The need for collaborative, multilateral action at the United Nations and on global problems is growing, but so are the budgetary pressures on the U.S. government’s foreign affairs spending. That collision of factors provides the context for a scene-setting address at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) by Esther Brimmer, the assistant secretary of State for International Organization Affairs.

September 1, 2011

The need for collaborative, multilateral action at the United Nations and on global problems is growing, but so are the budgetary pressures on the U.S. government’s foreign affairs spending. That collision of factors provides the context for a scene-setting address at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) by Esther Brimmer, the assistant secretary of State for International Organization Affairs.

Brimmer is expected to describe the Obama administration’s emphasis on bolstering multilateral efforts overseas, particularly its efforts to support the U.N. in carrying out reforms, improving its effectiveness and sustaining stable funding.

Her USIP speech, on September 7, falls just ahead of the opening of the U.N. General Assembly annual session, which is routinely attended by U.S. presidents and other heads of state. It also comes amid rising congressional interest—particularly in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives--in cutting or further restricting U.S. funding of the U.N.

Brimmer is likely to argue that U.S. engagement with the U.N. is a cost-effective way of sharing the burdens of international leadership and fosters American security—despite the difficulties of playing a leading role in the world body.

“Working through the United Nations, we help bring security to countries where U.S. military operations aren’t feasible or desirable—at far lower cost to the United States—and where U.S. leadership can leverage important contributions by other states,” she told an audience at the Brookings Institution in February. She also made reference to “hearing criticisms from a bygone era, which ignore our successes at the U.N. as well as changes to the global landscape that make effective multilateral engagement more important than ever.”

The United States is the U.N.’s biggest contributor and is responsible for 22 percent of its annual budget, as well as 25 percent of U.N. peacekeeping costs. As part of what the administration has described as a “dramatically changed” U.S. course at the U.N., it encouraged Congress to cover hundreds of millions of dollars in arrears that had accumulated during earlier periods of Capitol Hill dissatisfaction with the world body. It has also been prodding U.N. officials on a variety of fronts to improve accountability, transparency and management practices and to control costs. The administration says it has worked to defeat attempts to limit the independence of the U.N.’s internal oversight operation and has backed moves to strengthen its ethics office.

Obama administration diplomats consider the U.N. a key part of implementing a “new era of engagement” overseas, as the president has put it. Among the achievements they cite are stronger U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran and North Korea; new nuclear nonproliferation efforts; the mandate for humanitarian intervention in civil war-torn Libya; U.N. help to Afghanistan and Iraq; and support for the launching of South Sudan’s independence. U.S. officials also view the U.N. as an important vehicle for advancing development and anti-poverty efforts, particularly the Millenium Development Goals that U.N. members set for 2015.

The administration changed U.S. policy by deciding to join the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, which has drawn criticisms for years for admitting human rights abusing states, such as Cuba and Libya, onto the panel, for neglecting some major rights abuses and for remaining preoccupied with Israel. Brimmer and other officials say they have seen improvements in the Human Rights Council’s performance once U.S. participation resumed.

U.S. officials have also been focused on strengthening existing U.N. peacekeeping missions, some of which have suffered from overly ambitious mandates and insufficient resources and organization. U.S. military units have stepped up training efforts for international peacekeeping forces and helped to revamp the system of logistical support for the operations, which continue in such countries as Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, Congo, Liberia, Lebanon and Haiti. The administration notes that no new peacekeeping missions have been launched in more than two years and that some missions have been shut down.

The renewed congressional pressure over U.S. funding for the U.N. reflects both the heavy overall cuts in foreign affairs spending agreed by President Obama and Congress and the anger on Capitol Hill about the way issues involving Israel have been handled at the U.N. Palestinian representatives and many of their backers at the U.N. are seeking a General Assembly vote in September that would likely recognize Palestinian statehood—a potentially dramatic development that the Obama administration and congressional leaders oppose and hope to avoid.

Brimmer’s speech at USIP provides an opportunity to explain U.S. efforts to strengthen the U.N., as well as how U.S. officials see it as a tool to prevent conflicts and stabilize weak and failing states, says Abiodun Williams, acting senior vice president of the Center for Conflict Management at USIP. A former director of strategic planning for U.N. secretaries-general Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan, Williams manages a USIP program called the United States-United Nations Forum, which brings together U.S. and U.N. officials as well as other experts to examine the U.S.-U.N. relationship and how it ought to evolve.

The Institute also facilitated the work of the bipartisan Task Force on the United Nations, which was co-chaired by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. Its influential 2005 report laid out an extensive set of proposed U.N. reforms, including steps to make the U.N. more effective in countering terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, in stopping genocide and mass human rights violations, in encouraging development and in building capacity for peacekeeping operations.

The U.N. traditionally enjoys strong support from Americans but needs to do a better job of explaining what contributions it makes, said Williams. “The United Nations is really a bargain for the U.S. and the broader international community,” he said. “It is really a good investment, and it is much cheaper to support the U.N.’s work in peace and security, development and human rights than to try to meet these challenges on our own.”

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