About the Author: Dr. Esther Brimmer serves as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs.
Much has been said about President Obama’s pledge for a “new era of engagement” for the United States. In the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, which I have just been sworn in to lead, this commitment means revitalizing U.S. multilateral cooperation before the United Nations and other international institutions. It is truly an exciting time to be joining the team of talented people in the Department of State and this Administration to help lead this effort.
During his Presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama often spoke of a new direction for U.S. leadership in international affairs to "strengthen our common security by investing in our common humanity," arguing that the security and welfare of every American is affected by the security and welfare of those who live outside the United States. This represents a return to the role America played after World War II, when we helped to lead the international community in establishing an array of multilateral institutions. While this led to an enhanced role for America in the world, it also served to enhance our security and stability at home.
Today, we face new and fast-moving challenges on any number of issues: food security, human rights, terrorism, climate change. Issues that no state can address effectively alone. For this reason, the United Nations, though imperfect, is the institution best placed to bring nations together to address jointly the collective challenges of the 21st century. Similarly, the United States, though imperfect, finds itself in a position of leadership at the United Nations, and this Administration has accepted the call.
On human rights, the United States has accepted the call to leadership by making a very early decision to reengage with the UN Human Rights Council and to seek a seat on the Council this year with the goal of working to make it a more effective body to promote and protect human rights. It is true that the Human Rights Council’s record has been quite disturbing. It needs fundamental change to do more to promote and protect the human rights of people around the world and end its repeated and unbalanced criticisms of Israel. However, I share the belief of the President, Secretary of State Clinton and U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Ambassador Rice that the U.S. voice is better heard from the inside than from the outside. We will use that voice in the Council and elsewhere to promote and protect human rights.
The United States also plays an important leadership role in UN peacekeeping operations, providing around 26% of the annual UN budget for peacekeeping, in addition to providing training and equipment. By working through the UN, we can assist in those areas in which we could not intervene unilaterally. In places like Liberia and Haiti, UN peacekeeping operations have helped to mitigate dangerous armed conflicts and foster fragile new peace. Countries like Sierra Leone, Guatemala and Mozambique are at peace today, years after UN peacekeeping operations successfully completed their missions and drew down. However, much work remains to be done. In the coming months, I hope to work with my colleagues in making peacekeeping operations more effective instruments to restore peace and stability. This includes improving the administration of peacekeeping operations, building member state support to make UN peacekeeping more effective, and encouraging a thorough review of the mandates for both proposed new peacekeeping operations and for existing operations when they come up for renewal, with a view to modifying those mandates as appropriate.
When people think about the UN, they usually think of the politically-charged debates in the Security Council or the General Assembly. But the UN system is comprised of many agencies and organizations quietly trying to get the job done, sometimes in quite difficult circumstances. The World Food Program (WFP), for example, is the agency on the global frontlines charged with providing food to the most vulnerable populations in some of the most challenging locations in the world. Another example, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), coordinates global use of the radio spectrum, promotes cooperation internationally in assigning satellite orbits, and establishes worldwide standards for various communications systems. Every time you call overseas or listen to satellite radio, ITU has helped make that possible. I earned a pilot’s license when I was 20, so the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which establishes the principles and techniques of international flight, is of personal interest to me. Indeed, every time any one of us steps on a plane, we are carried by a framework ICAO created to help to keep us safe. As Assistant Secretary, I look forward to working with ICAO, ITU, the WFP, as well as the myriad other UN agencies and organizations, to help foster and improve U.S. cooperation.
It is an honor and a privilege to join the outstanding Department of State team. While much work needs to be done, I am confident that we will enjoy tremendous success in laying the groundwork for reinvigorated U.S. leadership in multilateral arenas going forward into the next century, and I look forward to updating you on our progress on DipNote.
Read Assistant Secretary Brimmer's previous entry.