Taking on congressional critics of the United Nations, a senior State Department official told an audience at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on September 7 that the Obama administration’s multilateral diplomacy at the U.N. has bolstered U.S. security but that “backwards” calls to cut or further restrict U.S. funding for the world body, if enacted, would harm U.S. global influence.

September 9, 2011

Taking on congressional critics of the United Nations, a senior State Department official told an audience at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on September 7 that the Obama administration’s multilateral diplomacy at the U.N. has bolstered U.S. security but that “backwards” calls to cut or further restrict U.S. funding for the world body, if enacted, would harm U.S. global influence.

“There are still some here in Washington intent on forcing a U.S. retreat from global leadership, by hindering our participation in the U.N. system, seemingly unaware of the profoundly altered global landscape,” said Esther Brimmer, the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs. “In short, U.S. engagement with the U.N. has never been more critical or more beneficial to our nation. We cannot turn back the clock to a time when the world was simpler and less interconnected, and multilateral engagement was less essential to core U.S. interests.”

Brimmer used her USIP address, coming some two weeks before the opening of the 66th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, to review administration efforts to invigorate and reform parts of the U.N. system, as well as to lay out the administration’s opposition to proposals for making U.S. dues to the U.N. voluntary and allowing Washington to support only U.N. activities that it favors.

Brimmer did not cite any specific U.N.-related moves on Capitol Hill, but U.S. funding contributions for the U.N. have been a high-profile target for foreign affairs budget cuts in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told lawmakers last spring that “we need to have robust financial support from the United States.” The U.S. is the U.N.’s leading funder, providing 22 percent of its regular budget and 25 percent of its peacekeeping costs.

Political and funding pressure on the U.N. has continued since this summer’s budget-cut deal between congressional leaders and the administration. One bill introduced in the House last week would shift U.S. funding of the U.N. to a voluntary basis, condition U.S. support on reforms and withhold U.S. funding for any U.N. entity that backs upgrading the diplomatic status of Palestinian mission to the U.N.

Congressional dissatisfaction over the handling of policy issues related to Israel within some U.N. bodies—particularly the Human Rights Council--has arisen in response to Palestinian plans to seek a General Assembly vote this month to recognize Palestinian statehood before a comprehensive peace accord with Israel is reached. The Obama administration also opposes such a move, and Brimmer said the U.S. would “fight hard against any efforts to use U.N. bodies to delegitimize Israel, as well as efforts to unilaterally use the U.N. as the venue for addressing [Israeli-Palestinian] final-status issues that that must be decided in direct negotiations between the parties.” Brimmer alluded to sensitive, ongoing U.S. diplomacy aimed at restarting face-to-face talks and dissuading Palestinian leaders from seeking a U.N. vote, saying “We think that’s being taken into consideration.”

Brimmer pointed to the administration’s decision to pay U.N. assessments in full and warned against the new moves to withhold dues. “For too long, the United States played games with our U.N. assessments….It undermined U.S. credibility, and hurt our ability to get things done at the U.N.,” she said. While citing the need for U.N. management and budget reforms, Brimmer argued that many criticisms of the U.N. are misguided and are triggered by the actions of member states seeking to score political points.

“We reject also the alarmist suggestions that the U.N. is somehow running roughshod over U.S. interests,” Brimmer said. “It misses the political reality of what actually happens across the U.N. system. For the most part, few substantive actions are adopted in U.N. bodies without U.S. support and leadership.”

Brimmer said that U.S. engagement at the U.N. had helped galvanize a strong international response to the Libyan crisis, including Security Council sanctions and a mandate to protect civilians. The U.N., she said, had also played an “indispensable” role in advancing political stability in Iraq and Afghanistan and made important contributions on security for the new nation of South Sudan, on counterterrorism and on combating nuclear proliferation activities in such countries as North Korea, Iran and Syria. On U.N. peacekeeping missions, Brimmer said the administration has focused on ensuring that mandates can be fulfilled with the necessary personnel and equipment, noting that more than 100,000 peacekeepers have received U.S. training in the past six years.

She also credited U.N. efforts to staunch or reduce conflict through “preventive diplomacy,” including direct efforts by the secretary-general, special envoys, political missions and peacekeepers themselves.

The administration’s 2009 decision to run for a seat and become active on the Human Rights Council in Geneva had netted “a dramatic improvement in that body’s effectiveness,” Brimmer said. U.S. engagement has helped push the Council to focus on significant human rights problems through special sessions or investigations in Cote d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria, as well as to take other actions on Iran, Belarus, Tunisia, Kyrgyzstan, Guinea and, soon, Yemen. She criticized the Council for retaining one agenda item “focused solely on Israel, and one on all other country-specific human rights situations around the world.” But Brimmer asserted that to “walk away” from the Council would reverse the recent progress and “leave the Human Rights Council to the human rights abusers.”

On U.N. management and budget issues, Brimmer pledged continued administration work to seek reforms in oversight, accountability, ethics and financial management. “We are all aware that there are shortcomings in the way the U.N. carries out its business,” she said. “The United States is second to none in pursuing a more efficient, effective and transparent U.N.”

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