The Role of the United Nations in Global Governance

The Role of the United Nations in Global Governance

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Samantha Power, the Anna Lindh professor of the practice of global leadership and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and professor of practice at Harvard Law School, discusses the United Nations’ role in global governance, at a time when the United States is withdrawing from multilateral treaties and institutions, as part of CFR’s Academic Conference Call series.

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Samantha Power

Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Professor of Practice, Harvard Law School

Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

Today’s call is on the record. And the audio and transcript will be available on our website, at

We are delighted to have Samantha Power with us to discuss “The Role of the United Nations in Global Governance.” Ambassador Power is the Anna Lindh professor of the practice of global leadership and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, professor of practice at Harvard Law School, and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. From 2013 to 2017, she served as the 28th U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, as well as a member of President Obama’s Cabinet. In this role, Ambassador Power became the public face of U.S. opposition to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria, negotiated sanctions against North Korea, lobbied to secure the release of political prisoners, helped build new international law to counter ISIL’s financial networks, and supported President Obama’s actions to end the Ebola crisis. From 2009 to 2013, she served on the National Security Council as special assistant to the president and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights. And she also served, from 2005 to 2006, as an international affairs fellow here at CFR.

In 2003, she won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for her book “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” If you haven’t read it, I commend it to you all. And she is currently writing a new book, “The Education of an Idealist,” which will chronicle her years in public service, and reflect on the role of human rights and humanitarian ideals in contemporary politics.

Ambassador Power, we’re delighted and honored to have you with us today. Thank you very much for taking the time. I thought we could begin by having you talk about the role of the United Nations in global governance, particularly during this—these tumultuous times.

POWER: Sure. That’s the understatement of the day. Thank you very much—

FASKIANOS: Exactly. (Laughs.)

POWER: —Irina, and thanks to CFR for all of the work that you all do to try to sustain a constituency to even have a foreign policy in a time when people are quite tempted to turn inward and where our polarization is impeding constructive action, unfortunately, on a lot of fronts.

I’m going to try to speak quite briefly because I know how many young people and how many professors we have on the call have some, I’m sure, with their own very specific slice of interest as it relates to the U.N. or to U.S. foreign policy. So I’ll just give a very broad overview at the outset and, again, try to be succinct.

When I encounter people who have questions about the U.N., I encounter—and perhaps many of you on the call do as well—a surprising amount of misunderstanding, given how long this organization has been with us, 72 years now, going on. There’s still a sense that the kind of U.N. is an actor in its own right with an engine, a bank account, even—some people even think an army of its own. And, of course, that’s not at all true.

The success of the U.N. and the limits of the U.N. to perform a constructive role in the world that we need it to perform, those limits and that extent is defined by member states—of which there are 193—and very specifically by the powerful member states, specifically the permanent members of the Security Council—the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia—but also, you know, the emerged powers like India, Japan, you know, Germany. I mean, these are countries that invest a huge share of the resources that get spent every year by the U.N., whether on U.N. kind of core infrastructure like the building, the headquarters, the salaries, the secretary-general and his staff, or humanitarian funding, or peacekeeping missions. The share of those resources come from a very, very small number of countries relative to the broader membership. And so, while the U.N. is an actor in its own right—there are people who carry baby blue and white passports and, in effect, salute the U.N. flag as their almost primary flag in their place of work—all those people work and do what they do because of the investment of member states. So even when the U.N. is an actor in its own right, it’s at the mercy of the generosity of and the investments made by countries like ours. So that’s the U.N. as an actor, where that dependency exists.

The secretary-general is an actor in and of himself. But again, there’s not a check that he can write or soldier or policeman he can send without the approval of the member states. And so, again, people have joked over the years that the secretary-general is more secretary than general. I think we have in the current secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, a very unusual leader, somebody who’s been head of state but also run UNHCR, the refugee agency, for a decade at the time of the largest displacement crisis since the Second World War. He’s, I think, a very articulate leader. He uses the pulpit as secretary-general very effectively and quite forcefully. But it is just a pulpit, and he will be at his best and at his most effective when he can get the major powers to be going in the same direction. So, again, that’s the U.N. as an actor.

What the U.N. is that I expected, with the U.N. as a stage where countries come together to be themselves, and they bring—they park their conceptions of their national interests, they park their values such as they are, and they advocate for them in one big scrum. Now, again, even in that scrum on that stage, some countries have more leverage and more influence and more rulemaking authority than others. The permanent members of the Security Council, of course, are atop that list because they are able to decide what is legal under international law as it relates to the use of force. They are able to put in place coercive measures like economic sanctions and lift sanctions when change is secured, or when circumstances change.

They have a very important role—“we,” I should say, because it includes the United States—in not only norm-setting, but norm enforcement, you know, in really deciding, OK, you know, massive sexual violence has been carried out in South Sudan; what are we going to do about it? I mean, the norm against sexual violence which the Security Council can enshrine and the General Assembly can enshrine is all well and good, but then when a concrete case arises and the Security Council can’t agree on doing anything about it, that norm starts to feel, you know, quite flimsy. And the flimsier—I think this is what we saw with the displacement crisis and with a lot of the violence in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East in recent years, is a kind of crisis of confidence born of state failure and humanitarian suffering gives rise to a real demand on the countries within the U.N. to perform and to find a way to cooperate. And when they fail—and I’ll come to a couple examples of when we’ve succeeded and when we’ve failed—when we fail, then that—it’s sort of a doom loop in the sense that people don’t know where else to turn, and you start to feel almost a contagion of state weakness and a sense that non-state actors—various non-state actors are going to take advantage of that. Then there’s a culture of impunity that starts to develop, where a leader in one state—let’s say the president of South Sudan—looks and sees that there’s been no consequences for the president of Burundi, and says, well, this is a—this is a world order I can live with, because now I can do what I want. And so, again, I think we—in recent years it has been a struggle with leaders feeling impunity.

And I think it was very important that in the effort against ISIL, starting with Obama and some of that progress has been continued, but the rollback of ISIL’s territorial gains were very, very important, most especially for the people living in those areas and for the threats that arose from those areas, but also because it showed that the countries comprising the international system could cooperate with one another, could stymie the flow of people and of money into terrorist hands. And there’s a lot of work, of course, left to be done. But halting ISIS in its tracks, rolling that back, again, helps get us back, at least in one domain, on a more virtuous cycle where people think, oh, OK, international institutions can be a stage where countries come together. They can agree on new norms. They can then go about enforcing those norms. That can make a difference on the ground. People can’t be left terrorized, even if far too many people are still being terrorized. So the ISIS coalition, while, you know, too much suffering had already occurred, I think was very important.

The other, I think, very positive example of the U.N. as a stage, by and large, but also performing some role in the field as an actor its own right, was Ebola, which was mentioned in the intro. And there is a perfect example of how, when the U.N. works, how it works. It works because in that instance the United States—but it could be another country, but it almost never is another country—steps forward and does what President Obama did at the time of pure panic across the United States. And a number of even Democratic senators and congressmen calling for travel bans to prevent health workers from returning from West Africa, from treating Ebola patients. Obama said, if we don’t deal with this at it—at its root, we’re going to have a major problem here and we’re going to see colossal suffering of a kind, you know, we’ve never seen before. I mean, the exponential rate of spread was one of the most chilling things that I have seen on the horizon in my lifetime.

And the president said, OK, so, we—this isn’t going to be fun. And we’re going to be pushing water uphill here in the political climate that we have, but I’m going to send 3,000 troops and health workers into the eye of the storm. And you, Samantha, and the rest of our diplomats—Secretary Kerry and others, and ambassadors around the world—you’re going to go build a coalition because I’m giving you what you need. I’m giving you the amount and investment and you need to go multiply that leverage our—what we are doing to get China, Japan, Germany, Denmark, you know, all these countries along.

And that is what—because of that investment and political courage I think that he showed, we were then able to get other countries to—I wouldn’t say necessarily pull all of their weight, but certainly we addressed a free rider problem that we see on too many crises. And a lot of countries showed up. And there was too much duplication. It wasn’t as well-coordinated as anybody would want. But the fact of the matter is we went from seeing 8.5 million infections on an exponentially spreading virus—you know, that number was going to be arrived at five months hence—to ending the Ebola epidemic in those three countries.

And that’s, again, system—when it works, and then with the coalition built we then empowered the U.N. to set up a coordinating mechanism. It’s the U.N. that spends a lot of the money that the international community invested. But fundamentally it’s those countries that make the U.N. work in service of what you might call global governance. The negative examples are many, of course. Certainly, the refugee crisis not seeing the kind of burden sharing that you need, where now you have 4.5 million Syrian refugees, as one example, living in the countries that neighbor Syria. And Germany, of course, carrying a very large share of the—of the refugee population that tried to move into Europe. But a number of EU countries saying no and now, as we see in the United States, a drastic drop in the number of refugees we are prepared to take.

The system just doesn’t work if big countries like ours walk away from our responsibility to do our share, which I think is sort of the opposite of Ebola. It gives permission that they’re looking for. A lot of leaders don’t want to push political water uphill either, right, and know that there’s fear there, and that—and there’s demagoguery, and a lot of legitimate fears, and a lot of very false claims that are—that are out there. And they see the United States doing what it’s doing and it’s, again, a sort of domino effect of the worst possible kind, which will just place, again, an even steeper burden on those countries which have much lower GDPs, much less of an ability, you know, to maintain such enormous refugee populations. But they would be the ones stuck carrying the load.

The Syria conflict is another example where, despite, you know, years of effort and brawn, and Secretary Kerry giving his—all of his energy to this the last couple years that he was secretary of state, you know, we just hit a brick wall. And we hit a brick wall which happens too often, which is when the Security Council is divided—as it was because the U.S., the U.K. and France had one view of the situation, Russia had another, and China followed Russia’s position, although not with a huge amount of gusto. But when that kind of gridlock occurs on the Security Council, the principal organ that has been designated to deal with a crisis of this magnitude, a threat to peace and security of this scale, is just—it’s a no-show.

And so with, you know, whatever it is now, seven Russian vetoes—six or seven Russian vetoes on relatively mild measures throughout—with the exception of an International Criminal Court to find out what was going on—like, relatively robust by the Security Council standards effort. Everything else was really quite mild. And there was just a wholly different perspective. A perspective on Russia’s side of just backing the Assad regime no matter what it did was going to be the best way to stabilize the situation. Our belief that when you have a country that is ruled a now-minority of the population, when such brutality is used to repress initially just political protest and then eventually a rebellion.

When that kind of brutality is used, the ability to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again and for that leader to ever stabilize the country and the situation a real way, and ever really deal with the recruitment appeal of his tactics for very bad actors like ISIS—evil actors like ISIS—we just believe that in the long run that approach is not going to work. Now, we can talk about that fact that as a U.N.—again, you can blame the U.N. for that, but fundamentally it’s about two very large countries with a lot of pull within the kind of executive branch of the U.N. just seeing the conflict completely differently. And frankly, a willingness on the part of the Russian Federation to initially look away from and then contribute to some of the worst atrocities that we’ve seen in the last 50 years.

So that’s the system as it is. Just one brief word before we open it up on where we are now. I think, you know, the contrast between President Obama’s approach to international institutions and multilateralism, collective security and the current administration is very stark and very dramatic. It’s probably the biggest contrast between two presidents who’ve succeed one—far greater contrast than between President Clinton and President George W. Bush, I think it’s fair to say. And to me, the Trump approach, just in terms of enhancing our security which is the rubric under which it is being waged—is not likely to be effective on that axis because the way the U.N. works is it’s a system.

And if you approach it ala carte and just go to it when you need something—so, when you need sanctions against North Korea, which have been achieved and it’s very important that they’ve been achieved—and then look for enforcement of sanctions on North Korea, it’s not as if the actions you take, let’s say on the Iran deal, exist in a vacuum. They have great bearing then on countries’ willingness, if you’re North Korea, to ever engage in a diplomatic process, to give up nuclear weapons, of course. But also even the countries that otherwise would need to be part of an enforcement—a really, really strict and vigilant enforcement mechanism.

So too, you know, pulling out of the Paris agreement, when you have small member states at the U.N., you know, literally disappearing under water. You know, we relied on those small countries. They were huge supporters of the United States when we needed them on really tough issues like LGBT rights. You know, when you’re disappearing under water and the most powerful country in the world walks away from an agreement that is existentially important to your existence, I suspect the relations, again, with small countries who don’t have a huge amount of leverage in the international system, but nonetheless are votes, and important votes, on issues like Ukraine, where we denied Russia’s ability to formally annex Crimea and, you know, got 100 countries to vote with us. A lot of those were small countries that appreciated the fact that the United States stood with them, you know, in their many, many hours of need over the years.

So I think ala carteism has traditionally not been effective. And the precise nature of the main threats that we face—and there are, of course, major threats posed by Russia and more medium-term but very significant threats and risks associated with China’s rise. But the sort of main threats that are before us today. The extreme weather that is produced by climate change. The spread of ISIS and its kind, because it isn’t only ISIS, it’s a mentality that shows up in Boko Haram or in regional terrorist movements—in terrorist movements that exist in countries where we have embassies and we have our aid workers and we have our citizens and tourists traveling.

We need to build coalitions. You know, these are threats that are very wily and don’t respect borders. And we need to harness an institution that, when it works—which, again, is not as often as it should, but can deal with threats like Ebola, which cross borders, and can mobilize states to build norms together and then, on good days, hold those states accountable to those norms. So I think others have made the point, of course, that we are—at a time when China is already throwing its weight around much more within the U.N. system—we are hastening China’s rise and China’s leadership role within the U.N. We are hastening the demise of you might call it the American century or a more unipolar moment, but that moment has downsides, right, in terms of burden sharing and so forth.

And some of the frustrations of the current administration were shared and articulated very forcefully by us in the previous administration about the need for other countries to pull their weight more often within the international system. But the way to get other countries to pull their weight and make the U.N. work, and make international law the taming force, is not to walk away from international law and not to ridicule countries—the countries that comprise the U.N. and cut funding to the institution itself. So I suspect this is not going to be very effective. And, indeed, I don’t think a China-led U.N. is one that is going to do much positive as it relates to promoting U.S. interests and values.

And indeed, I really worry that some of the actual action that has come out of the U.N., which has been the product of U.S. leadership across Republican and Democratic administrations, that those actions will be harder and harder for the executive branch, as it were, the Security Council, and other parts of the U.N., to effectuate. Because I think you’ll start to see China sensing an opening, and having a very different conception of what the U.N. should be in the 21st century.

So with that, why don’t we, Irina, you could—at your—on your heeding, open it up.

FASKIANOS: That sounds great. Thank you very much for that tour de force. Let’s open up to the students for their questions.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am. At this time, we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Stockton University.

Q: What is your opinion on Trump’s new travel ban, or any other foreign policy for the future of the U.S. and the U.N.?

POWER: What is my position on the travel ban, is that what you said?

Q: Yes.

POWER: And what was the second question? And any, what?

Q: Or any other foreign policy for the future of the U.S. and the U.N.?

POWER: I’m not sure I understand that part of the question, but I’ll take the first part of the question, which I think it’s deeply troubling for all the reasons that many courts have stuck it down. It is fundamentally sending a signal that we believe Muslims are terrorists. And we in this country for a long time have believed in individual responsibility—that’s the essence of our nation—and holding people accountable for what they do rather than because of some identity that they are born into or that—because of how they pray. So it’s deeply troubling and it’s a surefire way to provide a propaganda boost to the very terrorists we’re trying to figure, because they are using this show that we are anti-Muslim and to radicalize people and to bring recruits into their ranks. So extremely disruptive and deeply embarrassing for a country that had, until recently, led on human rights.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next comes from Colby College.

Q: Ambassador Power, thank you for your talk. My question is, what structural changes would you make to the U.N. to make it more effective in the future?

POWER: Thank you. You know, that’s a question we get a lot. And if you followed what I was saying, the challenge in answering the question is the same challenge that exists at the U.N. itself, which is any structural change has to go through those five permanent members who, you know, I can’t think of really a time when the division between—since the Cold War—where the division between the United States and Russia has been so significant, where China’s rise means that it is going to be, again, asserting itself much more. So to take the Security Council membership, if you—that’s one of the changes that one could consider, because the membership is kind of old school. It’s from 1945. You know, the five—the World War II victors and France sitting there as permanent members. Europe is massively overrepresented on the Security Council as a permanent member. And you’d love to see something much more representative of the 2017, you know, kind of power dynamics. Economic and global heft should be reflected in your global body, presumably.

But for—in order for the five permanent members to settle on which countries should actually be represented on the U.N. Security Council, it just isn’t—it isn’t realistic, because, again, of the very, very different worldview. And we looked at this under the Obama administration. Like, could we make it more legitimate and more—so more legitimate, more representative of the contemporary world and its power dynamics, while not inhibiting its effectiveness? And the truth is, you don’t even get out the gate because the countries that China would wish to see on the Security Council and the countries that they would impede standing membership on the Security Council sort of ends the conversation almost at minute one.

And then if you expanded it just numerically, you’re just probably going to—and the permanent membership of today doesn’t change—you still have the gridlock on core issues like Ukraine and Syria. And probably, you know, more countries would feel like they’re part of that institution. So there’s something, I suppose, they would deem positive about that. But in terms of actual outcomes from the U.N., it’s not clear what that would achieve. So that’s a longwinded way of saying that Security Council reform I think is unlikely to happen anytime soon. And one reason structures like the G-20 have taken off in the last decade is because countries like India, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, you know, have—and the rest of us—have needed a venue for bringing together the key economic and political stakeholders in the world.

I think, you know, there’s too much bloat in the U.N. And we slashed that some from different parts of the U.N. over the length of the Obama administration, stabilized a budget that has been ballooning previously. But I think an approach that is simply cutting and not actually looking substantively at what work is being done and what will be lost—as I think just happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo—I think that’s very problematic. So you have countries that just dig in and just want to kind of protect their turf or their sinecures. That’s terrible. And we’re hoping that China, because it’s become a much bigger donor to the U.N., can help Western countries like the United States and the Europeans really fight those impulses. But by the same token, we don’t want to just go in, as China does, and cut all the human rights posts, you know, from U.N. missions in order to—they say to save money, but really they just want to do away with human rights posts.

So structural change is really hard. But the way the U.N. will change will be when the countries that comprise it pursue policies within the international system that are more enlightened and look more to the medium and long term than to scoring political points on a Twitter feed.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Washington University.

Q: Hi. My name is Cynthia Fox.

I was inspired by United Nations back when I was in high school. I’ve been practicing law now—I’m a graduate of Washington School of Law for 44 years. And back in high school, I was an enthusiastic participant in model U.N. and also in college. And I was inspired, in fact, to become an attorney because of Khrushchev yelling at the podium, pounding on the podium with his shoe, screaming, “ya khochu mira,” I want peace. I thought that was a really weird way to describe you wanted peace. (Laughter.) But so I have this long-term lover for the U.N. But I also have this memory of what happened to the League of Nations. And I know that the United Nations addressed some of those, but I happen to be a divorce lawyer. I wanted to go to the U.N., but I couldn’t leave my beloved St. Louis. So warring couples was the closest thing I could get to the United Nations. And the precepts worked well, I might add.

But what I’m getting at is that while I view the U.N. like warring couples, it—to keep a marriage together it takes a commitment—a deep, abiding commitment to get through thick and thin. And while under this administration, you know, we had these horrendous storm clouds overhead. And I’m think of this threat to cut the subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, and to sabotage it repeatedly so that one way or another he kills the Affordable Care Act. I think that the signs are there that he could do the same to the United Nations. I wonder how long the U.N. would survive without the funding of the U.S. at its current levels? And worst-case scenario, the Donald may be eyeing that real estate. (Laughter.) But seriously, how long would a hold back of funds from U.S. take before it did serious damage to the United Nations?

POWER: Well, I’d say a few things. You know, the decision to situate the U.N. within the United States is a major strategic advantage for the United States, right? It symbolizes America’s power. It certainly symbolizes everything we did in the Second World War and beyond, with the Marshall Plan and the construction of the post-war order that mainlined a very maintained a very long peace for a long time and brought unprecedented prosperity to parts of the world that had never experienced it, created a broad global middle class—letting people down like crazy, we know now, but nonetheless, an architecture that was really important. But was no coincidence that the World Bank and the IMF and the U.N. are here in the United States.

And so if you saw a retreat of that—it depends on the magnitude. Like, if you see them cutting funds as they are now—they’re just slashing peacekeeping missions and slashing funding for programs that are extremely important in the developing world and beyond. But if they go further than that—and, you know, there are calls to pull out of the U.N.—you would—you would rapidly—I think the organism, such as it is, would adapt. And it would adapt in a way that would be very, very harmful for U.S. interests. I mean, there’s a way—as frustrating as it can be, and I know first-hand from eight years of working U.N. issues, four of which were as ambassador representing this amazing country—you know, the—other countries would be—there are some countries that would just be thrilled by that prospect, right?

China has gone from being one of the smallest donors to the U.N.—you know, almost like one of those very, very small countries back when it joined in the U.N. as the PRC—to now being the number-two donor to peacekeeping and the number-three donor to the overall budget. If the United States stepped aside, it would be terrible financially for other countries, because in order to get the work done they need to do for the sake of their people and their interests they’d probably have to chip in more. This is all—the amount that anyone pays is deduced by virtue of a formula that takes into account your GDP and your per capita income and so forth. So they wouldn’t like the financial drain on that. But countries that don’t see the world the same way we do, like China, would have open season to shape the 21st century world order.

And in terms of—I don’t see that happening. I see sort of the opposite. I see that while the U.N. has been an easy punching bag for, frankly, a lot of people for a very long time. And, again, some of the frustrations people feel, I think, are warranted because of the impasses we reach when we really need to be cooperating and compromising, or just standing up against aggression and injustice, as we do a very large share of the time. But, you know, I don’t—I see cooler heads prevailing, so far, as it relates to, for instance, foreign aid. The Trump budget on foreign aid was an abomination. I mean, just slashing, slashing, cutting—you know, just some bean counter with no regard for the interests that are advanced by investing, let’s say, in anti-HIV programs. Or, as General Mattis, our defense secretary said, you know, you cut foreign aid and let me know, because I’ll have to buy more ammunition.

You know, fundamentally when countries become weaker and are not getting development support, and these are countries that started incredibly impoverished, that’s ultimately going to be not something good for our people who are living in that country, our people who are living in neighboring countries, and our interests over time. And those constituencies—whether it’s General Mattis or whether it’s Lindsey Graham, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that works on foreign assistance—you know, Lindsey Graham has more in common with Patrick Leahy, a liberal senator from Vermont, on questions of foreign aid and probably ultimately the question of whether to invest in alliances, than he has in common with the current president.

So, so far you’re seeing the Congress assert itself more than we have seen in the—in foreign policy in a very long time. And I think that, again, without some of the same people who are willing to support a more—again, more sustaining the kind of foreign assistance that was offered during the Obama administration, they may want to stand quietly. They may not want to jump up and down and say, oh, look at me, I’m supporting the United Nations, because that’s just not a talking point in some of those circles. But nonetheless, they have traveled—some of them—have traveled the world and know how valuable the support that we offer—you know, the humanitarian support and the support to the U.N. as a whole—how valuable that is to our standing in the world and our ability to then show up and call on countries and ask them to do what we want when we need it.

So I don’t—I don’t see that coming anytime soon, but I also didn’t see Donald Trump coming. (Laughs.) So take my predictions—I wouldn’t—I wouldn’t bet on my predictions. But I think people know how entangled we are with the rest of the world. Our economic, travel, you know, even people-to-people entanglements and relationships are much thicker than they were at the time the U.N. was founded. So to unwind that and unravel that would be extremely damaging and extremely painful. I don’t see it happening.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Southern California.

Q: Hi. Is there still a place for responsibility to protect, or has that concept lost its relevance in recent years? Thank you.

POWER: Thank you. Well, it’s certainly not talked about as often or embraced with as much vigor as it was at its height, you know, sort of in the wake of Rwanda and the wake of East Timor and the wake of Kosovo. There was a sort of confidence that in all circumstances, the world could be mobilized—when the world wasn’t mobilized to protect people from mass atrocities it was a collective stain on our conscience, and that there were circumstances where the world could be mobilized and could effectively intervene to protect people, even using military force. So there was that confidence.

That confidence is gone. And it’s gone, first, because of the Iraq War. Probably second because of the horrors of Syria and the fact that even, like, the mass torture of people in prisons—torture and execution of people in prisons, giving them serial numbers, I mean, just almost, like, totalitarian terror inflicted on people, chemical weapons used at that, couldn’t mobilize the international community to protect anybody practically on the ground. I think that is a big dent in the concept or the norm or the sense that countries are willing to abide by the norm. And then Libya, which was not done in the name of responsibility to protect as such but was done, you know, in order to prevent a massacre—the fact that Libya has ended up, you know, in very difficult, violent, unstable circumstances as well is very different than how people felt after East Timor, after Kosovo.

So to your question, though, is there still a place, there is absolutely a place, because how could you live in a world and how could it be a stable world, even from a security standpoint, if governments are just able to massacre their people? If we tomorrow would see a Rwanda, 800,000 people being killed in 100 days and the world stood by. That’s not the world that we want to live in. It’s not the world that’s in our interest to inhabit. So I think the way that R2P gets talked about, appropriately, is about all of the other thing, short of military force, that need to be done in the face of mass atrocities. That was the concept originally. It wasn’t meant to be yes or no or if, you know, intervening militarily. It was saying, look, if atrocities are being carried out, states have a responsibility to look past the sort of sovereign shield that states that are committing atrocities would like to envelop themselves in, and see what tools in the toolbox can you deploy at reasonable risk in order to help people.

And so that mindset of, like, what’s in the toolbox and how do we help people is alive and well at the U.N. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t create—face friction or that very specific circumstances don’t present specific challenges, like I mentioned earlier South Sudan and Burundi. But, you know, even on South Sudan, we—where there’s way more deference to the government than I think is appropriate, given what the government’s doing to its people, but nonetheless peacekeepers on the ground. A new peacekeeping force was authorized.

You know, we, the United States, are able to put in place sanctions against a number of leaders who were stealing from their people and perpetrating mass atrocities. So it’s not what you would like to see. You’d like to see a kind of well-oiled machine. We can just look at, at least, something like South Sudan the same way, and come up with a more robust collective solution that would really change the calculus of the leadership in South Sudan. That’s where we’re going with this. That’s a world where R2P is really sort of actionable for countries—for all the countries of the Security Council, and not just the Western countries.

So we’re not there. But we’re never going to get there, right? You don’t change—just introducing a doctrine of R2P doesn’t make Putin become a different person or have a different value set or operate differently within the U.N. But what I think R2P—the legacy of R2P is that in a way that was not the case at all in the early 1990s and certainly throughout the Cold War, is when atrocities are being committed against civilians—and especially when they’re committed by a government—that used to be, like, end of conversation at the U.N. People would just say, oh, well, you know, if a government is doing it that it’s problem. We can’t interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. No one talks like that anymore.

And so then you have disagreement about means, about which means should be employed. And you don’t always put in place, in my view, the means that are more likely to change behavior on the ground. But no one with a straight face can argue that what happens inside a country is not the outside world’s business.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Washington and Lee University.

Q: We’ve heard of this movement in the community of global political theorists towards offshore balancing, in which the United States would assume a less-prevalent role abroad and relay their responsibilities to its allies and regions, like the Middle East and Africa. What consequences can we expect if we pursue this foreign policy model?

POWER: Well, I can tell you what it was like in the Security Council when a—when a crisis happened. And people issued their statements—and, by people I mean people representing other countries, including powerful countries. And all the other ambassadors in the Security Council were kind of looking at their phones and they’re, you know, jotting—doing little drawings to themselves, or they’re passing notes to one another. And they’re waiting for the United States to speak, and waiting to hear, OK, what’s the United States going to do about this problem, and how is the United States going to tell us what our role in addressing this problem is.

Now, there’s a reason that people in the United States feel that they’re kind of tired of carrying that burden, right? That, like, carrying that burden for 72 years of leading the world, like that’s a steep burden. And that’s why I and others, you know, made a concerted push, for instance, to get European countries back into U.N. peacekeeping, which the United States doesn’t really do. We may for it, and pay 28 percent of the peacekeeping budget. Other countries pay 72 percent. So it’s still a good deal, I think, for the taxpayer, given where these—the dangerous environments these peacekeepers go to. But, like, my feeling was European defense budgets are shrinking and they need to fight in the ISIS coalition, help us in terms of Eastern European defense or, you know, get into U.N. peacekeeping. You know, like, choose your option there, and preferable do all three, and have a defense budget commensurate with the threats of our time.

And so I think that those questions that the American people—some share of the American people are asking on the right and left are very reasonable questions. And they require sustained diplomacy and pressure on other countries. But the notion that we can just walk away and then think that other countries are going to fill that vacuum, which I think is, at least as you’ve articulated, the theory part of the conception—it’s just not going to happen. So we have a right and an interest in demanding more leadership and more certainly more followership from other countries, and more resources and more skin in the game.

But, A, this kind of almost—this theoretical model that, like, in game theory would reveal other countries stepping into the breach, because they recognize that it’s in their interest to see leadership and absent U.S. leadership they then say to themselves, oh, well, then it has to be ours. I just—I think the cost to our interests of that period of vacuum and sort of self-help that would go on around the world would be devastating. So we’ve got to find a balance. We can’t sustain the burdens that are being maintained and not see more contributions from more countries. And that’s the approach we took, for instance, on climate. Going right to China, getting India to make commitments and sacrifices on climate that they never contemplated making before, getting Europeans and other advanced countries into U.N. peacekeeping, getting defense budgets up.

Like, all of those are the right issues to be pushing, and many, many more along those lines. But the way to get what you want when you’re pushing that agenda is not by offending everybody, you know, pulling funding, saying it’s over to you, you’re the one who’s going to—if that’s the attitude you take you’re not going to get leadership from other countries, or followership. And that, unfortunately, seems to be where we’re trending.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Richmond.

Q: Thank you for speaking with us. So you talked about how countries around the world, such as South Sudan, feel impunity from the U.N. now. But my question is what about more well-established or respected states, such as the example of Israel and (Arab world in peace ?)? Are there ways to enforce compliance with U.N. measures that wouldn’t kind of impinge on those rights of sovereignty that are still widely accepted around the world?

POWER: Well, as it relates to the issue of Israel, the U.N. is just a very toxic environment to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It’s toxic because every year there are 18 resolutions, roughly, taken out against Israel, given, you know, some legitimate concerns about the occupation and given some wild, frankly anti-Semitic—arguments made by member states of the U.N. But that’s 18 resolutions in General Assembly. And guess how many there are on Bashar al-Assad gassing his people, torturing his people, you know, killing probably 400,000, 500,000 people, so far? One. And it’s a—and it’s, you know, a real effort to get that one resolution through. One on North Korea, with the gulags and so forth.

So I think, you know, fundamentally the way to deal with the—you know, with terrorism in the region, with the security concerns that the Israelis have, with the need to end the occupation is through a peace process where both sides give. That’s why we invested, through Secretary Kerry’s leadership, so many years—and, prior to that, George Mitchell’s leadership. But fundamentally, you know, the circumstances haven’t caused the parties to, you know, want to pursue that agreement. But I don’t—because of the history at the U.N., and the amount of animus toward the state of Israel just for existing—which persists.

You know, Israel, I think, is taking a constructive approach now, which is to invest in bilateral relationships around the world. So I just heard that, like, in the wake of the hurricanes they were doing, you know, really important work in the Caribbean. They came in after the Haiti earthquake and invested—you know, sent a medical team, I believe. They’re trying to be active in South Sudan. In terms of, you know, what you can do of state building in a conflict environment. I think continuing to build those relationships will, over time, change the climate at the U.N. But the conflict is always going to be, you know, a source of concern across the organization. And Israel is very skeptical that it can get—understandably, again, because of the history—that it can get anywhere near a fair shake at the U.N., because of the bias.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Arizona College of Law.

Q: Hello. Thank you for your time and your insight. U.S. elections certainly have an impact on global politics, but they often focus on internal domestic affairs. And it seems like sometimes that things like the U.N. are very far from our political efficacy. So is there a way for the average citizen to really support the U.S. being a responsible actor and, you know, promoting a good world order?

POWER: Thanks—I mean, thank you for the question. I think—I think that the U.N. as such has never made a great bumper sticker, you know, for lack of a better word. Like, the polling for the U.N. now is actually better than it’s been in quite a long time. I just saw some polls yesterday. It’s not above 50 percent, the favorability, but it’s, you know, not that far off. And it was trending upward, at least before Trump took over. But I think the main way that our nation’s relationship with the U.N. and our popular culture’s understanding of the U.N. changes is, you know, by virtue of how our leaders talk about this organization.

And so, you know, if you’ve living in a district that’s represented particularly by Republicans, who have tended to be particularly hard on the U.N. and very suspicious of—you know, I think a really quite far-fetched idea of what the U.N. or the secretary-general would ever be capable of doing. You know, whatever about their wants—you know, I can’t know the intentions of those individuals, I won’t speak to those. But there’s just no capability to do the things that people who caricature the U.N. accuse the U.N. of setting out to do.

But I think engaging Republicans, encouraging travel—you know, just as a constituent even, or if you’re better plugged in better yet. Encouraging the staff of Republican members of Congress and others, or even mayors, you know, to travel abroad and to see concretely what the—what the U.N. agencies are doing, or concretely what a foreign conflict and crisis looks like. Those exposures, I think, have become fewer. And that’s one reason our foreign policy has become more divided on partisan lines than we had seen previously.

John McCain and Lindsey Graham are the leaders they are on foreign policy in the—in the GOP, in part because they know the world so well. I mean, they spent years of their lives meeting with foreign leaders and visiting refugee camps and seeing up close, you know, what suffering looks like, and how threats to us get nested and start to grow. And so that experiences and those exposures are really, really important. And as fundraising becomes more important in elections, and members of Congress have to go back to their districts more and more, those trips for newer members become fewer and farther between.

So that’s what I think, just anything you could do to sort of encourage people who are on the more skeptical side to just—to get some more exposure and to see it up close, so it isn’t just the negative bumper sticker. Because I think the critics of the U.N. have actually been quite effective with the bumper stickers over the years. But the second thing I’d say, reflecting my own bias as someone who comes out of the last administration and is very critical of the current administration, is, you know, to have—I mean, Trump’s views are what they are. They are what has been articulated. Now, they evolve, as it were, you know, sometimes in the same day.

But you know, fundamentally there is a choice, right? As citizens the same thing that makes us eager to—we, who are Democrats—eager to see the House change hands in 2018 and investing in local campaigns and things to try to make that happen, who believe in divided government in circumstances such as these, who are frightened about what it would mean to have a full four years of this worldview and this hostility to the U.N. controlling all three—you know, led by the president, not reflected always by the GOP, but with some support in the Senate and House.

That, you know, is going to do damage to public support for the U.N. because hearing from your president and from others over and over again that this is an institution that’s not looking out for your interests, that’s a threat to your sovereignty, that’s going to take your guns away or your land—I mean, that just erodes—that’s going to erode public trust. And so changing that, changing our leadership, having a leadership that live in the 21st century and understand that threats cross borders and that we need to understand the limits of these organizations, for sure, but in order to transcend those limits, not in order to sabotage the enterprise.

So my basic message is politics matter. And engaging the GOP to encourage more exposures, and Democrats but especially the GOP who’ve been on the more skeptical side. And then working hard at a grassroots level to put into office people who share a belief that flawed and, you know, massively frustrating though the U.N. can be, you know, it’s the principal organ to deal with—it’s the only organ, really, that represents every country to deal with transnational threats of a global scale. And it’s the principal organ that we need to deal with threats to peace and security. And so for the sake of our kids, we’ve got to develop a constructive working relationship with it, and harness it to our ends.

FASKIANOS: I think we have time for one last question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Southern Mississippi.

Q: This is Todd Barry with USM.

Professor Power, it’s an honor to speak with you. Thank you for your service to our country and for talking with us today.

During the Ukraine crisis, you said at the U.N. that the Ukrainian leader had fled. How much consideration was there at the U.N. to creating some sort of Ukrainian government? And second, when should the U.S. bring issues to the U.N., and when is it best for the U.S. to work outside of the U.N.?

POWER: Thank you for your kind words. I miss public service every day, so this is definitely the most rewarding chapter in my life and I feel very blessed to have had that opportunity, though I am glad to actually see my children now day today and to get to watch them grow up a little bit.

So I think it’s hard to—on your second question—I think I have unsatisfying answers to both your questions. But on your second question, it’s quite hard to generalize. I mean, you know, I don’t believe taking any problem immediately to the scrum of the large number of countries that comprise either the Security Council, 15, or the General Assembly, 193, that’s almost never the way to roll in international diplomacy. What you—what I would do when I wanted to work, for instance, at a challenging peacekeeping issue, or even a security issue, where we’re not going to solve the problem as a whole because our countries were so divided.

But I worked so hard with the Russian ambassador to try, at least, to deal with the chemical weapons issue. And we were partially successful, not fully successful. But we did manage to get, you know, a remarkable number of tons of chemical weapons out of Syria, did manage to create a joint investigative mechanism together. Had I brought that to the 15, you know, just as me, as the United States, he would have felt pressured in that setting—and probably by his own government, his own president—to just say the opposite of whatever the United States is saying. So you work behind the scenes. You see what’s possible, what you can extract from the countries that are the most relevant, for whatever the issue is. President Obama, as I mentioned earlier, went to President Xi on climate before going to any other country. We couldn’t show up in Paris unless we knew what we and the Chinese were prepared to give and to sacrifice.

So I guess what I’d say is I don’t know—like, you don’t have to go to the U.N. as such, like that building in Manhattan, to get something done. The best multilateral diplomacy starts with a small circle and then just adds—sort of tacks countries on. I think that’s what Paris really was. I think that’s what Ebola was. Tacks people on to coalitions.

The ISIS coalition lives very much outside the U.N. That’s an example, terrorism, where, you know, if you’re doing warfighting, you know, having a NATO foundation and, again, adding countries from outside NATO, that can be the right direction. But it’s hard to generalize. But there is no institution in it that has all the countries. And so if you’re looking to expand what we might call a P2—you know, a partnership of two countries—to a P10, it’s a very efficient place to go to try to peel those countries apart, especially if you want to do something that’s cross-regional. And doing something cross-regional—meaning with some Africans, some Latins, some Asians perhaps, or some other permutation—when you do things that way, the image that it projects to the country that you’re, you know, operating in or trying to influence is often enhanced by that sense that it’s not—it’s not just Western countries or it’s not just, you know, neighbors to a country in question. That sort of cross-regional, that’s what the U.N.—one of the reasons it was conceived and peacekeeping was conceived was to bring countries from all over the world so that it projects universal norms rather than any one country or any one region’s agenda.

So I think that answers that question a little bit.

And then, on the Ukraine question, I think, you know, everything moved very, very quickly, and it was initially—before the Ukrainian president absconded, you know, he had signed this agreement. And so I think we were of the view—certainly, I was of the view in New York—I can’t speak for, like, the people in my government who speak Ukrainian and are, you know, Ukraine hands who were tracking this at a level of detail that I wasn’t in New York—but our view in New York was that the parties on the ground had forged their own compromise. And so, you know, for us to then, you know, meddle in the middle of that and say, oh no, let’s bring that issue to New York or let’s try to enshrine it in a U.N. agreement, it didn’t—at the—at the penultimate moment, it didn’t feel as though that would be additive when things seemed to be tracking. Then, at the moment things were not tracking at all and the president fled—disappeared initially and then—and, you know, sort of it was announced that he had fled, at that point, then, the crisis, I think, was underway. And going back in time is something we very much tried to do, and tried to encourage a return to the agreement that had been signed. But that’s not what happened.

FASKIANOS: I am sorry to say that we are out of time. We had so many questions still in queue, and I apologize to all of you that we could not get to you, but we try to end on time.

Ambassador Power, thank you for being with us, for sharing your perspective and expertise with us, for your service to our country, and your amazing work as a journalist prior to going into government. I hope that you all look at Ambassador Power’s New York Times op-ed that was published on I think September 19th. You can also follow her on Twitter at @SamanthaJPower, so you can keep up with her there. And we really appreciate your being with us.

POWER: I have one more plug, Irina, if I could.


POWER: There’s a new movie coming out—there’s a new movie coming out. It’s not out yet, but you can Google it. It’s called “The Final Year.” And for those of you, especially young people and professors who get to teach young people, it’s, I think, a really unusual insight into how diplomacy is done. It’s a group of filmmaker—Oscar-winning filmmakers who followed Secretary Kerry, myself, a few other Obama administration officials around as we conducted diplomacy the last year in office. Unfortunately, one of the reviewers likened it to a horror movie because—(laughs)—we are these gullible characters who don’t know how the story’s going to end, that a lot of our work is going to be subjected to some scrutiny by our successors. So we don’t know that when the film is filmed, so you get to see kind of the—a lot of caring and a lot of trying, and some really important results, I think, put on the board in climate, Iran, you know, other issues, Cuba. But it will be airing on HBO in the new year, but they’re starting screenings just in the next couple months. So I—so I recommend it to you. It’s called “The Final Year.”

FASKIANOS: That’s wonderful. Thank you. We’ll keep an eye out for that. So thank you again.

And for all of you, our next call will be on Wednesday, October 11th at 12 p.m. with Shannon O’Neill, who is a senior fellow here at CFR for Latin American studies, and she will be talking about U.S.-Latin America relations. So I also hope you’ll follow us on CFR Campus on Twitter at @CFR_Campus, as well as go to our website,, and Foreign Affairs for information and analysis about what’s going on in the world today. So thank you all.


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