The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

Event report: A Misguided Assault: Why the United Nations Matters

15 September 2011

Sarah Margon, Associate Director of Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding at the Center for American Progress opened the event with a message to the audience to try to think beyond the hot political issues relating to the U.N. that typically receive media attention. Instead we should also think of  the other important work that is part of the U.N.’s role. Building schools, providing water sanitation, and monitoring nuclear facilities were a few examples that she cited.

Keynote speaker, Dr. Esther Brimmer, Assistant Secretary for International Organizations Affairs, Department of State, opened her remarks saying that the agenda of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York, which opened two days ago, gives a sense of how broad and important the U.N.’s role is. Just a couple are the humanitarian and security follow-up to the Libya conflict, and how to stem the destruction of preventable diseases that kill about thirty-five million people every year.

She pointed out that despite support from some Republican lawmakers for a bill that would reduce U.S. involvement in the U.N., there is a bipartisan majority in Congress and a majority in the American public who believe that the U.S. should remain committed to its role in the U.N. National economies are intertwined with the rest of the world. Moreover, global threats of disease, terrorism, and climate change can only be address comprehensively by a multinational organization such as the U.N. It is a way that the U.S. can promote its values and maintain global networks. Only by being part of these global conversations can America retain its position as a global leader. As examples of the achievements that have been made in this way she mentioned the U.N. Security Council’s mandate for military action in Libya, and the work done to block Iran’s nuclear program. Tough sanctions and peacekeeping missions have been an effective way to benefit U.S. national security. The U.N.’s work in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a vital part of strengthening democratic institutions. Today, international engagement and multinational diplomacy are more important than ever before.

Nancy Soderberg, President, Connect U.S. Fund, and former Ambassador to the United Nations for Special Political Affairs underlined two main ways in the which the U.N. is a unique and vital part of global and U.S. national interest. Firstly, the threat of nuclear weapons, and, secondly, the threat of global climate change. The programs that the U.N. uses to address these are done in order to make the world safer. If the U.S. does not play a part in conversations on such issues then it cedes its role to others. Nancy stated that not only is this very clear, but polls of the American population have repeatedly shown that a majority support continued support of the U.N. She said that, with the U.N., often its public communications success is muffled so that it's almost as if no news is good news. Do we know, for example, that the smallpox vaccine was administered across the world and in the U.S. by the U.N.? Or that there are 120,000 U.N. peacekeepers currently in operation? On the negative side, however, two of the repeated problems that the U.N. encounters are the credibility of the Security Council because of its limited composition of just the U.S., U.K., China, Russia, and France, and the political alignment against the rights of Israel.

Ambassador Richard Williamson, a partner at Salisbury Strategies, and former Assistant Secretary for International Organizations disagreed with Nancy Soderberg about the structure of the Security Council, insisting that its small size permitted a minimal level of politicking and posturing. He emphasized the importance of the U.S.’s role in the U.N. but also said that it is just one of many multilateral organizations through which the U.S. can exert international influence. He also said that for many smaller countries, their seat at the U.N. means a great deal to them because they can have some influence despite small economic or military power. This can sometimes lead to imbalanced decision-making. Such imbalances also occur because many countries have unrealistic expectations of what the U.N. can actually achieve. Inefficiencies in decision-making are shown, for example, in the inability of the peace-keeping forces to do anything to stop some of the (minor) outbursts of violence in Sudan’s referendum on South Sudan. He also stipulated that the U.N. has lost a great deal of credibility in its handling of the Israel/Palestine issue.

Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator

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