When President Barack Obama led a session of the United Nations Security Council last September, one that produced a resolution calling for countries to support a world without nuclear weapons, he became the first U.S. president to ever do so.
That marked a shift from George W. Bush's sometimes hostile position towards the U.N. At a well-attended public forum sponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations and held at the law school on Oct. 28, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Esther Brimmer explained the new U.S. approach.
"The president is deeply committed to using multilateral tools …," said Brimmer, who was appointed by Obama. "It is the decision to take the issues back into the United Nations and other international organizations and to empower those multilateral institutions to fulfill their intended roles that makes real the president's commitment."
Esther Brimmer was appointed assistant secretary of state for international organizations by President Obama. Photos by Todd Cheney/UCLA Photo.
At the State Department, she runs a bureau that represents U.S. interests through international bodies such as the U.N., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Also responsible for the array of organizations that cover regional issues from South America to Southeast Asia, the bureau has a new office to track them. It presses world and regional bodies not only on issues but also for various types of internal reform.
"A lot of what we do is a bit like a management consultant," she said.
Students and faculty at the event asked Brimmer for specifics on issues, from global warming to peacekeeping and the security of materials used to make nuclear bombs. The first question from the audience was about the future of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has carried on without U.S. participation since 2002. In March, it issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. While saying that Obama is committed to accountability for war criminals as well as the use of multilateral tools, Brimmer repeated the administration's line that its position on the ICC is under review.
"Ultimately, accountability begins at home," Brimmer said. "We want to make sure that national mechanisms are able to deal with accountability issues." She cited "larger issues," including the potential prosecution of U.S. soldiers, that need to be weighed in deciding whether to rejoin the treaty that created the ICC.
With that exception, Brimmer repeatedly stressed the "shared responsibility" of nations and the importance of empowering international organizations, including in the area of human rights. Earlier this year the United States ran for and won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, an organization that the Bush administration had shunned over what it said was the influence of repressive states on it. Under reforms enacted since the council replaced its predecessor body at the UN, all member states must submit to reviews of their human rights records against a single set of criteria every four years.
To face the problem of global warming, Brimmer said, broad international cooperation based on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will be absolutely essential.
Looking ahead to a U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in December, she said that striking a bargain with rapidly developing countries such as China, India and Brazil will be crucial because they represent almost "all the growth in emissions" of greenhouse gases.
"You will not be able to address climate change without these states taking on this issue seriously," she said.
The U.N., Brimmer said, has taken on roles in the 21st century that weren't anticipated at its inception after World War II. For one thing, it delivers services around the world through the U.N. Development Programme and the UNICEF fund for children. For another, the primary role as a guardian of peace now embraces different issues, not only global warming, but also the security of food supplies, a topic that Brimmer said traditionally had been absent from discussions of security.
"Given the fact that upwards of one billion people are undernourished, it can hardly be viewed in any other context," she said, clarifying that the United States will continue to help in short-term food emergencies.
On the question of changes in the composition of the powerful Security Council, Brimmer said the United States agrees with the principle that "the council needs to reflect the 21st century," particularly the growing influence of Asian and other regional powers. Discussion of this kind of reform, she said, is both healthy and part of "a remarkable development in international relations."
"The arrival of new powers into the international system traditionally has not been peaceful," Brimmer said.