The United States, the United Nations, and Our Multilateral World

Posted by H. Dean Pittman
September 16, 2013
President Obama Addresses the 67th Session of the UN General Assembly

Each September brings the formal opening of a new UN General Assembly, an annual diplomatic spectacle featuring Presidents, Prime Ministers, and the associated pomp, circumstance, and traffic gridlock.

For the United States, each new UN General Assembly offers a useful opportunity to highlight not just our priorities in the multilateral world, but also the crucial importance of American leadership in that world.   That leadership has its grounding in the earliest days of the UN, and is framed in a more recent context by President Obama’s deeply held belief that "...the interests of nations and peoples are shared."

During this session of the General Assembly, the United States will pursue its national interests in three overarching objectives that provide ample space to identify shared interests.  Those objectives are:

  • fostering a more peaceful world;
  • promoting sustainable development and human rights; and
  • working towards a more effective, accountable UN system.

Within these broad objectives reside a host of important issues that demand attention at the Assembly and across the UN system.  Those issues include the pressing security challenges of today, such as the situation in Syria.  They include crucial challenges that pay no heed to national borders, such as climate change, pandemic disease, and hunger.  They include the shared aspirations of the world’s people as captured in the Millennium Development Goals.  And they include threats to universal human rights.  

The United States was instrumental in the establishment of the United Nations, and remains its largest and most influential supporter.  That remains true in spite of the institution’s weakness and failings, such as the continuing need for improved transparency and accountability.  In fact, those failings only remind us that our leadership is vital to efforts to reform UN bodies to improve effectiveness.

We do ourselves no favors by dismissing the United Nations as antiquated or ineffective, or threatening its decapitation.   In the final analysis, our continued, robust leadership at the UN not only safeguards many of our core interests, it also promotes the living vision of an international gathering place sustained for the benefit of all nations and people.

About the Author: H. Dean Pittman serves as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs.

Join Acting Assistant Secretary Pittman for a Google+ Hangout on Wednesday, September 18 at 1:00 p.m. (EDT ) to discuss the relationship between the United States and the UN and why youth, in particular, should care about multilateralism.   John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project; Mark Leon Goldberg, a reporter for UN Dispatch; and Tiffany Taylor, the U.S. Youth Observer to the United Nations will also participate in the Hangout.  Post your questions on Google+ and Twitter using #UNMatters.



Eric J.
New Mexico, USA
September 21, 2013

@ Dean Pittman,

What I've read here in the following should provide nations a pretty convincing argument that when the US gov. takes grain pains and goes to great length to convince other governments that they shouldn't build nuclear weapons, that it's not simply in our own national security interests that we become somewhat insistant to the point of sanction and beyond...we lead by example and in practicality are simply trying to keep folks from nuking themselves by accident...that the threat they pose by building them while chanting "death to America" in Iran's case is far less than the imminent threat they would pose to the Iranian people.

I ask the question below not in any rhetorical sense...but as a question that we need to keep asking ourselves within the international community;


A four-megaton nuclear bomb was one switch away from exploding over the US in 1961, a newly declassified US document confirms.

Two bombs were on board a B-52 plane that went into an uncontrolled spin over North Carolina - both bombs fell and one began the detonation process.

The document was first published in the UK's Guardian newspaper.

The US government has acknowledged the accident before, but never made public how close the bomb came to detonating.

The document was obtained by journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act.

Schlosser told the BBC such an explosion would have "changed literally the course of history".

The plane was on a routine flight when it began to break up over North Carolina on 23 January 1961.

As it was breaking apart, a control inside the cockpit released the two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs over Goldsboro.

One fell to the ground unarmed. But the second "assumed it was being deliberately released over an enemy target - and went through all its arming mechanisms save one, and very nearly detonated over North Carolina," Mr Schlosser told the BBC's Katty Kay.

Only the failure of a single low-voltage switch prevented disaster, he said.


So I just have one question..."Do we feel lucky yet?"



Bruce V.
California, USA
September 23, 2013
If the U.S. stands for improved transparency and accountability, it should lead by example. The Obama administration should end its persecution of whistle-blowers.
Zoe L.
Indiana, USA
September 23, 2013
As the article states, every UN General Assembly offers the chance to highlight priorities all over the world. One of the stated objectives for this session includes: “promoting sustainable development and human rights.” In light of the recent news about Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s plan to attend the Assembly, I can’t help but question how his attendance would promote human rights. President Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for the crime of genocide. I know that the U.S. government has to allow him to visit under the UN Headquarters Agreement, but there are other things that can stop his arrival. Under the Genocide Accountability Act of 2007, President Bashir could be prosecuted for genocide here in the U.S., even though his crimes were committed abroad. The Unites States could also limit the number of visas for the President’s security detail, as well as encourage other countries along President Bashir’s flight path to refuse landing rights for his airplane. In light of the UN’s objective for the Assembly, I wonder why the U.S. hasn’t done anything to stop the arrival of President Bashir.


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