Charting a Future for the United Nations

Thursday, March 12, 2015
Eric Thayer/Courtesy Reuters
Bathsheba Crocker

Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Stuart W. Holliday

President, Meridian International Center

Bathsheba Crocker, assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of State, joins Stuart W. Holliday, president of the Meridian International Center, to reflect on the United Nations' global role on the occasion of the institution's seventieth anniversary. She contextualizes the UN's role today in approaching transnational challenges and argues that, going forward, the UN will remain a significant nexus in the international system. Crocker additionally emphasizes the importance of the United Nations in U.S. foreign policy. She notes that despite its shortcomings and failings, the United States and other states must continue to acknowledge that the benefits of the UN outweigh the costs.

HOLLIDAY: Good—good afternoon. Welcome.

We're very excited to be here today for a program on assessing the United Nations at 70. That's a big subject. We could probably do a—an entire seminar on that throughout the year. But we're—we're very pleased to have Assistant Secretary Bathsheba Crocker, Sheba as she is known—is known to many of you. And we are honored to have her here today.

The assistant secretary is going to provide a little bit of an overview from her perch at the State Department.

You have her biography, but I will point out that she has really, I think a terrific perspective, having served not only within the United Nations, but the White House or the State Department, but also looking at this from the policy planning perspective broadly at U.S. foreign policy as the principal deputy director and the policy planning staff.

And she has spent again, her career looking at not only the—the issues relating to peace and security, but disaster assistance and comes to us also with a little bit of a legacy in the—in the foreign policy world in the—the Crocker family.

She is currently our assistant secretary, which is for—for international organizations, which is more than just Turtle Bay, more than just the UN . There's an enormous array of issues that she has on a day to day basis, so with that I'll turn it over to you, and then we'll have a little conversation and an opportunity to—by the way we have several former under secretaries, assistant secretaries, ambassadors, many people who have been there and done that before. So, welcome to all of the distinguished guests here today.

CROCKER: Well thank you. First and foremost, to the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting today's conversation, and to Stuart for guiding it and for that kind of introduction.

And thanks also to all of you for coming this afternoon for a discussion of the status, purpose, and value of multilateral diplomacy.

I'm here today in the context of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, whose charter was signed in San Francisco on June 26, 1945. That charter and the lofty aspirations contained in it remain very—remains very much at the center of today's international system, a system that has evolved and expanded well beyond the vision of its earlier—earliest promoters, but a system that has endured remarkably, and a charter that retains relevance, even some seven decades on.

My comments today are not intended to be retrospective, but rather a brief survey of the UN and the larger international system as it is today, and the qualities and capacities that I believe will be crucial for its continued relevance.

As I begin, I take the liberty of assuming your stipulation to some guiding realities. First, that pressing transnational challenges are only growing in scope, scale, and variety.

And in this category, I might offer climate change, food security, pandemic health challenges such as Ebola, the threat of violent extremism, and more.

Second, that these varied challenges are often urgent and sometime—and require often urgent and sometimes simultaneous, multilateral action. And this truth is perhaps most evident often in the case of humanitarian crises.

Third, that today's remarkable connectivity accelerates the pace at which events become available to global audiences, and thus in turn accelerates the pace at which the international community is expected and called upon to respond.

And finally, that an international system unable to respond to these truths would quickly become irrelevant on the global stage.

70 years ago, the need for an international body to provide a convening authority and a constraint for disputing nations was obvious. And though it is true that since that day in San Francisco, there have been few constants on the international stage, it is also true that a body that was conceived primarily as a means to prevent war among the great powers of the world, has met that fundamental objective.

The original 50 signatories of the UN charter have grown to 193. The modern international system comprises dozens of organizations and agencies with responsibility for engaging on innumerable shared priorities, and, let's be honest, more than a handful most of us have never heard of.

Civil society networks have emerged as a powerful compliment to multilateral tools, and globalization has fostered economic and cultural linkages that would have been unimaginable at the end of World War II.

And yet across that timeline, and in all those categories, American leadership within the international system has been steadfast and instrumental.

Now, in making that statement, I acknowledge that from its earliest moments, the UN has been the source of discomfort in some segments of the U.S. political universe. That said, it is notable that for all of its seven decades, the UN and the evolving international system have enjoyed the strong support of U.S. administrations and the Congress.

But why?

Why is the vitality and agility of the United Nations and other international organizations of such importance to the United States?

In its most simple expression, it comes to this. We ask the international system to do a great many things on our behalf. And on the whole, it is genuinely and actively responsive in that regard. Yes, there are failings in the system, frustrations inherent in its history and exploited by its membership. There are recurring instances of mismanagement and inefficiency.

There is a deeply rooted anti-Israel bias that rears its ugly head across the system. And there is a persistence of division, call it north versus south, Nam versus the West, G77 versus the like-minded, that seems almost unthinkable given how much has changed on the global stage since 1945.

But the challenges we face today require as never before the multiplier effect of an effective international system, and the reality is that with the UN , that means we must take the good with the bad, accept the shortcomings, because the benefits to the United States still far outweigh the stories that grab headlines.

So today, I will briefly discuss the UN 's unique capability and capacity where today's international system succeeds, where it falls short, and why we must remain relentless in our efforts to push it toward improved effectiveness, efficiency, and innovation, and expand our efforts to encourage UN member states to break through tired voting habits and stale thinking.

Any discussion of where the international system works must be predicated on acceptance that the system is messy. With 193 UN member states, division is not uncommon. But we also have to remember how much gets done by consensus, even in the unwieldy UN general assembly.

And frankly, if member states were all of one mind, the need for an international system would be far from obvious. No, clearly our differences illustrate the need, create opportunities for unanticipated partnerships, and can make multilateral accomplishments all the more resonant. They are in fact the source of the legitimacy that the UN bestows when it speaks to an issue of global concern.

So, where does one look for such accomplishments?

I'll offer a few examples in three broad categories. First, we find accomplishment in the international system where the international system effectively channels shared aspirations.

Take for example human rights and the UN Human Rights Council. This is a body that has been fairly criticized as providing solace and protection to some of the world's worst human rights abusers, while focusing with unrelenting, unhealthy attention on a single nation: Israel.

When the United States decided to seek election to the council in 2009, it was with a determination to redirect the council's energies, refocus its purpose, and begin strengthening its reputation as the global focal point for universal human rights.

In the succeeding years, we've achieved a great deal. In 2011, we led an effort to pass a groundbreaking resolution on the rights of LGBT persons. The first such resolution in the UN system, we supported the Latin Americans in taking the lead on the follow-on resolution this past September. We have worked with our partners to lift the veil of secrecy on the horrendous human rights abuses in North Korea at the hands of the regime, and to get this issue on the agenda of the security council. A huge accomplishment.

We have also led a sustained effort to promote the investigation of an accountability for human rights abuse—human rights violations in Sri Lanka, and in fact consistently promote the utility of focusing on country-specific situations to highlight some of the worst—some of the most distressing human rights situations around the world.

That effort has resulted in commissions of inquiry and special rapporteurs on the human rights situations in Iran, Syria, Belarus, Burma and North Korea, and independent experts on the situations in Sudan, Somalia and Mali.

We have also led efforts to pass important thematic actions to bolster freedoms of expression and association, the rights of women and girls, the protection of civil society, and much more. And I would note that we have achieved this level of success in spite of the recurring presence on the council of some of the world's worst offender states.

It is also true that we have not succeeded in ending the ingrained bias against Israel, but we continue to advocate forcefully against that bias in the Human Rights Council and across the international system. In fact, as Secretary Kerry pointed out just earlier this month, we have intervened on Israel's behalf over the last two years a couple of hundred times in more than 75 different multilateral fora, both to defend it and to support its positive agenda.

This recent progress notwithstanding, the Human Rights Council will obviously never be flawless. But consider the outsized influence of this relatively small body of just 47 member states, and small—and the small Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. We measure that influence not just in the allergic responses often displayed by offender nations, but more meaningfully in the feedback we receive from civil society in those nations, who remind us frequently that council action has a powerful impact on the ground.

Today, shared aspirations are evident across the UN system, from the heightened focus on gender issues to strengthened humanitarian coordination across UN agencies, to the elevation of climate change and other humanitarian issues, and in the energy and ambition fueling negotiations toward a post-2015 development agenda.

Obviously, shared aspirations do not immediately or even necessarily equate to agreed action. But they serve to shape many of the conversations defining today's multilateral diplomacy. 

We also find accomplishment in the international system where it acts to promote peace and security. The headline institution here, of course, is the UN Security Council, which has not always warranted or enjoyed universal admiration. At times, disagreement between permanent members have inhibited action on urgent crises, and Syria is an obvious example here.

But it should come as no surprise that in situations closest to our core interests, the United States and other permanent members won't always or even often agree. And indeed, the council was created to give us a mechanism to air our differences and to try to foster solutions without resorting to open conflict.

And where the P-5's interests align, the Security Council plays an indispensable role. We have continued to work effectively with Russia and the rest of the council on combating the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, on substantive actions to counter terrorism, counter piracy; on robust nonproliferation regimes targeting Iran and North Korea; on authorizing peacekeeping missions and much more.

To be sure, the council's failures on matters such as Syria are as inexcusable as they are unsurprising. And over time, failure to act time and again to address front-burner issues could undermine the body's legitimacy. But as often as that has been predicted, it has been disproved. As even when we and others have acted without council authorization, we have generally returned to the council to bestow legitimacy and to coordinate on additional actions.

U.N. peacekeeping is also a widely known UN peace and security tool and lends itself well as an example of multilateral burden-sharing. UN peacekeepers, in fact, are currently the largest deployed military force around the world, with 16 missions and over 130 personnel today. We've had UN peacekeeping missions nearly as long as we've had the UN itself. And like the parent body, they have not always measured up. 

In particular, we see the challenge when missions are mandated to take actions they don't deliver on, such as the protection of civilians. We learned from the experiences of Rwanda, of the Balkans and elsewhere that missions needed strengthened mandates to make clear the authority to use force and protect civilians. And today, more than 95 percent of peacekeepers serve in missions with a responsibility to protect civilians.

Today, the problems we see relate more to how to plan for such operations, how to get host nations to do their job, how to make sure troop contributing countries are able and willing to enforce robust mandates, and a lack of the political underpinning needed to ensure mission success.

We are committed to modernizing peacekeeping missions and pressing to fill critical gaps. And as the nation contributing over 28 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget, and with a seat on the Security Council, we obviously have strong views. We are engaging with and support the new independent panel chaired by former President Jose Ramos-Horta to review UN peace operations and in fact held serious discussions with panel members at the State Department just on Tuesday.

And also earlier this week, both Ambassador Power and Deputy Secretary Blinken spoke forcefully on the continued U.S. commitment to peacekeeping and the gaps we are focused on filling. And President Obama will host a peacekeeping summit in New York in September.

Finally, we find accomplishment where the international system provides unique specialized and technical expertise. Consider for example the ongoing negotiations related to Iran's nuclear program. While I want in no way to pre-judge the outcome of those negotiations, I do think they offer an important reminder of the need to invest in credible international organizations. In this instance, I'm referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which occupies an indispensable place on the global stage as an authoritative technical entity.

As the Iran negotiations continue through the P-5-plus-1 process, the IAEA has the proven capacity to undertake the monitoring and verification roles that would be likely—that would likely be required of it under any agreement and that have been required to verify compliance under the joint plan of action. Imagine how much more difficult these already highly technical and complex negotiations would be without the existence of this international agency.

In a similar vein, I think it's fair to speculate that the international community would have struggled mightily to deal with the Assad regime's chemical weapons stockpiles in the absence of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. I take little risk in suggesting that not all of us knew about the OPCW before their services and capabilities were required in Syria. And the fact that those capabilities were employed effectively further endorses the sustained investment required to maintain the many and varied elements of our modern international system.

Now, these accomplishments are real. They are valuable. And in many cases, they contribute directly to our national security. There are also, to be sure, areas where the international system falls short. And while I've alluded to several already, they bear repeating. First, there is one suite of issues that I believe represents one of the UN system's biggest sustained failures. That is, of course, the treatment of Israel-Palestine issues.

There remains a persistent, corrosive bias against Israel in many UN fora, including the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, UNESCO and beyond. It is made manifest in resolutions and commissions of inquiry and reinforced by incendiary language and bloc voting. This bias diminishes every international body in which it is allowed to persist and does nothing to advance the vision of a two-state solution in the Middle East.

Recently, more assertive Palestinian action has compounded the challenge. They have sought to elevate their status in the General Assembly and elsewhere across the UN system. They sought and won member-state status at UNESCO, which triggered a legislative requirement that the U.S. cease funding that organization. They signed the Rome statute, and are seeking to employ the ICC to adjudicate questions that should be left to negotiations to resolve.

This appropriation of the international system is more than a dangerous precedent. It poses a threat to the legitimacy and viability of institutions and provides ready ammunition to those who would seek to diminish U.S. leadership across the international system.

In a similar vein, the UN system is frequently and justifiably criticized for providing open venues for rogue states and bad global actors. I will brace myself for the laugh track when I tell you that Venezuela is on the Security Council and China, Russia and Cuba are members of the Human Rights Council.

Bloc voting can result in counter-intuitive outcomes and bad actors are sometimes determined to employ multilateral venues to advance goals antithetical to the hosting organization. I think we can all agree that these realities are unfortunate at best, and all too often corrosive and damaging. And there are times when the system in which we've invested so much just doesn't perform as well or as quickly as we want. For example, WHO being so slow off the mark in responding to the Ebola crisis. 

And finally, in the category of shortcomings, we need to make special note of continued management transparency and accountability failings. Such failings have a profound impact on the international system—damaged credibility, diminished impact, and justifiable exposure to critics. In this category, I would include a long history of poorly managed or mismanaged budgets, a sclerotic personnel system, an opaque response to crises such as sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers.

The United States is at the forefront of efforts across the UN system to promote the positive evolution in management cultures of all organizations and agencies. Sometimes we feel a little lonely in that position, but our sustained focus on these issues is beginning to make a difference. There is more budget transparency and accountability in many organizations to day. There are more robust investigation tools. There is momentum toward addressing the lack of uniform whistleblower protections.

And these steps and others are important, but we must be unrelenting in our demand for continuous, thoughtful evolution of the UN psychology and physiology.

In order to see that evolution realized, member states must care, and many do, including, of course, the United States. We care because we've built the system to manage shared responses to global challenges. As many before me have said, if the United Nations didn't exist, we would almost certainly have to invent it. And I'm not sure in today's world that we could.

The United Nations at 70 shows some of its age, to be sure, but the questions facing the global community demand an invigorated international system, not an internment. And that system is trying to get a lot done this year in its 70th year, from major negotiations on post-2015 and climate, to peacekeeping reform, to addressing the threats posed by violent extremism, to negotiations around the UN budget, to major discussions on Internet governance and cybersecurity, and Security Council reform. 

And let's not forget the geopolitical shifts that underlie all of these questions, from revanchist Russia to increasingly assertive India, China and Brazil.

Indeed, in some ways, this seems like a test year for the UN system. Can it still deliver on the kinds of big-ticket multilateral agenda items it is trying to get done? Can it prove that it has evolved and is continuing to evolve to take on new challenges? Will we and other member states continue to see value in using the system? Will it continue to deliver for us?

These important questions will all be tested as the year proceeds. And I hope I've given some flavor today of why it's so important that the answers continue to be yes. For now, I want to thank you very much for your attention this afternoon, and I look forward to our conversation.

Thank you.


HOLLIDAY: Thank you. Thank you, Sheba.

There's a lot there. Since we are talking about the 70th anniversary, I thought I'd go back to San Francisco. I won't test you on the intricacies of the charter, but if you read the charter, I'm sure Gerson (ph) has and Ambassador Pickering and Davis, it's a pretty good document.

QUESTION: It's an aspirational document. It kind of upholds the ideals of mankind.

Do you think that the frustration with the United Nations is, to a degree, the gap between the expectations we put on the system and the reality of what they can execute?

CROCKER: I mean, I think it's a fair question. 

QUESTION: And how they execute it?

CROCKER: I mean, I think it's a very fair question, and one that I'm sure will be considered many times this year in the 70th anniversary year.

You know, I think fundamentally, the answer is yes in some ways and no in others, in the sense that the system really has admirably performed against a number of the aspirations in the charter. And I think when we look at things like human rights, when we talked about when we talked—that I talked about, when we look at things like the promotion of peace and security, these are two of the fundamental things underlying the UN Charter.

Economic prosperity and development are another. We have made progress on all of these fronts. We have effectively used the system in myriad ways to get at problems and try to solve them on these various issues. And I think, again, that, by and large, what you've seen is a pretty good record.

But, obviously, all along, there are the kind of political dynamics and the frustrations related to mismanagement and inefficiencies and other things that slow down the system.

And the reality is with 193 member states, you have a lot of competing interests as to what the UN system should actually be focused on, where it should be using its resources, how it should be using its resources.

And so, you end up with this funny situation, for example, where an enormous amount of what gets fought out in the UN system, as you will remember from your time up there in New York, gets fought out in the so-called fifth committee, which is the budget committee at the UN , because that's where these fights really come to a head. What percentage of the...

QUESTION: I stayed very far away from that.

CROCKER: Smartly.

What percentage of the budget are gonna be, you know, dedicated to human rights issues? What percentages are gonna be devoted to development issues? What percentage are gonna be devoted to special political missions? 


CROCKER: That kind of thing.

And we don't always agree on those questions. 

QUESTION: You know, for America, there seem to be two overriding issues. One is power and sovereignty, and this idea that there's this other entity that may exercise some sort of level of sovereignty over our policies and decision-making. 

And the other's money. And we were the only country, when I was having to go in on peacekeeping that had to get instructions from Washington, but then had to wait for a congressional notification period to allow for Congress to determine whether we could go ahead and fund these things.

I was wondering if you could talk about that relationship with Congress, and how it's going in terms of the efficiency of managing peacekeeping and managing some of the things that we have to do, because of the fiscal power that Congress has over what we do at the UN

CROCKER: Well, I mean, this is an enduring question for us, of course, and especially given how much the United States pays as a percentage of both the UN regular budget and the UN peacekeeping budget, which is, respectively, 22 percent and just over 28 percent.

I will say that this administration and this Congress have remained committed to paying our UN assessments in full and on time. And so, we have not faced some of the challenges that we had in earlier eras about the United States not being able to pay our dues.

We have an ongoing discussion with Congress across a range of issues related to the United Nations, and that includes, of course, the budgetary ones.

But we have not seen the sort of hold-ups or inability to fund operations as they come online. I think there generally is a commitment to the multilateral system that is even reflected in how we fund that system, but that is not to say that there not challenges, in the sense that, you know, again, the United States pays a huge proportion of the UN 's budget and Congress is, therefore, rightly focused and helps to keep us as focused as we need to be on questions around efficiencies and mismanagement and other things that we have seen over the years, because, you know, it's just not acceptable for us or, frankly, any other member state to pay as much money as we do into this organization without making some real progress against those continued challenges.

QUESTION: I think one of the things that was trumpeted over the last decade that is also an example of sort of the lofty goals that had been set for the UN are these Millennium Development goals. They've also been called the 2015 goals.

It's 2015. Eradication of poverty. Women. Education. Pandemic disease.

What kind of evaluation will be done on where we are with these goals and how they will go forward? What the next steps are? Because they're obviously not all met.

CROCKER: Well, so, as I think you're aware and as a lot of folks in this room will be aware, the intergovernmental negotiations around what follows on from the Millennium Development goals are ongoing, as we speak. And those are the—that's the so-called post-2015 development agenda.

And I think what we should expect is that, come September, around the UN General Assembly high level meeting, there will be both a look back at how we've done against the Millennium Development goals, but also the launching of an agreement around the so-called post-2015 development goals.

One interesting thing that is being done as part of the post-2015 process is bringing in some of the climate and sustainability issues. The sustainable—you know, they were sometimes being called the sustainable development goals, to try to bridge what has sometimes been treated in two different tracks in the multilateral system and bringing those together.

It will be a weighty and intensive process between now and September to see where we can get.

QUESTION: Between the U.S. and the UN or within the UN or within the U.S. government?

CROCKER: Within the—within UN —well, all of the above. Within UN member states, certainly within the UN —within the U.S. government. But among UN member states is where the negotiations are going on, and that means that, you know, we deal with some of the same sort of neuralgic challenges that we face in a lot of different of these multilateral negotiations with the G-77 and otherwise in terms of trying to break through some entrenched positions that we see both in the post-2015 context, in the climate change context and otherwise, and see whether we can make any progress toward chipping away at those, so that we get something real in September.

QUESTION: So, I know that you're not the assistant secretary for Europe or for political/military affairs, but I have to ask, when you look at the charter, and you—you go back to last year, and you saw troops from an uncertain origin rolling into another country, moving in with equipment, and you have a situation where it seems as though this is the exact kind of issue in Crimea that the United Nations was designed to address or at least condemn, or to muster some international response.

We know the Security Council structure is what it is. Is that the major issue, the structure of the Security Council, or is there a lack of will to confront this sort of challenge, which we think looks like a 20th century challenge?

CROCKER: So, I mean I think with respect to consideration of the questions in Ukraine in the Security Council, you know, it's a little bit obvious why we are where we are. And that is in part, obviously in large part, due to the structure of the council and the five Permanent Members.

And it gets back to what I was talking about a bit earlier, that in sort of those situations which are really closest to our respective core interests, we're not always going to find ourselves in agreement. It's a political body at the end of the day and so the answers that come out of it will not always be satisfactory.

And that, in and of itself, is highly unsatisfactory when you're dealing with situations like this.

The UN General Assembly spoke quite forcefully on the question of the annexation of Crimea. There are other venues in the UN system, including through statements at the Human Rights Council and otherwise that we are trying to keep the focus on this.

And the Security Council has continued to consider the situation in Ukraine and put out statements and other things, even wile we have not been able to necessarily agree on actions that we would like to see coming out of the council.

But we will continue to push on it. We will continue to try to use our voice and the voice of the council and other organs in the UN system to try to, you know, keep the pressure on.

But, as you know also, there is not a—there is not a direct UN role on the situation in Ukraine right now. So we are also focused, as one piece of the multilateral response, on making sure that the OSCE monitors that are there have the kind of unfettered access that they are meant to have to verify compliance with the cease-fire; to verify the withdrawal of heavy weapons and other things that we are still not seeing in eastern Ukraine. 

And so, we are continuing to use every venue that we can to push on, you know, the implementation of February and the September Minsk agreements. And the Security Council has spoken to that.

So, it's an example of where we may not have a wholly satisfactory answer, but even—even without that, we are still able to use the body to sort of, in this case, bless what has been decided outside of the Security Council and put some greater multilateral and UN imprimatur on that, to try to push the parties to make progress.

QUESTION: And one more—two more questions before we turn it over. When Secretary Kerry is talking about inspections in Iran, as it relates to a potential deal there, is he referring—in other words, is the—is the vision that the United Nations and UNVEE (ph) would be the objective arbiter, interpreter of what constitutes compliance, or is that not decided or figured out yet, in terms of who that body would be that would determine whether the Iranians are complying with the nuclear agreement?

CROCKER: So, I mean, I don't have any insight or visibility into any actual part of the negotiations that are ongoing. I think one might expect that there would be a major anticipated role for the IAEA, as there has been in verifying compliance with the joint plan of action. I'm not sure there is another body in the world that has either the technical expertise or the international authority or legitimacy to do it in the way that the IAEA could.

And they've certainly been, obviously, directly involved in the ongoing compliance that is already going on there.

QUESTION: That woujld mean that member states, including—would have—including some you mentioned earlier—will have to have a very high degree of confidence in that threshold of expertise and in that—in that body.

Last question, your role as assistant secretary for international organizations is an interesting one. You've had people, of course, we have Assistant Secretary Brimmer (ph) here, but you've also had Alan Keyes (ph), Elliot Abrams (ph), you've had an interesting—John Bolton. It goes back.

And but it's fundamentally having to manage this enormous policy-making process here. A Cabinet-level official, and you're not managing them, you're obviously working very closely in concert with the Cabinet-level official in New York. And then you have all of these different agencies around the world. 

I was wondering if you could comment on the scope of the job, and maybe how you prioritize your day.

Is it by time zone? Is it by...

CROCKER: Yeah. No, I mean it's a—it is a huge scope. I mean, I got at that a little bit when I was talking about the dozens of international agencies and organizations.

If one has ever had the misfortune, as I had to do as part of my confirmation process, of trying to make sense of the UN , an international organization org chart, it's very, very small font, because it's otherwise impossible to encapsulate all of them on one piece of paper.

So, you know, we tend to prioritize our day by virtue of, what are the administration's priorities, what are the priorities of the U.S. government, what are—what should we try to get done through the multilateral system, what can we get done through the multilateral system?

And—and then where there are, again, these kind of big-ticket items that we're trying to get done—peacekeeping is a huge priority for us this year, climate change, obviously, post-2015, the budget negotiations that are going on New York.

So—so we—we tend to always, I think, try to focus on how we can use the multilateral system most effectively to advance what we're otherwise trying to get done, to scale up what we're otherwise trying to get done on the bilateral front of use our bilateral relationships to help on the multilateral front, et cetera.

But some days, my days do feel a little bit random.

The other day, I had a phone call with the—the head of the Postal Regulatory Commission. Wouldn't have imagined that would be part of my job as IOA assistant secretary, but it is. And—and so sometimes that stuff feels a little bit sort of outside the lane.

And the relationship with New York, I would say, you know, is—is a fraught one on paper for anybody who has ever looked at it, and certainly, I think, in recent times has had its challenges.

But we view it very much as an opportunity that we have, the UN ambassador as a cabinet official. She is an extremely strong and powerful voice. She sits in on all of the national-security meetings, and she enables us to put into all of the discussions around national-security issues, the sort of the multilateral perspective and the role that the UN can play and how we can best, you know, use the system, as I was saying, to advance what we're trying to get done.

You know, as you will remember from your time in government, it ultimately all comes down to sort of how you work, the relationships. And if you all have good intentions, as we do, to make that effective, then I think some of that stuff, it seems very fraught from the outside is actually lot less so in practice.

HOLLIDAY: That's right.

And—and just—you just triggered one—one thing I wanted to mention, and Ambassador Pickering will remember this well.

I just wanted to give a shoutout to the American foreign-service officers that—that work at the U.S. Mission and the UN who have to work up there in a very, very difficult environment without all the perks of being assigned overseas—the housing, the schools, all these things.

And—and they volunteer, because it's—it's such an important assignment. But they—they kind of—I think sometimes—hopefully, they—they go and—and get rewarded for their commitment to—to the job.


GERSON: Well, Stuart asked the question—key question about the...

HOLLIDAY: Yeah, I'm sorry. If you just—the protocol is identify...

GERSON: I'm sorry. Allan Gerson, A.G. International Law, and I had served for nearly six years as counsel to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, so I understand the sort of difficult position that you are in, having to negotiate.

My question concerns the UN Security Council, because anyway you slice, the UN Security Council remains the crown jewel of the UN system with regards to war and peace.

And we've had problems with it, with regards to Ukraine. As Stuart pointed out, certainly, we had problems with it with regard to Libya when it involved Russia.

But now we have this new issue that's coming up with regard to Iran, and I'd like to get your opinion, if I might, on this. Because we know about the presidential—not the presidential—the letter of the various Republican congressmen that when directly to the leaders of Iran.

And in part, the Iranian response was that, "Look, any agreement that is made between the United States and Iran will have to go to the UN Security Council for approval, and once you get UN Security Council approval, it then becomes an international agreement, and by virtue of it being an international agreement, whatever role Congress might normally have, it no longer has any role."


HOLLIDAY: So legal question is...

GERSON: No, this is—my point is, it's not a legal question; it's a political question, because it depends on the administration.

Will—is it likely that this administration's position will be that once this goes to the UN Security Council, this eliminates for all time any congressional interest as a matter of law in the matter?

CROCKER: So, you know, I think Secretary Kerry and others have spoken on these questions recently, as recently as yesterday, and will continue to do so. So, you know, I can't really add anything to what they have said on this question.

It is true that there is a UN Security Council aspect to this in the sense that there is an enormously robust UN Security Council regime of sanctions on Iran for its nuclear activities, and that is one aspect that will need to be dealt with as part of whatever might ultimately come out in the way of an agreement if we are to get there.

But I think it would unwise to expect that the U.S. would say there's some kind of international agreement that results from a decision that the Security Council—that precludes any role for the Congress.

I don't think anyone in the administration has suggested that would be the case, and I think quite to the contrary, the administration has been clear in all of the dialogue we have had and will continue have with Congress about the role that Congress must and should play on these questions.

HOLLIDAY: Senator Worth? And if I could ask you to stand up, I guess that's the program. Yes.

WORTH: Thank you. I'm Tim Worth at the UN Foundation. Thank you very much for what I thought was an absolutely terrific presentation.

You used the word "enduring" a number of times. There's an enduring frustration of explaining the UN to the outside world, and I think you did just a terrific job. Thank you very much.

The topic of today is the 70th and sort of thinking ahead beyond (inaudible), I wanted to ask you about what kind of guidance you're developing on three issues, if I might.

One, we've talked a little bit about the Security Council, but the inevitable question will come up again Security Council reform. How are you all thinking about that?

Second, the issue of the selection of a secretary general the next time around, and should that be a different process, or are we going to go through a similar sort of thing?

And third, the secretary general has made very clear that climate is a priority and energy is the golden thread running that. How do we expect the UN to be able to institutionally sustain real momentum on the energy front when there is also so much veto power out there against doing anything?

So three questions. All easy ones, I know. Thank you again.


CROCKER: Your first two are, of course, somewhat related, because they—they both relate very directly to the role of the—the P5 members of the Security Council.

I think our expectation on Security Council reform is that there will be some heightened and already is some heightened degree of discussion and ferment around the question of reform this year and certainly an effort to take advantage of the opportunity that this being the 70th year presents to raise the question again about Security Council reform.

The United States is on record and many times over with sort of where our position on Security Council reform, which is that we are open in principle to a modest expansion of the council of both permanent and nonpermanent members.

We remain opposed to any alteration of the veto power, and we would have full expectation that any members that wanted to join as permanent members of the Security Council would approach that role with the appropriate degree of seriousness about the responsibility for promotion and protection of international peace and security.

Having said all of that, there is, as always in the UN system, yet another set of intergovernmental negotiations going on around the question of Security Council reform, and within that, there are many different groups of countries that have different ideas about what reform should look like.

And the United—the—the—our position up until now and our sort of review of those respective positions has been that they are not nearly close enough yet to think that we actually see real progress on Security Council reform this year.

Some of the positions are still very far apart, so hard to see how you would get a place, assuming you're talking about charter reform, where you get the requisite number of votes in the General Assembly to actually pass that, which is 129.

And it's worth also pointing out that the permanent—that as part of the charter, in order to reform it, the P5 members have to agree to reform, and their national legislatures have to agree to the reform as well.

So I'm a bit hard-pressed to see that we will actually get Security Council reform of that kind of this year.

But having said that, I think there will—and I think a lot of the countries that are really pushing it strongly this year understand that, but they also think that there's some value to be had, and they're probably not wrong in trying to push those conversations to make a little bit more progress in them than we've had to date, so that even if we don't actually see actual reform this year, we may, in fact, see some movement toward what that reform might look like if we reach the question again a few years done the road.

Having said that, the General Assembly is the unwieldy 193-member body that I talked about before, and, you know, I wouldn't—you would unwise, I think, to make strong predictions on whether some of that could change and, you know, whether there may, in fact, be some real momentum garnered from the fact that this is the 70th anniversary.

On the question of the next S.G., Ban Ki Moon's term runs out at the end of 2016, so we are already seeing heightened activity and discussions around interests by member states and by particular people in possibly running for the job of secretary general.

As you, I think, know, Kofi Annan and the group of Elders recently came recently came out with something—with a document that had a number of recommendations around reform, including Security Council reform, including the question of the selection of the S.G. process and arguing that that should be a much more transparent and open process than it has been to date and that the permanent five members should not hold the same kind of veto power on that question as we have traditionally.

Again, I'm—I—I would be surprised if we really see a change in how that unfolds over the next years, but we'll see. And I think, you know, it will be—there are—the Eastern Europeans believe that it's their turn to have the next secretary general.

Given the way that the process currently, as requiring some agreement among P5 members, I will be interested to see whether the U.S. and Russia can agree on any candidate coming from that region of the world.

So I think it'll be an interesting few years...

WORTH: And there's a sentiment for a woman, correct?

CROCKER: And there is a sentiment for a woman, and it is high time that we had one.



And so—so I think, you know...

WORTH: What if everything just fixed—just happened perfectly, if we had a woman secretary general, and all of a sudden, we have the, you know, Security Council reform? Maybe things can get done.

But I think this conversation on the Security Council reform and the S.G. is reminiscent of—these are sort of evergreen issues.

CROCKER: They are evergreen issues, and...

WORTH: (OFF-MIKE) years ago, we were talking about Japan, we were talking about Brazil...

CROCKER: Right, and we still are.

And—and, you know, I think if we're honest with ourselves as Americans, we have to understand how much the current setup benefits us, even while we agree philosophically that the council is outdated in its current form and needs reform.

But—but it is, as you pointed out, it remains the preeminent body of promoting peace and security in the world, really. And so I think we have to be very thoughtful and careful around questions like Security Council reform because you don't want to do it in a way that ends up ultimately decreasing the effectiveness of that body or our ability to use it in the ways that we have been able to use it over the past 70 years.

HOLLIDAY: And I think very briefly, the last point was: How do you take the climate issue forward in the UN context?

CROCKER: So, I have the benefit of mostly being able to not answer this question because as you know, we have a special envoy for climate change in the department. And he is the one, together with the secretary and the president, obviously, and others, who are fully engaged on these questions and pushing us toward hopefully getting a strong, solid agreement in Paris in December.

I think you know the administration's commitment to doing that. And it is deep and abiding. I—I think the recent—the recent ISCH (ph) agreement between the U.S. and China has helped maybe, could help to unlock some of the neuralgic (ph) conversation around these issues that you will be so familiar with. But that is not to say that we are there yet.

So I think, you know, it is certainly one of the—those big-ticket items I referred to where we will be intimately and intensively engaged in the hopes (inaudible). And—but we are very committed to trying to get something real out of Paris in December.

HOLLIDAY: Yes, sir?

QUESTION: (inaudible). I wonder if you would comment on peacekeeping missions? I think of two very large ones that have been around for quite a while, particularly the Congo and also Darfur. Darfur is being cut back partly because of ineffectiveness. And the charge, of course, has been about failure to protect civilians.

Would you comment on the future of such missions, given the huge expense? The Darfur one is over $1 billion a year. But yet, it has achieved some success in protecting civilians, in my view. 

CROCKER: Well, I mean, I think you've pointed out two of the—sort of the—the most difficult for a lot of different reasons peacekeeping missions that we have. I think, as I mentioned in my—in my opening remarks, there is a lot of thinking going on right now, both about particular missions and where they are falling short and why, and also more generally about the question of reform of the UN 's peacekeeping capacities, how we make decisions around missions and other things.

I think both of those are, you know, good examples of missions that have—that have, as you said, done a lot in terms of protection of civilians, but haven't always lived up to their mandates and are enormously effective—enormously expensive for—for the U.N system and the member states to maintain.

And so as a result, when things come up like mandate reviews, which we're currently looking at for the Congo, for example, we take those as opportunities to look at how the mission is performing, what the current needs are, whether the mission fits those needs, and whether changes need to be made.

It is—both of them also point out, you know, one of the enduring difficulties around peacekeeping missions that have only become more challenging as we are using them in more and more dicey and complicated areas around the world, which is the question of whether you have the political agreements and underpinnings and the political processes in place to really make sure that those missions can be effective.

So that in other words, you can't view peacekeeping missions just as a band-aid. Even as a band-aid, they do good if they are protecting the lives of civilians, to be sure. But they are not ultimately going to solve the underlying issues unless they have the political frameworks around them.

And so as one of the questions that we're looking at in this whole discussion around peacekeeping reform, we are also trying to take on this question of the political backing for these agreements, both from the council perspective, from the country's perspective, from the region's perspective, and also from the perspective of the countries that are contributing troops and whether they have the will and the capability to enforce the mandates that they are given.

In some of these missions, those are all open questions. They are all ones that we are sort of thinking through right now and we have continued to think through over the years as we've looked again at starting new missions that mandate renewals around current missions and the rest of it.

Obviously, no one wants to be in a position where you have missions going on for as long as they—they are, unless the need is still there.

HOLLIDAY: Or in the case of, you know, Cyprus, where the parties actually have been paying to keep the peacekeeping mission in place because it provides a level of stability. 

Ambassador Tom Pickering, sir?

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

I'll use the mike, but my voice I hope can surmount it.

HOLLIDAY: You know a few things about foreign affairs in the United Nations, I think.

QUESTION: I wanted to first congratulate you on your role and what you've done, and on the talk you gave us, which covers a good bit of the good and the bad, which is always a taxing problem, having been in New York for some time, and also in Tel Aviv and in Amman.

I found one area of your speech a little grating. That is the unalloyed, uncritical, unstinting support for Israel on everything. And my concern is how much is the present now nine-year-old government responsible for some of that. I recognize that this is an issue on which there are obviously two clear and different sides. And one cannot be unalloyed.

But how much is the present government responsible for that? And even more, how much are we working with the present government in the direction of making them, put it this way, less responsible for this particular approach?

CROCKER: So, you know, I think it's a very...


QUESTION: And I don't really expect you to go into detail in answering it.


HOLLIDAY: Well, but it does—it does seem that the more challenges we're having in the bilateral relationship, the more visible language of support within the UN context we are providing.

CROCKER: So, I mean, I think it points out a little bit of an interesting dilemma in the sense that quite apart from whatever may be going on at any given time in the bilateral agenda, there is, as you will remember, this persistent bias across the UN system against Israel. And it's something that I saw very directly when I was up working inside that system, as well as seeing it from—from this angle.

And so I think it's fair to say that—that the approach that we take to Israel in the UN system is one that we should just take as a matter of course because it is not the right place for the system to be to be so, you know, politically biased against one country in the way that it is. 

And I'll just give you one salient example from the ongoing session at the Human Rights Council where I was in Geneva just last week. 

HOLLIDAY: With—with the secretary?

CROCKER: With the secretary, right, who gave our remarks at the high level week.

We have seen the horrific story of the human rights abuses in North Korea that was brought to light by the Human Rights Council's commission of inquiry. Given that record, we are running the Human Rights Council and we, as part of it, are running this term one resolution on North Korea; six on Israel. 

So it's this kind of political—it's this imbalance that is indefensible, right? And if you have it, then it enables—it enables us and others to sort of be critical of it in the way that we are, because it's just—there's no way to say that that is sort of an OK situation, right? That you would have such an extreme focus on any one country at the expense of where you should be focused?

That having been said, it has never been the position of this administration or, I think, any administration that Israel or any other country is beyond scrutiny. So it's not that we should suggest that Israel should not come up in the ways that it does at the Human Rights Council, but just that if you—if it is so blatantly biased in that way or unbalanced in that way, it can tend to decrease the legitimacy and credibility of those organizations.

And it's largely for that reason that we push back against it, right? Because we have an interest in making—in continuing to have this function, in this case, the Human Rights Council, as an effective body. And it's harder to argue for that when you continue to just sort of have this situation hanging out there all the time in the way that it does.

HOLLIDAY: Davis, and then we'll go back here.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Davis Robinson (ph), and I have to say, on a personal note, that you have come a long way since the car pools with our son in elementary school.


The UN Charter is a sovereign state system. And in my opinion never contemplated nonstate actors of the sort that we have had to face ever since 9/11. And I felt personally that it has been unfortunate that the United States over the years has not led an effort either to amend the charter or to reform the system, so that it is more relevant for these terrible nonstate actors.

What are we doing about that?

CROCKER: So, you know, it's an issue that we deal with on sort of two different frames, if I can put it that way. And on your—on your actual question, I mean I think what we've been doing and what the Security Council has, in fact, kind of admirably done, is just figure out a way to use itself to try to address this problem, even though it is not a problem—even though it is not a construct that really allowed for that in the way that it was set up.

So that, we've run resolutions in the Security Council on foreign terrorist fighters. We've run counter-ISIL resolutions. We run resolutions on oil smuggling, on going after terrorist financing. We've done the same thing on counterpiracy, so, in other words, tried to use the voice and the mechanism of the Security Council to go after problems that were not necessarily anticipated.

We are currently working across the UN system to see sort of how we better coordinate, how we can help the UN system better coordinate its actions on counterterrorism, its actions on countering violent extremism.

New organs have been set up within various parts, including at the secretariat, to try to bring some coherence to those activities across the UN system.

So, it's not necessarily a perfect fit. But the sovereign state construct also remains relevant in the sense—and this, again, is something that we're facing just now with the Human Rights Council, that there are certain countries in the world who are not necessarily so great on human rights themselves, as the government, who would be very happy for us to focus all of our attention only on the nonstate actors, and not on the actions of the government.

So, if you want to talk about the situation in, a, Nigeria, you would talk only about Boko Haram, and you wouldn't focus at all on the government. 

And so, for us, it remains important that we do both, that we have to—and this is part of the evolution of the system that I talked about, that you have to try to use these—and it's been uncomfortable at the Human Rights Council. It has been uncomfortable for the council to get to the point where it can speak to the nonstate actors. But we've made progress on that and we're starting to do it.

We don't want to do it at the expense of also focusing the attention, when it needs to be focused, on the actions of the governments, too, and not let governments use this whole mantra of countering violent extremism as an excuse not to do what they need to be doing themselves in the way of promotion and protection of human rights within their own countries.

HOLLIDAY: Great. (inaudible)

QUESTION: Thank you for your presentation today. I've Riva Karou (ph) from the McCort School (ph) at Georgetown University. 

I just he a quick question. You seemed a little nervous about the Postal Union meeting the other day. I personally think that, going forward, that a renewed focus is needed on international organization, from the point of view of world society, where we start—instead of looking north, south, east and west, we start looking at building public management capacity, harmonization of regulatory capacity, through standard-setting functions.

We have the science and technical bodies, you know, which really, I think, need more help in going around and building capacity at the national and regional levels, so we can have common standards, and so that nations can start building themselves.

So, would you talk a little bit more about how you see that part of the United Nations system going forward? You know, you talked about Ebola and the bad response. I personally feel that these organizations like the world's science-based organizations, like the World Health Organization, this Organization for Animal Health, and so on and so forth, these are the bodies that need more help. Our regulators and the European Union regulators go and they try to help where they can, but we need systematic Max Weber (ph) type help.


CROCKER: It's a tall order. No, I mean, I agree with you, and I think that's why I tried to highlight in my remarks some of the technical agencies and what they bring to bear, and why there are so needed in the international system.

So if we take ourselves a little bit outside of the kind of political dynamics and the stuff that grabs headlines from New York, these agencies exist. We don't even know—I discover new ones almost every week that I didn't know existed. And sometimes they have sort of laughable names, like the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs, which is a new one I learned about, UNOUSA.

And but then, come to find out, that they're doing really important stuff about protection against, you know, littering in outer space and satellites, you know, all this—and somebody needs to be doing that.

And some of these organizations are highly effective. Some of them, as you suggest, still need work.

And I wasn't nervous about the Postal Union meeting, I just pointed it out as a kind of example of the breadth of the international space, right?

And I think you're right. And the Postal Regulatory Commission in this case plays a really important role, together with the State Department, in trying to promote just some of those things that you're talking about in terms of bringing some of the experience that we have on the regulatory front around these questions into the international stage.

And, on WHO, I would only come back to say that, you know, they were slow off the mark, but ultimately they got to where they needed to be on Ebola, as did some of the other international organizations. So I didn't mean to indicate that it had been a fully bad story.

And, in fact, I think they have used it as a learning opportunity and used it as an opportunity at their executive board at the end of January to really make progress on some of the endemic reform issues that have been really hard to tackle at WHO. But the opportunity presented by the Ebola response actually gave us an opportunity to start tackling those.

HOLLIDAY: So, I'm afraid we're—we just have time for just two very quick questions. 

We'll go here, and then I've ignored this side of the aisle, and so we're gonna take that question, then we're gonna wrap, to get everybody back to their day jobs.

QUESTION: I will be brief, then. Elissa Ayres (ph), Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks for a great speech.

Just a quick question, you did refer to challenges in getting things done at times at the UN  And we're all well aware of what those are.

In the case of Ukraine, working with the OSCE, as a—as kind of regional multilateral institution that can provide an ability to get things done.

What you see in the trade world is an increase in sort of a regional minilateralism, or sort of moving to the regional way of trying to achieve agreements because it's so hard to get things done through the WTO.

Do you see that happening as a general trend for political issues in the U.N or just sort of more one-off?

CROCKER: You know, I don't so much on the peace and security on the political side see that as a trend. Again, just as I think we've talked about here a lot, the kind of continued prominence and preeminence of the Security Council.

And, you know, I think there have been attempts over time to build up new kinds of institutions when we've been frustrated with the lack of functioning of the Security Council. And those just have never garnered the full weight—the authority or the ability to really bring things together and speak decisively on issues in the way that the Security Council can.

So, you know, we hear a lot about sort of the council is in danger of losing all of its credibility because it's this antiquated organization and the permanent five members are based on the end of World War II and all of this stuff. But in actual fact, as we've seen time and again, even when we and others have decided to act outside of the council, we have generally gone back to it after the fact to approve the actions that were taken, to bestow legitimacy on the actions that were taken.

And I am hard-pressed to really see that changing. But that is not to say that there are times when because we can't get stuff done in the council effectively on peace and security, we do go somewhere else, and we have done that consistently over the years, whether it's to NATO or other regional organizations. And we're clearly—and this is something that Esther (ph) really spent a lot of time on when she was in this job.

We've been also attempting to build up in particular the African Union and the role that it can play on peace and security issues. And in fact, the UN Security Council is in Addis today discussing the relationship between the council and the African Union. There was a session earlier in the week about the relationship between between the E.U. and the United Nations.

And so, you know, all of these things are coming to bear in different ways, but ultimately I think the global response that the UN represents, you're going to be hard-pressed to replicate that on some of these core political issues.

HOLLIDAY: Last question here.

QUESTION: (inaudible) so my question is just, and going back a little bit to Ambassador Pickering's discussion about the...

HOLLIDAY: If you wouldn't mind just standing up, just so we can see you...

QUESTION: Sure. About the U.S. position on the panel towards Israel and Palestine. I mean, I agree with you that, you know, there is a bit of an anti-Israel bias at the Security Council and within the other UN bodies. But my question is: Haven't we done a lot more than trying to equilibrate the conversation back to other issues of importance and actually taken very strong positions on these things? 

Like, when we cut funding at UNESCO, that was, you know, a little bit anti-Palestinian in a way. And I'm just in the private sector, so maybe I don't fully understand these things, but I'm just curious. I mean, if you were in the Palestinian position after 50 years, if negotiations for a two-state solution hadn't really worked, I mean, wouldn't you try to utilize multilateral bodies to get recognition and appreciate that your nation wants to finally become a state? 

I'd love to hear more.

CROCKER: So, yeah, I mean, I can't obviously speak to the motivations of the Palestinians. And, you know, I wouldn't attempt to do that.

I think from our perspective, the question is whether these actions are helpful or hurtful to the ultimate cause of getting peace. And I think it is our—it has been and remains our position that you cannot impose a solution on the parties, and that you cannot impose through unilateral or other action in the international system a set of requirements or an ultimate solution that is really going to work, in the absence of real and direct—you know, direct negotiations and getting to a real peace agreement between the parties.

That has been a frustrating process over the decades. And the Palestinians are certainly seeming to react to that by taking certain actions across the UN system. We have a legislative requirement that prohibits us from funding certain types of UN organizations—the specialized and technical agencies if—if the Palestinians become a member state. And that is why we cut off our funding to UNESCO when the Palestinians became a member. It's a legislative requirement.

HOLLIDAY: So that's a legislative (inaudible).

CROCKER: And—and that is not something that tends to be beneficial to the Palestinians, as you suggest. It's not beneficial to the Israelis. It's not beneficial to the organizations themselves because they lose a good chunk of their funding. But—but it does represent the United States' firm belief that unless and until we get to the negotiated two-state solution that we would like to see, it is—we would be wise not to try to circumvent that by taking these actions across the UN system.

HOLLIDAY: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Crocker.


Appreciate it. Thank you very much.


HOLLIDAY: Thank you all.

Top Stories on CFR

Palestinian Territories

The leading UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees is engulfed in allegations that twelve of its employees were involved in the Hamas attacks on southern Israel. The agency faces severe funding cutbacks, with huge consequences for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. 

United States

New U.S. Census Bureau data shows the United States importing more goods from Mexico than from China. Will the shift change the global trading landscape?