twitter is for you. It’s from Twitter user Mlynn_anye (ph) and the question is this: “How can youth in the U.S. participate on a local level to further the UN’s goals?”

MS. TAYLOR: Well, I think one of the most important things youth can do is to really stay engaged, reading newspapers, staying abreast of what’s going on locally and internationally, being informed, registering people to vote, voting yourself, volunteering. There’s so many things you can do at the local level to get involved.

MR. GOLDBERG: Great. And we have one more question coming in for Dean Pittman over the Facebook – over the Google+ page. It says: “What is the United States doing to accelerate the progress of UN reform, especially related to the vital reforms that will make the UN more accountable to its member-states, and more suited to new challenges of the future?”

ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY PITTMAN: Mark, thanks, that’s a great question. I really appreciate it, because I’ll tell you to be honest with you, I spend a good part of everyday thinking about this issue. Because if we’re going to ask the UN system to sort of help us and advance our priorities and interests, we have to make sure it has the capacity to do so. And that means we have to make it effective and efficient. We have to make sure it uses its money wisely, that it’s organized in a way that it can best perform.

And so we work very hard with our likeminded allies and others to sort of press the UN to advance issues like accountability, transparency in accounting, and civil servant reform. All these issues, I think, will help make a better UN system. And we look at similar steps we’re taking in the peacekeeping, because that’s an area where we want to be sure we have the best troops and most trained troops and they have the tools to do the work they need to do as well.

So this is a top priority, and I think it’s one we’ve made some progress on. We’ve been holding the line on budget. We’ve been able to secure the release of oversight accounting and transparency in most of the UN agencies – or many of the UN agencies, and we’ll continue to press hard across the UN system. So we understand very clearly that we have to be good stewards of American money. And we do spend a lot of money in support of the UN, but I think we get a lot out of that and I think our job is to make sure we get the most out of it that we can.

MR. GOLDBERG: John, I wanted to follow up with you on that. So the U.S. pays about 28 percent of the peacekeeping budget for the UN and about a quarter of the regular budget of the UN. And we’re entering this, once again, a period of fiscal austerity. They’re talking about government shutdowns in Washington. What sort of argument can you make about sort of the return on investment that is made when the U.S. pays its UN dues in full and on time, which had not always been the case?

MR. PRENDERGAST: Well, every year the budget process is a battle of competing priorities, and we wish that we had enough money to be able to do everything we want in the world. But we do have some very fundamental objectives in making the world more secure, in helping sustainable development take hold in other countries from a purely national security interest, so that (a) there’ll be markets for our products and trade partners for us in the future, and (b) there will be less insecurity there so that the kinds of threats that America perceives to its interests will have less of a chance to take hold.

So there’s a very core self-interest in why we should be working through the United Nations to build peace and prosperity globally. And without some of the things that Assistant Secretary Pittman referenced – without the World Health Organization and UNICEF and UNDP and other initiatives that are focused on building a better and a more secure and a more stable planet – our interests are undermined. So I think that the specifics are in the data and the numbers that we heard Dean talk about a little while ago, but in general terms, we just have no choice, I think, than to engage and engage robustly through multilateral organizations to achieve fundamental objectives of ensuring against endemic poverty, against wide inequalities that lead to (a) the kind of economic decline that causes our economy to contract, and (b) the instability that allows for threats to emerge against American interests. So I think there are very core national security interests involved in promoting the U.S. role through the United Nations and U.S. interests through the United Nations.

MR. GOLDBERG: Well, Dean Pittman, John Prendergast, Tiffany Taylor, thank you all so much. And it’s going to be an intense, action-packed week of diplomacy, meetings, bilaterals, multilaterals, lots going on in New York next week. I’ll put in a plug for my blog “UN Dispatch,” if you want to follow all the action. You can also follow me on Twitter @MarkLGoldberg and @UNDispatch. And the Twitter handles for everyone else on this Google Hangout are readily available. So thank you, thank you all, and we’ll see you in New York.

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