View Comments

Facing the Crises of Our Time

The United Nations and the United States in the 21st Century

By Gillian Sorensen, Robin van Puyenbroeck | Carnegie New Leaders | September 21, 2010

Loading the player...

Right-click here to download.


DEVIN STEWART: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders and those who just joined the program. Thank you for coming. Today we have Robin van Puyenbroeck. Robin is one of the Steering Committee members of the Carnegie New Leaders. I'm going to turn it over to Robin, who helped put all this together, and he is going to moderate as well. Thank you very much.

ROBIN VAN PUYENBROECK: Thank you, Devin, and also welcome to the Carnegie Council. I hope you all had a wonderful summer.

It's an honor today and a distinct pleasure to introduce Gillian Sorensen to you tonight. Welcome, Gillian.



ROBIN VAN PUYENBROECK: Gillian is a true friend of the United Nations, if I may say so. She is now a senior advisor and a national advocate at the United Nations Foundation.

For those of you who are not aware of what the UN Foundation is, it is basically a foundation established in the late 1990s, after Ted Turner gave a $1 billion donation, to help further the goals of the United Nations. So the main goal, the main theme, that the United Nations Foundation works with is informing and educating Americans about the United Nations and about the UN/U.S.-related issues.

Before joining the UN Foundation, Gillian was an assistant secretary-general at the United Nations for external relations under Secretary-General Kofi Annan from 1997-2003, where she was mainly also responsible for the outreach with civil society.

Before that, she was special advisor on public policy under Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and before joining the United Nations she had a long career as the New York City Commissioner for the United Nations. So she was the liaison between this wonderful city and the United Nations.

Gillian is a Smith College graduate. She also studied at the Sorbonne in France. She was a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, and currently is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Women's Foreign Policy Group.

Now, above all, she is a very prominent and passionate speaker on the United Nations and on the U.S./UN relationship.

The last decade has been quite turbulent, if you look at the relationship between the United States and the United Nations. We went from a trusted friendship, to a necessary partnership, to, let's say, almost a disengagement, and we are now back on the way to engagement since the new administration came in.

Without further ado, I would like to turn it over to Gillian. We are very happy to have you here tonight. Thank you.

GILLIAN SORENSEN: Thank you very much, Robin, for your nice introduction; and thank you, Devin, for your invitation to come to the Council. I am very honored to be here. I certainly share the commitment you have for ethics in international relations, and I welcome this chance to meet with young leaders and with some other special, more senior people.

I am also happy to know, by scanning the attendance list, that we have representatives of the military, the diplomatic corps, representatives from business, politics, and philanthropy. It's a really wonderful, diverse group, and I am so pleased for that.

You're right, Robin, in your description. I have spent what seems to be my whole adult life working with and for the United Nations. I want to take just about three minutes to add another bit to that description, because it has been an experience that is unique for me.

In the last years, based at the United Nations Foundation, I have traveled America, by design, to see if we could carry a message out across the country, to engage and elevate the debate about the United States and the United Nations, to answer the critics, to reinforce our friends, to make a more vigorous and open discussion about the United Nations and the U.S./UN relationship, and put this in a different place.

We lived through years of tense and bad relations, UN-bashing seemed to be the order of the day, and this travel has been to see if we could do it differently.

I've traveled from Missoula, Montana, to Birmingham, Alabama; from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, on nearly 500 occasions. I've spoken to students, world affairs councils, faith groups, women's groups, civic groups of every kind, Rotary of course, and so on. I've spoken in LA, Chicago, and New York, but also in Syracuse, St. Paul, and Sacramento. I've addressed the military at West Point and the Air Force Academy. And, deliberately, I've also gone to Oral Roberts University and Regent University—you may know those are evangelical schools—to find a way to connect this discussion.

All my stereotypes about what America knew or didn't know about the United Nations have been broken. I have found experts in places you might least expect. In the audience in Fargo, there were Sudanese. In the audience in Omaha, there were Iraqis and Chinese. You never know in this country.

But what I did learn is that there is interest, there is concern, and there is also a vast lack of information, misinformation, and sometimes willful ignorance about the United Nations and about this country's relationship to it.

The American public, a large majority, support the United Nations—something like 67 percent. But it's a rather passive support. It's not passionate. It's not enough to make them stand up and shout. But at least it gives an opening for this discussion.

And, except for students who are majors in international relations, who have studied international organizations of one kind and another, and model UN students, the general population in this country is not well informed. And of course, into that vacuum of knowledge comes the anti-UN polemic.

Well, as you can guess, I'm a believer in the United Nations, I'm an advocate and defender. But I am not a UN romantic. I am acutely aware of its flaws and shortcomings. Nonetheless, I think there are ways of approaching this that are realistic and still optimistic.

I once heard Colin Powell say "optimism is a force multiplier." I like that phrase. Those of us who care about the United Nations need to keep that in mind and not pile on, but find ways to understand the United Nations and speak about the United Nations in positive ways.

I've sometimes said that the United Nations is the place where realism and idealism meet.

The ideal is very real. The ideal is very important. It is a moving force. It is the original vision of the United Nations, that we can do more together than we can do alone.

And realism, of course, is the world we live in—the political imperatives, the national differences, the things that make it difficult for the United Nations to succeed.

And so those two forces meet every day.

The United Nations, of course, reflects the will of its Member States, and when that will is consistent and coherent, and when there are the necessary resources to succeed, anything is possible.

But that is hard to come by, because we have now 192 Member States, universal representation, including of course every political system, race, religion, ethnicity, background, and so forth, and to find consensus with a group that diverse is not easy.

Well, having witnessed the ups and downs of the U.S./UN relationship—I've heard it called a "hot-and-cold romance"—over these years, I am still not discouraged.

There was a day when the dues were unpaid, and the United Nations was dismissed and the staff demeaned, and UN-bashing was a popular sport, amplified by talk radio. But that day has passed.

Today it is very different. It is very different. There is a new realization that transnational crises require a collective or global response. It is common sense for anyone who thinks in a holistic way.

President Obama has talked quite often about the new era of engagement, about diplomacy as a vital tool of our foreign policy. His UN ambassador, Ambassador Rice, said in her confirmation hearing that she was there to listen, to engage, and to cooperate.

Today our dues are up-to-date. We have rejoined UNESCO [UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization]—actually, that happened earlier. We have paid our voluntary contributions to the UN Development Programme, to UNICEF, to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. We have rejoined the UN Population Fund and paid a significant voluntary contribution there. We stood for election to the Human Rights Council.

The United States has reaffirmed its commitment to nuclear reduction, nuclear disarmament, and to a New START Treaty. We have sent observers to attend the meetings of the International Criminal Court. And we have talked about our intent to strengthen international organizations, especially the United Nations. This is stated as a priority.

What this says is that the United States is back, renewed, refreshed, able once again—or able now—to rebuild our reputation, to lead by example, to convey confidence and optimism, and to use our considerable influence, to leverage our influence, in positive ways. This is, I think, a natural leadership role for the United States, but we had abdicated in that for a period of years before.

This difference is very much felt throughout the United Nations. It is felt in the way people relate to the representatives of our country, in the language they use, in the willingness to join forces, and so forth.

And why would we not join forces? It is our best opportunity to share the burden, the risk, the cost, and the responsibility of joint action—and, of course, to share the benefit. It is our best chance to connect with the world at large and to lead by example. All of this is clearly in our national interest, and the outcome affects our health, our safety, our prosperity, our ability to lead, and so on. And it conveys a sense to the world that we are a reliable partner, one to emulate, one to follow, and not one to fear or resent.

So as this moves forward I think we have a chance—we, I say the collective way—America has a chance to regain its moral authority, to win friends and influence nations, to earn trust, respect, and credibility.

The agenda many of you are very familiar with, and in this expert group I certainly won't dwell on it. But let me just scan across it to remind us of the breadth and the depth of the UN agenda.

  • Beginning, of course, with peacekeeping, which gathers the most headlines. Sixteen operations at the front lines, in the most difficult circumstances you can imagine. None of them are using American soldiers—we don't offer or volunteer soldiers from this country—but the forces are combined from many, many other countries, and the United States does help in other ways, with transport and communications and equipment and more.

  • Then, disarmament—reduction of nuclear arms, chemical weapons, biological weapons, and land mines.

  • Then development—meaning addressing the condition of the poorest of the poor.

  • Human rights—setting the norms and standards, putting the spotlight on the worst offenders, seeking to encourage countries to improve their human rights records.

  • And humanitarian relief, of course—as we sit here this evening, 20 million refugees are under the protection of the United Nations.

  • Environmental action—or climate change, as we call it now. Not new to the United Nations, but the efforts to gather all countries in and to address this very real effect on our planet.

  • And certainly global public health—AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis; and included in that have to be health as it affects safe birth and maternity.

Well, each of these issues affects every country around the world. And in some, in the developed countries, they are not major problems or crises, but in many they are.

When we talk about facing the crises of our times, the name of this talk, you could have a rather long list actually. But in these few minutes I just want to take five. I'll be very brief. We could come back to any of these.

I would begin, of course, with poverty, the kind of grinding, dire poverty that is the condition of life of a billion people on Earth. The Millennium Development Goals that were put together by the United Nations in the year 2000, obviously, are the world's effort to bring us all together, to give coherence to our efforts to address extreme poverty. It gives us targets and timetables. And, although clearly we are not going to meet those targets, which were high goals at the outset, it at least puts us on the same page, allows us to have common points of reference, and allows countries that are far ahead to help those who area far behind. And also, it gives us a way to measure what progress we are making.

In about two weeks, you will see gathered at the United Nations every head of government in the world, coming a couple of days early, prior to the opening of the General Assembly, to talk about one subject: the Millennium Development Goals, and how we can galvanize this effort in the next five years, and how those countries who are lagging can be given assistance or support to do better and to do more, and to study areas where we have made real progress or where we have made progress in one area but not in another, and how we can duplicate the success. This is a life-changing, life-saving effort, and to have the world join on this is very, very important.

President Obama has said that he will—the term he used—align our foreign assistance with the MDGs, which is very helpful. That was not the case before, so sometimes they were talking at cross purposes. Now we have a common language and point of reference, which is very helpful. And of course, he will be here, along with the other world leaders, to discuss the Millennium Development Goals. If we can make real progress on this, and if the United Nations can be the forum for that, I do believe that's important and something of which we can be proud.

On peace and security, I mentioned the peacekeeping ops at the front lines. Surely, surely, this country has learned the limits of military might. I say that with all respect to the military. But even they, even soldiers, have said to me they can't do it alone; they need diplomats, they need development experts, they need health experts, they need others who can fill in or be an advance guard to military operations.

And of course the military will leave at some point, and the ongoing efforts to improve life have to be done by others.

Our own military has made some significant contributions, though—and not just financial contributions. In training, in transport, in communications and logistical equipment, the United States has tremendous capacity, and this where we have made our major contribution to UN peacekeeping.

When the president was here last fall, he convened, for the first time ever—or he invited, I should say—the leaders of the 12 major troop-contributing countries to a private discussion. Of course we weren't present, but we heard afterwards that, first, he wanted to say thank you for sending your troops—that had never been heard before. And then to say, "How can we do more? How can we do better?" That discussion was a first of its kind and was deeply appreciated and welcomed, and that opened up a larger conversation about how the United States and the United Nations can collaborate.

The next major issue I would reference is refugee assistance and disaster response. The United Nations has decades of experience in this. And although there are some remarkable NGOs, also first-rate, who work in this field, they turn to the United Nations to be the coordinator or overseer in situations that by definition are chaotic. Think of the tsunami in Asia. Think of the terrible earthquake in Pakistan. Think of the recent earthquake in Haiti. In all of those, the United Nations was present in large numbers and saving lives in a very important way.

Then I would touch on disarmament. The United Nations, of course, does work to reduce arms, as I mentioned. But they also address terrorism, which clearly is an issue that crosses borders without passports. How do you get a handle on that? How do you cut the flows of money or the trafficking in drugs that feed and fuel terrorist activities? How do we follow the movements of these, which go again from nation to nation?

This effort is joined, and it is joined through the disarmament offices and the Security Council in a very productive way. And need I add to that that in Iraq and Afghanistan, whatever you may think about the outset of those wars, the United Nations is playing a critical role. It is not a military role. It is a different kind of role in peace-building, in health efforts, in safe birth, and much more. And that is recognized by the United States and has been extremely important.

It's often said that the United Nations needs the United States. But I would also say that the United States needs the United Nations. We are partners. In this 65th year of the United Nations' existence, it bears remembering that the United States was one of the founders, was the driving force and the visionary, in an effort to build a new organization for peace that would learn from the past, that would do better than the League of Nations had, and would create a different world.

Has it been easy? Surely not. Has it been important? Absolutely yes. Has it been difficult and frustrating at times? Indeed, it has. But that reflects the nature of the problems and the crises that come this way. They are difficult. If they were easy, they would have been resolved at home or in the region.

So I would say simply the United Nations can do better and it can do more, and when the United States is fully committed the chance of success is always greater. The United Nations is imperfect but indispensible. Our challenge is to build upon its strengths and address its weaknesses in the most constructive way.

And finally, I would hope that those of us who care and look for ways to build this better world would have the courage or the strength to stand up and say, "The UN matters, we want it to succeed," and stand up and respond to its critics and help us engage in a constructive way the ongoing debate.

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

ROBIN VAN PUYENBROECK: I'll throw in a first question. Sometimes people ask me, "What is the UN and what's up with that?" I would say, "Well, the UN is basically everything that the Member States allow it to be."

When you talk about the combination, the interaction between realism and idealism, and sometimes the lack of information that people have about the UN, that people sometimes tend to forget that the UN is just the world's micro-cosmos and it's an instrument, it is a tool if you want, for policymaking, for working around all the issues you just mentioned, from peacekeeping to humanitarian assistance—but it's all up to the governments basically to decide how successful they want the UN to be.

So, in your opinion, how successful do governments want the UN to be, and specifically the U.S. government?

GILLIAN SORENSEN: Good question and good points on what is the UN. I would say it is a voluntary organization of states who come together, who choose to come together, to do what they can to create a better world. They have some different motivations, but there's not an independent country on Earth who does not want to be present, to be heard, to have a voice, to have an opportunity to build partnerships and coalitions, and to stand up for their national interest. But we hope also for the larger global interest.

I'd say also the United Nations is, to use your word, an instrument that reflects the will of the Member States. When that will is consistent and coherent, then the United Nations is empowered.

How successful is it? It is successful to the extent that Member States are committed to it, ask a lot of it, demand high standards, demand accountability and openness, and pursue reform—which we haven't spoken of—to make it a leaner and more effective organization.

It's not easy, but it is possible.

ROBIN VAN PUYENBROECK: You just touched upon UN reform, which is a very big issue. It goes all the way down to the issue of legitimacy basically, where a lot of countries in the world think that they are not really represented.

I am talking specifically about the Security Council, where countries like Brazil, Japan, Germany, and India feel that they are underrepresented. How is the dynamic you think going to go forward, where the U.S. position?—Of course, none of the P5 [Permanent Five Members] at this point has any interest at all or any benefit for changing the current structure—but where do you think this is going to go?

GILLIAN SORENSEN: Do you mean reform of the Security Council in particular?


GILLIAN SORENSEN: First, I would say, speaking personally, I hope this will happen. I think a larger Security Council would be more broadly representative. It would be perceived in a different way by the world at large if the numbers were greater than the 15 that currently sit on the Council.

And of course, the Permanent Five—the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China—have held those special seats, permanent seats with the power of veto, since the beginning, since 1945. And indeed, that is perceived as perhaps disproportionate power.

This discussion is not new. You may know it has come up a number of times. People have walked around it. But when it was put forward in a more formal way recently, with Brazil, Germany, Japan, and India presenting themselves as candidates, with some reason I think, to hold permanent seats, those were essentially vetoed in advance by some of the Permanent Members.

It means the five powers have to be ready to give up a bit of their privilege, and they are probably not at the moment. But I do think that they may find a formula to allow a larger Council, perhaps to allow some longer terms under certain circumstances. That would be a good thing.

It's an ongoing discussion. It will come up again this next year, to my understanding.


Let's open it up for questions.

QUESTION: That was a fascinating statement. I think I told you once that as a university student I spent a summer working at Lake Success in the section for nongovernmental organizations, at the Department of Public Information as I recall. My question is related to that experience.

To what extent, from what you know, do universities in the United States teach students about the United Nations?

GILLIAN SORENSEN: Let me go back one step to high schools. This is a concern, because in high school history or civics class you might find your first exposure to the United Nations. I'm sad to say that some history books have almost reduced or almost deleted references to the United Nations.

If there's a model UN in the high school, you have a group of interested students, and maybe a teacher or two that teach about it. But the learning at that young age has been limited.

In college, unless you major in political science or international relations, you are unlikely to get any teaching of it whatsoever. Again I refer to model UNs, because it's a growing phenomenon around the country. Every university, even the military academies, have model UNs. But that's a designated group. It might be 40 or 50 who really care a lot and they are well informed. But the larger number do not study it.

There was a day, you might remember, when college presidents would mark UN Day [October 24]. They would celebrate it. They would speak of it. Mayors and governors would do the same. That doesn't happen very often anymore.

So it is a real concern about a cohort of young adults for whom the United Nations is a blank slate. They simply have not studied and do not know about it, and that is part of the problem we face in trying to build a strong, informed, committed public across the country.

If I may add to that, I think education about the United Nations has always been focused on the institutions of the United Nations, the functioning and so forth, and most of the people that actually studied the UN system were people studying economics or law or international relations.

Now the Department of Public Information has a new initiative under way, which is called Academic Impact, where universities are asked to sign up and recognize the principles of the United Nations. The students they focus on are the not-so-obvious usual suspects, being the science students and medical students.

What they try to get to is to tell these young people that "You do not have to come and work for the United Nations or understand how the system works to support the goals of the United Nations. You can do so many things in life that fight child mortality or work around maternal health or fight poverty or the environment. These are all Millennium Development Goals. These are all goals of the United Nations. So you can do so many things and help the United Nations achieve its goals without being well educated about how the United Nations exactly works."

So there is this going on. But I agree, the educational element is definitely there.

GILLIAN SORENSEN: That's a great initiative. I'm glad to hear about that.

ROBIN VAN PUYENBROECK: Yes. It will be launched in November.

QUESTION: There is a mindset in this country which is totally different than most other places in the world. We work against it when we try to sell the United Nations here too hard.

I just came back from Geneva. I was bowled over by the sophistication of Geneva. It's the main industry of Geneva, of course. But the complex that's there, of the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, is the largest building in Geneva—WIPO [World Intellectual Property Organization] ICAO [International Civil Aeronautical Organization], World Meteorological Organization. It is something that Europeans understand, and the culture there is nurtured by them in a different way than we respect the United Nations here.

GILLIAN SORENSEN: You are quite right, it's a different setting.

I didn't mention one point that I'd like to bring in. That is the universe of NGOs. These are people of course attached to a particular issue—it might be health, it might be the rights of the disabled, it might be climate change. There are 4,200 accredited NGOs at the United Nations.

They may or may not be interested in other political questions, controversial issues, but they are passionately committed to their cause. That multiplies the reach of the United Nations a million-million-fold. Those are, as Kofi Annan used to say, our essential partners.

One of those NGOs, I must add, is the United Nations Foundation, which I am attached to now, which was launched by Ted Turner, and has been able to assist and support the United Nations and extend its reach in many different areas, but particularly in health and climate issues, and support for women and girls. I feel privileged to be part of that organization that is doing such good work.

QUESTION: Gillian, forgive me, first of all, if I expand upon an answer you gave to a very interesting question from Robin, which is about Security Council reform. In fact, the four countries you mentioned, which were the most serious candidates to become Permanent Members—Germany, India, Brazil, Japan—that list usually included an African country too, either South Africa or Nigeria.

Those five countries have given up on Security Council reform. The proof of it is they have decided now they will all try to become non-Permanent Members, meaning serving for two years in a certain sort of sequence, because they think right now that Security Council reform came so close in 2006 and that it failed, that it will be a long time before it comes back.

And you are quite right in saying the existing Permanent Members have no use for it. The French and the British don't want to see another European country, Germany, that has more right to be on it than either one of them do. So they have sort of give up on Security Council reform probably for a decade or so, and what you'll see is they will all be running to become non-Permanent Members, to participate in the Council that way.

I want to tell you a little piece of news—and it illustrates something. Coming here, on my BlackBerry I saw that President Obama has announced this afternoon that he will come here at the opening of the General Assembly to participate in the Sudan meeting. Now, that is evidence of what you spoke about before, a commitment by the United States to the United Nations that simply did not exist, particularly in the previous administration.

The question I want to ask you is: During the previous administration, when times got really tough for the United Nations, because of the Oil for Food crisis and the use of that crisis that enemies of the United Nations made of it, the UN Foundation did some very interesting polling. I, as a reporter then covering the United Nations, had some access to it. So I may be asking you to reveal something that is private. But the polling was interesting about American attitudes about the United Nations. Where this question is going is, I wonder if there is still polling and what it's showing.

It showed things like the following. At a time when Americans were pretty negative about the United Nations, they had some specific words that bothered them. The word "multilateral" was a bad word. But the idea of "sharing the burden with other countries" was a good word, because that implied America still is a leader, which felt good to people, but then implied America is a leader inviting other people to join it in efforts—burden-sharing rather than multilateral arrangements.

So—sorry for the long windup to it—is the UN Foundation now polling American attitudes? Is it finding any sort of interesting results of that polling? Does that polling support your sensed notion from speaking to audiences across the country that Americans feel better about the United Nations than they did, say, five or six years ago?

GILLIAN SORENSEN: I agree with you about the term "multilateral." People's eyes glaze over with that term. There has to be a better term.

The UN Foundation has done more polling, and recent polling, and it does state again that a solid majority, well over 60 percent, do support the United Nations. That support is broad but not deep. I think I said before it's not passionate. They may not stand up and shout about it. But they generally approve and they wish it to succeed.

Now, how do we deepen that? How do we mobilize that? How do we get people to put up their hands and say, "We support this, we want to be counted"? That's what we're trying to do now.

One single success can make a difference. It can change the numbers by five, ten points very quickly. We of course are looking for that success.

It also reflects, I think, leadership in the United Nations. Vigorous, visionary, charismatic leaders will get positive attention.

We are trying to make the most of helping the American public understand the successes and achievements and, at the same time, not to pretend that it's perfect or can do everything. It cannot do everything. But when we can make a difference we should try.

I think the concept, when you have a chance to talk about it and when people are willing to listen, is well understood. When I speak to students, which I do a lot, I am very moved at the numbers of them who want to contribute, they want to take part, they want to make a difference. They say, "How do I do that? How can I join that? What should I be studying now?" The earnestness, the sincerity, and the depth of these questions to me is very touching.

We have an opportunity for them. Not everyone can work at the United Nations. But there is, as I said, the universe of NGOs and other chances for people to contribute in a way that extends beyond our immediate circle and our own small communities to a larger world.

So I am hopeful. Or, as someone once said, I am an optimist but I worry a lot.

QUESTION: Could you elaborate more on your experience with touring the United States and some of the NGOs that you've possibly engaged and new platforms that are on the horizon to tie in American 501(c) (3)s [U.S. NGOs with tax-exempt status] whose interests are aligned with the UN's goals?

GILLIAN SORENSEN: In my travels, I started out with what you might consider the choir. It was easy to begin speaking to people who were really connected to UNAs or civic groups of one kind or another. But, over time, I thought: If we're just talking among ourselves, we're not really making progress. So, deliberately, we made this effort to reach further afield.

Occasionally, it was a little bit difficult. In Michigan, at one event, the Michigan militia came, wearing camouflage, and they stood at the back. They never sat down. They crossed their arms like this, in a rather threatening pose. They waited until the last question to put up their hand and pose the question. I anticipated it. It had to do with the question of sovereignty. They felt the United Nations was a threat to our sovereignty. That's a common misunderstanding. I gave a very thoughtful answer. I don't know if I convinced them. But I was glad they were there and that we had an exchange.

Likewise, I've spoken at Fort Hood to an all-military audience, whether active duty or retired. One of them came up to me afterwards and said, "You know, I'm not sure I agree with you, but you opened a window."

When I spoke to the military cadets at the Air Force Academy in West Point, that too was interesting. These of course were 20-year-olds, 19 and 20, and thinking from their particular perspective. But they seemed surprised and really interested to hear about aspects of the United Nations of which they had no idea, particularly our work in development and the sustaining activities of the United Nations around military operations.

I've tried, I mentioned, to go to the evangelical universities, because historically we thought they were opposed to the United Nations. The truth is we have a lot to talk about, a lot to talk about, if you can find the language.

I came across a wonderful document, called "An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." I read it and I thought, "This almost sounds like a United Nations document"—not all of it, but there were some major points of agreement and of common commitment. So we picked up on those, and I spoke, and we opened the discussion, and it was really wonderful. And they asked me to come back again.

Where else? I'll go wherever they ask me, just about. I've gone to states that are considered somewhat anti-UN—to Utah, for instance; to Texas, where there's an issue over the UN in textbooks.

I think we simply need more voices, more venues, more people to pick up this subject—and not just in a public forum like this, but with your classmates or your colleagues or your family—to have a discussion about this and see if you can stir some interest and answer a few questions and raise awareness, raise consciousness, about what this is and why it matters, what's our stake in the success of the United Nations.

QUESTION: Thank you for this presentation, and especially for mentioning all the results and all the situations where the United Nations is serving the poor and in situations of humanitarian crisis.

My question is still about the Security Council, but not about the reform of the Security Council, but as the Council is right now. We have seen that there are a lot of issues where the P5 reach an agreement. but there are also many other crises—I could mention Myanmar, because this is where I work daily—where the Council is strongly divided.

Sometimes we see that the United States, when they are not able to reach an agreement within the Council, they simply give up or they sideline the issues, or they use other tools rather than the United Nations.

I wanted to know if you have any suggestions or if you have any idea about the U.S. policy and the U.S. diplomatic engagement within the P5, if there is something which could be changed or improved.

GILLIAN SORENSEN: I'm not an expert on U.S. policy to Myanmar, or Burma, but I do know that there are many diplomatic routes that can be taken. Working with and through the Security Council is one, and a very important one.

But there is informal diplomacy around the side. There are other pressures, other influence or persuasion you can bring to bear. There is sometimes economic suasion. There are investments. There are sanctions. And then there is public opinion—working with the press, working with human rights champions, and others who can speak eloquently to this issue and raise it for consideration of the world, as well as the Security Council.

The Security Council has a very full agenda. And, despite what is seen as a lot of power, it has limits, because we only have, after all, 120,000 peacekeepers. That's a fraction of the American force in—well, we're drawing down now. I was about to say Iraq. It's a small number when you consider that they are now deployed in 16 different operations.

So whether it's giving mandates for peacekeeping troops or applying other kinds of pressure, persuasion, mediation, negotiation, diplomatic outreach, you have to look at every possible route.

But I don't discount the public voice and the truly eloquent writers and speakers, particularly those who come from Burma, who have lived there, who know it, who have credibility when they speak that outsiders may not have, because it is from their personal experience, from their heart if you will.

So if you cannot get action or attention through the Council, then you have to be creative in exploring every other option that you can imagine.

ROBIN VAN PUYENBROECK: Thank you, Gillian.

I actually have one more question for you, I think an important one, because you just mentioned the issue of state sovereignty. I think someone in the audience also mentioned the issue in Sudan and the president coming over. There is a new idea, called the responsibility to protect, that was developed over the last couple of years, which is actually in conflict with the principle of the sovereignty of a state. But that is exactly the principle that the whole UN system is built on. How do you see that dynamic going forward?

GILLIAN SORENSEN: It's a dilemma really, because for centuries sovereignty was king and wars tended to be between states, not within states. But today what we are seeing time and again are internal wars, ethnic or other wars, within a country. When those reach the level of genocide or crimes against humanity within the country, the responsibility to protect says that outside countries, outside forces, have the right to intervene.

After great discussion and deliberation, that concept, that notion, was agreed upon. But of course the challenge is in the implementation. When such a crisis arises, are other countries ready to intervene? Will they put forward the resources to do that? And what will be the reaction of others in the neighborhood, for instance, who are very protective about their own national boundaries and so on?

The concept is interesting, and it is a visionary concept. But the test will really come over time as to whether in these egregious circumstances other nations will be prepared to intervene. So the test remains to be seen.

ROBIN VAN PUYENBROECK: All right. Thank you.

I take with me a message of more dialogue, the need to raise more awareness.

I actually would like to end with a quote I read recently of Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was the UN Special Representative in Iraq, and he was killed during an attack there in 2003. He basically said that, instead of relying on the United Nations to change the countries of the world, one has to change first the countries of the world in order to transform the United Nations.

Thank you all for coming and have a good night.


This event is part of the Council's second annual SEPTEMBER SUSTAINABILITY MONTH, which kicks off a year of events and resources on sustainability. Generous funding of the Carnegie Council's 2010-2011 sustainability programming has been provided by Hewlett-Packard and by Booz & Company.

Creative Commons License
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Please read our usage policy.

Read More: Aid, Democracy, Development, Diplomacy, Education, Environment, Gender, Globalization, Governance, Health, Human Rights, Peace, Poverty, Religion, Security, United States, Americas, Global

blog comments powered by Disqus

Site Search

Global Research Engine

This search includes our Core Network partners.

Join Our Mailing Lists

The Journal