U.S. at UN: More Multilateral Than One Might Think

Posted by Brian H. Hook
October 2, 2008

About the Author: Brian H. Hook serves as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Affairs.

The 63rd UN General Assembly (UNGA) is now nearly two weeks old. Most heads of state have returned to their capitals. Many of the formalities are now coming to a close, and action will soon shift to the General Assembly, where a range of issues will be debated in the coming months. For me, as for others, UNGA is a great opportunity to meet bilaterally with counterparts from around the world, and to make progress in multilateral meetings as well. It is a unique annual opportunity not just to bring the world’s leaders together for a few days of consultations, but also to refresh some of the ideals upon which the UN was founded and review the ongoing efforts to make our world more democratic, stable, and prosperous.

President Bush was in New York for three days last week, and he gave his final address to the General Assembly on September 23. I was struck by several themes in the President’s speech, particularly his call for member states to reflect on the founding language of the UN, which included “…to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, and unite their strength to maintain international peace and security."

In reflecting on the President’s speech and his vigorous engagement with the UN in the years following September 11, 2001, it becomes clear that the United States has led an historic effort to refocus the UN’s energy on the threat of global terrorism. We often discuss the assertive steps taken in the UN Security Council, for example, to limit the operative capacity of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida. What are less discussed in this context are the steps taken by President Bush to promote international security through democratization, economic development, improved health, and humanitarian aid.

As the President stated in his speech, “Advancing the vision of freedom serves our highest ideals, as expressed in the UN Charter's commitment to 'the dignity and worth of the human person.' Advancing this vision also serves our security interests. History shows that when citizens have a voice in choosing their own leaders, they are less likely to search for meaning in radical ideologies. And when governments respect the rights of their people, they're more likely to respect the rights of their neighbors.”

I’ve been making these points in my discussions with bilateral and multilateral partners. I’ve also been discussing the Administration’s legacy in the UN with a variety of media, including Al Jazeera and the BBC. The perception of the Bush Administration as unilateral in its foreign policies is something I frequently hear about in interviews, and my answer to journalists is always the same: On any issue you can name -- peace and security, health outcomes (particularly on HIV/AIDS treatments and fighting malaria), development in the poorest countries in the world, food relief, the environment -- the United States has never been more meaningfully and substantively engaged at the UN and other multilateral forums. And we have focused the UN on delivering results in each of these areas in order to make lasting progress. Of course there is still much work to do, but on a range of issues, working with our multilateral partners, we have a record of accomplishment that will be an important and valued legacy.

Editor's Note: Read Acting Assistant Secretary Hook's previous entry about the opening of the 63rd UN General Assembly.


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