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Interview: UN Is 'Integral' To U.S. Foreign Policy Objectives

Esther Brimmer addressing the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month.

Esther Brimmer addressing the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month.

Esther Brimmer has served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organizations since April and leads the Bureau of International Organizations Affairs -- an organization that works with international institutions to advance U.S. interests in areas like human rights, peacekeeping, food security, humanitarian relief, and climate change. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev spoke to her on the eve of the opening of the 64th session of the UN General Assembly in New York.

RFE/RL: What are the differences in the U.S. objectives at the UN between the Bush and Obama administrations?

Esther Brimmer: Thank you very much for this opportunity to talk about the objectives and goals of Obama administration at the opening of the UN General Assembly. Indeed, I think it's important to note that for this administration the United Nations is actually an integral part of foreign policy objectives. This may be different than other administrations. We see that for many of the most important issues that we have addressed -- they have been addressed at the UN. Let's look at a few specifics: one area is nonproliferation and nuclear-disarmament issues. These of course have always been important strategic goals for the United States, and particularly now this president realizes that you have to have international cooperation to work in these areas. That's part of his recommitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which we are working on the next stage of for 2010. But this is also been a long-standing interest for him, even before he was a president. So in a sense this has been a continuity for him.

RFE/RL: What are the advantages of multilateral as compared to bilateral diplomacy in the area of nonproliferation, specifically the issue with Iran?

Brimmer: It's interesting, when it comes to nuclear disarmament we're actually talking about the responsibilities of all of us -- that the idea is that all states have responsibilities in terms of how they manage these issues. All have the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, nuclear power. But that as the Security Council is responsible for all of us to look at how we strengthen international measures, and as individual member states we each have a role to play. Making that commitment and finding that solidarity of support has to be done here at the United Nations.

RFE/RL: The recent decision by President Obama to abandon plans for missile shield in Central and Eastern Europe was welcomed by Moscow as a positive step. Do you think it may somehow affect Russia's position in the Security Council on Iran and nonproliferation issues?

Brimmer: I actually would approach it from a very different stand. The administration and the president in particular and the secretary of state have committed and reiterated their commitment to the importance of the [NATO] alliance and to fundamental strategic security, and that the way to do that is to approach this in an alliance setting. And they've talked about how they are planning to do that.

And while it may involve a reorientation of what sort of actual mechanisms are needed for missile defense -- that's what's gotten the headlines -- the important point here is that the administration is still fundamentally committed to do this through the alliance, rather than only doing it bilaterally. And that therefore we are looking particularly how to deal with all possible missile challenges to our close allies in Europe and identify the best way to do that. I think that is the most important element to focus on in terms of the approach to missile defense.

RFE/RL: What is the U.S. foreign policy priority in the multilateral diplomacy approach practiced at the UN?

Brimmer: There are several issues I think I would highlight particularly where the UN has an absolutely crucial role to play. One of them is on climate change, and we see that on September 22 the UN Secretary General is actually hosting an event on climate change. And we are delighted to say that our president will be actually be speaking at that event. This administration wanted to demonstrate how important climate change is to our foreign policy and to our understanding on the progress on this issue. As you may know, he'll be speaking as the leader of the Major Economies Forum and this actually demonstrates that this effort through the MEF is directly linked to the effort for the UN as well. But this is one single multilateral effort to try to grapple with climate change, which affects all of us. That's one area.

Another area I might highlight is actually focusing on dealing with fighting international hunger issues. And so, if we look towards the end of the week, a week of intensive presidential and secretarial engagement, we'll be addressing the issues dealing with food security. And we'll see on Saturday [September 26] that the secretary of state and the secretary-general of the United Nations will actually together cohost a meeting dealing with food security. And this shows that directly for the United States, for a major initiative of the United States, it wants to work with the UN on this important issue.

RFE/RL: The United States has for a long time been a strong proponent of UN reform. But little is known about Washington's position with regard to reforming the structure of the Security Council. Is the current administration ready to address the issue?

Brimmer: I'd actually like to answer what I see as actually two parts of your question. The first really has to do with the larger question of reform of the United Nations, and indeed the United States has long been an advocate particularly under this administration for saying: ‘We care about how this organization runs because we care about the institution. We actually want it to work better.

So, much of the work we do in terms of trying to work on greater transparency and accountability for different institutions within the UN system are because we want it to be efficient and effective. That's the larger framework for our approach to the UN reform issues. And specifically to the structural question, both the president and the secretary have been out front and pointing out that they would like the Security Council to be a Security Council that reflects the realities of the 21st century and on examining how to address that, what that might mean. And so that's been part of the administration thinking throughout this year, and these are important questions which require a detailed look and the administration will continue to do so.

RFE/RL: Is United States willing to accept another permanent member in the Security Council?

Brimmer: I think you can't take out one piece of this larger question in isolation from the larger issues. You would really have to look at what may be the longer term ways to make sure that the Security Council continues to reflect the involving nature of changes of the 21st century.

RFE/RL: The previous administration initially refused to participate in the work of the UN Human Rights Council and now the current administration is taking different approach. How does the United States see itself helping to improve the role of this UN body?

Brimmer: You are quite right to identify human rights as a fundamental area of interest in the Obama foreign policy. This administration is deeply committed to advancing human rights in an international setting.

One of its earliest and most important decisions was indeed to run for a seat on the Human Rights Council and I was deeply honored actually to win a seat on the Human Rights Council in May. The session opened last week [September 14]. I had the honor of actually going and representing the United States on the first day of our taking our seat at Geneva. And we wanted to emphasize that, yes, we thought that this is an important venue. We realize it is a troubled venue, that unfortunately not all members have worked in support of the fundamental values that we think should be central to the Human Rights Council, particularly upholding the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

What we'd like to see is that states really look at how they really value the universal declaration. And we'd hope the United States might be able to play a bridging role. In recent years, there've been unfortunately some deep cleavages among the member states there. We'd like to think that perhaps because we'd like to maintain good relations with many states and we might be able to help bring together many of the states to reinforce important principles that we share. And in fact one that's coming up quite soon is looking at, hopefully, bridging some of the differences on dealing with the freedom of expression, which in the past has been very acrimonious debate. We're trying to contribute to make this may be a more forward-looking debate on reinforcing this important principle in the Human Rights Council.

RFE/RL: How can the fight against the terrorism be better addressed through the UN?

Brimmer: Fighting global terrorism is unfortunately a challenge for all of us. But the activities to actually combating terrorist issues in each of our own countries have been grounded in important resolutions passed here at the UN that provided for international cooperation in these areas, provided for capacity building in these areas, provided for gathering of information that allows us to try to support each other in fighting terrorism.

RFE/RL: In her speech last week at the Brookings Institute, Secretary Clinton said that she will be personally committed to advancing women's issues through the UN, specifically the women as a driving economic force, and combating violence against women. Could you elaborate?

Brimmer: Indeed, as you mentioned, the secretary highlighted the role of women in several capacities in her Brookings speech. I'd like to pick up on two.

One in particular is dealing with violence against women, particularly in zones of conflict. The United States has been a strong supporter of international measures through the UN trying to help protect civilians and particularly helping women in zones of conflict. The secretary has long been interested in this issue. It was particularly highlighted during her trip to sub-Saharan Africa quite recently. She will actually be in New York on September 30 to chair a special session of the Security Council, which will work on a resolution following up to an existing resolution -- known here as Resolution 1820 -- which looks at women, peace, and security. And she will be here to chair a session where the Security Council will address this issue directly. She wanted to lend her strong support to the international mechanisms to deal with that. That's in one area.

She also talked about the important role of women as economic actors. And if we look particularly at one of her high-profile issues, the issue of food security, that she has also particularly recognized that in many parts of the world women are the farmers, women are the producers of food. So, in order to address food insecurity, it is important to help bolster the tools available for women as producers of the food the world eats.