Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs, United Nations
Senior Legal and Investigative Correspondent, NBC News
Jeffrey Feltman discusses his five years as undersecretary-general for political affairs at the United Nations (UN), the role of the UN in mediating and preventing conflict, and the relationship between the United States and the UN.
MCFADDEN: Hi, everybody. Isn’t this cozy? (Laughter.) Well, you were right. I do need a minute. I just walked up the stairs. That’s embarrassing. (Exhales.) (Laughter.)
I’m Cynthia McFadden. I’m the senior investigative and legal correspondent at NBC News, and it’s a pleasure to be invited to moderate tonight. This is the Sorensen Lecture on the U.N., and it’s a really important night for the Council and I think for all of us to be updated about what’s going on in the world.
And we are so thrilled that Jeffrey Feltman, who is the undersecretary-general for political affairs at the U.N., is here with us tonight.
FELTMAN: Thank you.
MCFADDEN: We’ve had a chance to talk briefly. We’ll talk for about a half an hour and then open it to questions from the audience. I will remind you that we are on the record at the ambassador’s request, which always makes people like me happy. (Laughter.)
We are especially thrilled that Gillian Sorensen is here with us tonight in the front row. It was because of her generosity and that of her late husband, Ted Sorensen, that we’re able to gather tonight. I did not know your husband well, but I know—(audio break)—a proud son of Nebraska and someone this nation remains so very proud of.
And I have to say, as a friend of Pete Peterson’s, my favorite line of all time was not about “what you can do for your country” or any of that. It was when he said about one of Fred’s many books on entitlements: “Once you put it down, you can never pick it up.” (Laughter.) It always gets a laugh.
FELTMAN: All right.
MCFADDEN: So, to the world. Let us begin with an easy question, I promise they’re going to get harder.
FELTMAN: (Laughs.) That’s what I was afraid of.
MCFADDEN: Yeah. Explain what your portfolio is as the undersecretary in charge of political affairs at the U.N. What’s your job?
FELTMAN: Well, after five-and-a-half years, I still ask myself that occasionally. (Laughter.) It seems to be a little bit of everything.
But let me—if I may, Cynthia, first let me also acknowledge Gillian, because I don’t think there’s anybody, besides maybe the secretary-generals themselves, who have exerted as much effort, traveled as many miles, spoken as many words in explaining to Americans why the U.N. should matter. And I just want to acknowledge her commitment to public service, and I think that the U.N. and the world’s a better place because of the work that she’s done. So thank you, Gillian. (Cheers, applause.)
MCFADDEN: OK. So now what’s your job?
FELTMAN: So that gave me some time to think about what my—
MCFADDEN: Yeah, right. (Laughs.)
FELTMAN: —to think about what my job is. You know, at one level, if the U.N. were a country, were a government—which, of course, is everyone’s nightmare; it shouldn’t be a government or a country—but I would be sort of the equivalent of a foreign minister, you know, because I am the one that’s advising the secretary-general on a lot of the political issues, the peace issues. You know, you have other people who are working on development and human rights, the World Food Programme, UNICEF, whatever. But the Department of Political Affairs is looking globally at what the U.N. should be doing, if anything, in terms of political, in terms of peace and security.
Now, we’re not the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which is focused on very specific missions, but we are looking sort of globally where should we be working on conflict prevention. Where do we need to be upping our game in terms of trying to resolve a problem before it becomes a conflict? And we have, you know, desk officers like the State Department has, and we also have people who are working on mediation activities, working on election assistance, working on technical issues that support envoys or peace processes around the world.
MCFADDEN: So going around the world in your current job, you worked for three decades at the State Department. How is it different representing the U.N. than it was representing the U.S.?
FELTMAN: You know, it’s—Cynthia, it’s more different than I had anticipated. When I had the honor to be hired by Ban Ki-moon five-and-a-half years ago—I had retired from the State Department, was hired by Ban Ki-moon—I think I was probably a little bit too complacent because I thought, well, you know, I was a U.S. diplomat for years; this is diplomacy. It’s a lot different.
If you go into a multilateral meeting or bilateral meeting as a U.S. official—as a U.S. ambassador, U.S. assistant secretary, the positions I had—I had the honor to hold in my U.S. service—you know, everyone else who sees you, who’s your counterpart, knows that you have behind you the president, the White House, the currency, the voting weight in the Security Council, the IMF votes, the Pentagon, you know, all these tangible things that U.S. diplomacy can bring to the diplomatic work. When you work for the U.N., you have principles. (Laughter.) You have ideals. And these are important, but they’re harder to turn into tangible action. You need to spend a lot more time in the U.N. on building a consensus around an idea that’s rooted in the Charter, and it’s a different type of diplomacy.
MCFADDEN: It’s the power of persuasion, maybe, to a higher order.
FELTMAN: Yes. And again, it’s about—obviously, if you’re a—if you’re a U.S. official, you want to build alliances. You want to try to expand the support for whatever the U.S. policy is. But it’s different in the U.N. The power that the secretary-general or parts of the Secretariat have depend on what consensus you can build of member states. You know, the U.S. at some point could say we’re just going to go it alone. We’ve tried, but you don’t agree with us, we’re just going to go it alone.
MCFADDEN: I think we’ve done that a few times, haven’t we? (Laughter.)
FELTMAN: I think we’ve—yes.
The secretary-general can’t do that. You know, the Department of Political Affairs, Department of Peacekeeping Operations, we can’t do that. We have to build a consensus rooted in those Charter ideals about what it is that we—that we propose doing.
MCFADDEN: Before we go into the world, which—I think what we’ll do is talk about the Middle East and then talk about North Korea. Before we get there, I do have to ask you a State Department question, about a letter sent last week by the Democratic members of the House Foreign Relations (sic; Affairs) Committee in which they express their deep concern—and now I’m going to quote from the letter—“about the exodus of” over “100 senior Foreign Service officers from the State Department since January.” And now I’m quoting them again: “what appears to be the intentional hollowing-out of” the “senior diplomatic ranks.” Can you comment?
FELTMAN: I mean, it’s hard for me to—it’s hard for me to be sort of impartial, neutral, or removed from that—from that question, because I care a lot about the institution I served for so—for so long, and I know a lot of the colleagues who have—who have felt the need to move on or who have been asked to move on.
I think that the U.S.—you know, I think the U.S. has the strongest diplomatic service in the—in the world. That probably sounds self-serving to say that—
FELTMAN: —but I believe that, and I believe that it’s worth any administration’s time to preserve that institution. And I’m very—I’m very bothered by what I’m hearing.
MCFADDEN: The slow dismantlement of the State Department is what some people are calling it.
FELTMAN: Yeah, I’m not there. I’ve only been in the State Department once for meetings since the—since the transition. But I have to say I was moved, not in a positive way, when I walked down the 6200 corridor, which is where all the assistant secretaries of state for the regional bureaus are, and all of the signs were blank at the time I went there.
MCFADDEN: And does it affect—does what you’ve just described affect how the U.S. is perceived at the U.N. and around the world?
FELTMAN: Well, you know, it’s—expand your question a bit. What’s the—you know, sort of how have—how has the U.N.-U.S. relationship, from my perspective, shifted since January? Within the Secretariat I’m the highest U.S. citizen. There’s other U.S. citizens who have the same rank as I do, that are heads of agencies, funds, and programs. But inside the belly of the beast, I’m the most senior U.S. citizen, and so I think I can see the relationship from both my past life and my current life.
What I find somewhat remarkable is on the peace and security issues that we’re dealing with—I’m talking—I’m not talking about the whole range of U.N. activities, but the peace and security issues, South Sudan—there’s much more continuity than you would—than you would imagine. You know, when you look at what Ambassador Haley said when she was traveling to South Sudan, maybe the tone’s somewhat different, but the basic issues that she raised are the same issues that Samantha Power would have raised under the Obama administration. Despite the very large change in the overall direction of this administration versus the last administration, in terms of peace and security matters in the U.N., there’s more continuity than not. It’s not—it’s not across the board.
MCFADDEN: Well, that’s a remarkable statement, that Samantha Power and Secretary—U.N. Secretary (sic; Ambassador) Haley are actually more in—less in conflict and more in agreement in how they represent this country.
FELTMAN: I mean, if you listen to the—to the Security Council debate that we’ve had on issues such as Ukraine, for example, again, there’s continuity in the concern that Ambassador Haley has expressed about what’s happening in eastern Ukraine that very much echoes what Samantha Power would have said. Now, their styles are—their styles are different, and there’s also of course—there’s a real focus on U.N. reform by this administration. It happens to coincide with Antonio Guterres’ own goals because, you know, you look at the tools that we have in the U.N. on peace and security, these were tools that were designed for conflicts between states. These are—you know, peacekeeping was designed, classic peacekeeping, for when there was a ceasefire agreement and you needed to have some kind of trust-building or juxtaposition between opposing—between opposing forces in a peace agreement. Now most of the conflicts that we’re—that we’re facing are conflicts inside states. They’re conflicts with non-state actors who may not even believe in the—in the concept of statehood, who may have ideological differences that make them hard to deal with as partners in any kind of mediation process.
So we need to think about conflict in a different way than the—than the founders of the Charter thought about conflict. And that coincides with an administration that very much wants to see the U.N. become, in its view, more fit for purpose.
So, in terms of individual peace and security issues, there’s more continuity than you would imagine. And in terms of the push for reform by this administration, it largely coincides with the—with the agenda of the new secretary-general in trying to—in trying to prove to the world that an organization that’s 70 years old, that was designed at a different time, is still fit for purpose.
MCFADDEN: Fascinating. I’m sure you’ll have some follow-ups. I’ll move on.
The Middle East. For many years you served in various posts around the Middle East, from Baghdad and Jerusalem to becoming the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon. What the heck is going on? Explain what’s going on in Saudi Arabia. Explain what’s going on with Iran. (Laughter.) And you have 30 seconds. (Laughter.)
FELTMAN: You realize that I left the State Department when I was assistant secretary for Near East affairs because I couldn’t figure out then what was going on. (Laughter.) And it’s funny because Ban Ki-moon, when he was looking for someone to fill the position I now have, you know, he wanted somebody that had some Middle East experience, because it had just come out of the—out of the Arab Spring, the surprise of the Arab Spring. And, you know, my joke to my staff is, and I had so much success in the Middle East in the State Department that of course, you know, I would be natural for this position. (Laughter.)
It’s hard to figure out, but there are—I think there are several phenomena worth nothing when you look at the Middle East today. One is that you have interrelated conflicts that create political or security challenges far from the conflict itself. So you have domestic problems inside Syria that are affecting the politics in Europe and affecting, you know, security well beyond Syria.
The second thing is you have basically the collapse of state structures or the collapse of government legitimacy because they are not able to deliver the services to the population the population expects. And you have a newly assertive Saudi foreign policy at the same time. Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy in the past—as I think most people would agree—was characterized by caution and consensus.
MCFADDEN: Not part of the Arab Spring, in fact.
FELTMAN: Yes. Yes, and you—look back at the Libya intervention in 2011. That Libya intervention—you know, we can talk about that for hours and days, but the Libya intervention originated after the popular uprising in Libya with the GCC Initiative—the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative promoted by Qatar and the UAE asking for international support for the Libyan people. It moved to the Arab League where the Arab League then asked for international support. It eventually moved to the Security Council. But Saudi Arabia was silent. This was despite the fact that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had basically—Saudi Arabia had uncovered a plot by Qaddafi to try to kill King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, so Saudi Arabia was silent.
Look today. Saudi Arabia is playing a vocal, public role in terms of the policies toward Qatar, the policies toward Yemen, the policy toward Lebanon, but Saudi Arabia is leading these efforts as opposed to in the past where Saudi Arabia was cautious, operating by consensus. It’s a—it’s a—it’s a—the weight of the Arab world has moved toward the Gulf in a way I don’t think we’ve seen before.
Other traditional Arab centers of power—Damascus, Baghdad—are consumed with domestic issues. Egypt has restored some of its weight, but Egypt has a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia, the UAE for a lot or reasons, meaning again that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf is playing a much larger role in Arab politics than we’ve seen before.
MCFADDEN: What about the moving chairs—or the lockup at the fancy hotel? I mean, what’s going on just internally? And how worried are you about the stability of the country?
FELTMAN: Well, it seems to me that, you know, the crown prince—
FELTMAN: —Mohammed bin Salman, is taking on a lot of fights at once—you know, the clerics, the business community, other parts of the royal family, the neighbors—that there’s a lot—there’s a lot going on at once. And I am modest enough—having not predicted the Arab Spring—to not try to give any predictions that the—because I truly don’t know.
MCFADDEN: Do you see it as—what’s his end goal? What is he trying to do?
FELTMAN: Well, I think that—I think that there was a problem in that Saudi Arabia—and it’s a little bit awkward on the record talking about a member state of the organization I now represent—but I think there’s—
MCFADDEN: You wanted to be on the record.
FELTMAN: —that there was a—no, no, I responded positively when people suggested I should go on the record. (Laughter.)
FELTMAN: I think that there was a concern in Saudi Arabia that the country was somewhat adrift, that you had aging leadership shifting between various parts of the royal family. You didn’t have any clear direction for where Saudi Arabia was going. And next door in the UAE you had a young leadership, dynamic leadership, diversifying the economy, and Saudi Arabia was just sort of drifting along. And I think that what Mohammed Salman is trying to do is wrest this country into a dynamic 21st century position. I think he has a vision for where it—for the role that Saudi Arabia should be playing.
Now, will it succeed? I would—I am concerned, for example, that all of the domestic reforms that he is doing don’t seem yet to include what do you do about the Eastern Province where the—where you have the Shia population. Is there any way that you are including the Shia population into this vision for a modern Saudi Arabia? And I worry that the—that end result of some of the foreign policy initiatives by Saudi Arabia seem to be producing the results least intended. You know, you look at Yemen. One of the—one of the reasons why the—the coalition was formed, and Saudi Arabia was leading the coalition, to support what the Security Council determined was the legitimate government in Yemen was fear of Iranian influence. Iranian influence today may be overstated by some, but it is far greater than it was before the war started. You know, you look at Qatar. Turkish troops have increased in Qatar, and Qatar’s relationship with Iran is closer. The blockade of Qatar was supposed—was designed ostensibly to go against these things.
You look at Lebanon. I don’t what happened—I don’t know what happened really with Saad Hariri, but I do know what the Saudis said publicly. You had the minister of Gulf Affairs, Thamer Sabhan, saying basically Lebanon has declared war on Saudi Arabia. We draw certain conclusions on what the Saudis said about Lebanon, and now you see the miracle of the Sunnis and Shia in Lebanon being united for the first time in decades. That doesn’t seem to be in Saudi interests.
MCFADDEN: The boomerang effect—
MCFADDEN: —in essence.
Any sense, any insight as to whether or not the crown prince thought he was getting a wink and a nod from the U.S.?
FELTMAN: I really have—I have no idea on that. Yeah, I’ve read the press speculation on that, but I have no insights on that at all.
I don’t think that the Saudis—maybe they informed the U.S., but I don’t think the Saudis felt that they would have needed to ask permission to do something on Lebanon which is in—which they see as in their sphere of influence, the same way as I—you know, Yemen is in their backyard and there is a security threat to Saudi Arabia from Yemen, that I don’t think they would be asking the U.S. for permission to address a security threat that they feel is in their backyard.
MCFADDEN: Maybe not permission, but an emboldening is sort of the notion, I guess. But we’ll move on because we don’t want to end up with only five minutes to do North Korea.
What is your view about Syria at this point? Is it—are thing winding down? Was there a winner? Where are we?
FELTMAN: Things are definitely—things are definitely winding down. If you look at the—at the—at the fatality rate at the clashes, there has definitely been de-escalation. It’s not altogether quiet yet, it’s not altogether over yet.
The opposition—the opposition did not win, but I would argue that Damascus itself has not won. The country—the country still risks fragmentation. You know, the way that you have the population arrayed and what the external actors are still doing—you know, Syria—pre-2001 in Syria certainly cannot be restored.
The—it is our conviction in the U.N.—and it’s based on knowing what has worked in ending civil wars elsewhere—is that there has to be some kind of inclusive governance system that better reflects the demography and the need for the population for this to be over.
MCFADDEN: It’s hard to see that coming, though, isn’t it, given the leadership—
FELTMAN: Yeah, I mean—
MCFADDEN: —in Damascus?
FELTMAN: —I suspect that the leadership feels quite emboldened right now. You know, they feel that they—they feel that they—that they have basically won. But over the long term, how are they going to get—how are they going to do the reconstruction? I can’t see right now the European coffers opening up to do the reconstruction if there is not some attempt to have a more inclusive representative government system, and that they’re going to need. And I don’t think that the Russians want to be left holding the bag for reconstruction, and I think that the Iranians are there for the long haul, but not necessarily for reconstruction.
MCFADDEN: ISIS—is the caliphate still—still on the move?
FELTMAN: I think the caliphate—the caliphate is over, but ISIS is—has proven an ability to reinvent itself to be flexible to respond, so I think that we’ll—we’re still going to have an ISIS threat, but it’s not going to be the type of ISIS—it’s not going to be the quasi-state holding mass amounts of territory, doing taxation of populations. It’s going to—it’s going to be more—more the types of attacks in the Middle East and elsewhere that will be attributed to ISIS, but it’s more of that type of thing than it is—than it is what we’ve seen over the past few years.
MCFADDEN: Let’s hope.
So moving on to North Korea, if you—we can do it on the Nightly News in a minute and 40, we can certainly do it in seven minutes at the council.
Your assessment—where are we, meaning the world, in regards to North Korea at this moment?
FELTMAN: Well, the—the North Korea situation, the nuclear program, the defiance of Security Council resolutions—I put all this at the top of the list of peace and security worries in the world. It hasn’t created the displacement that Syria has created or the terrorist threat to other areas in the Middle East have created, but in terms of the catastrophic potential of nuclear war, this is—this is the top of the list of peace and security issues to deal with.
And then today we saw another missile strike—tomorrow in terms of where we are on the calendar—but this, as I understand from preliminary information, this is quite a dangerous ballistic launch—ballistic missile launch. This is the 20th ballistic missile launch this year.
FELTMAN: Just in one year this is the 20th. The intercontinental ballistic missile traveled nearly a thousand kilometers—960 kilometers—and it went at a very high trajectory. So what experts are saying—and this could all change as more information is known—is that if it had a more straight trajectory, it could reach anywhere in the United States.
FELTMAN: This provocation risks the type of response that sends us into war, and the message to North Korea from the international community has to remain as unified as it has been so far.
MCFADDEN: But with due respect, it has been unified, and they seem to just thumb their noses at it. Yes?
FELTMAN: Yes, I agree. I agree.
MCFADDEN: So what to do? Are we at the end of diplomacy when it comes to North Korea?
FELTMAN: I don’t think that we would ever say that at the U.N.—that we’re at the end of diplomacy—(laughter)—I don’t—but—
MCFADDEN: The president has said it—of the United States.
FELTMAN: At the U.N.—it seems to me that what—you know, the U.N. is not going to be the only or the most significant player in trying to resolve the North Korea nuclear problem. The world agrees that the Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized. That’s a—sort of the unified position of the world. And the most immediate concern we have is avoiding—is avoiding war that could become nuclear.
I think what the U.N. can do—and again, I say this with all modesty—what the U.N. can do is that we can try to prepare as best we can the conditions for when negotiations might be able to start again—you know, restoring military to military communications so that there can be—you reduce the risk of miscalculation, trying to—trying to get the hotline operation again across the DMZ, again, to reduce—to reduce miscalculation, keeping a focus on the human rights issues. It’s not the—it’s not—the nuclear file is the most important one with North Korea, but it’s not the only one. There’s a real human rights concern.
In 2014, there was a committee of inquiry that was sent by the Human Rights Council that said that, in all probability, crimes against humanity have been and are being committed. I suspect that’s the same; I don’t suspect that has changed. But North Korea has accepted 194 recommendations from the periodic review that the Human Rights Council does. That gives us the ability to start engaging with them on human rights issues which can open channels of communications.
And there is a real humanitarian issue. I—people I know would look at the government itself as having caused this, but lives are at stake, and the U.N. is playing a role on the ground in trying to maintain some semblance of life for people who are facing this. So I think there’s things the U.N. can do, but I don’t—but I don’t think that the U.N. right now is going to be in the position to say, OK, six-party talks, you start again, because that’s—that’s simply for the six parties themselves to say.
What we can do, though, is we have the convening power. All six parties participate in U.N. events, there is—the U.N. has the advantage in the fact that we can be thinking over the long term because the U.N. institutions continue. We can make sure that whatever happens with North Korea in terms of dialogue is consistent with the 1718 Committee—that’s the sanctions committee—because that’s part of the U.N. structures. I think that we can provide a platform for a time when talks are ready. But talks clearly aren’t ready right now.
MCFADDEN: One wonders, with the rhetoric coming out of both the United States and North Korea, whether talks are not somewhat wishful thinking.
FELTMAN: No, I’m worried, and the secretary-general in his—I won’t have the quote exactly, but when the secretary-general addressed the Security Council in his first—I’m sorry, the General Assembly for his first address to the General Assembly on September 19th, he talked about the fact that fiery rhetoric can lead to fatal miscalculations.
MCFADDEN: I want to just ask you—and then we’ll open it to questions, so be thinking what you want to ask—about Susan Rice’s rather provocative piece in the New York Times—her op-ed in the Times in August in which she said that the U.S. needs to learn to, and I’m quoting, “tolerate North Korea having nuclear weapons.” She says, “history shows we can if we must tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea the same way we tolerated the far greater threat of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cold War.” What do you make of that?
FELTMAN: I mean, Susan Rice is a, you know, prominent, well-informed analyst on international affairs. But that’s not the position that the U.N. has. And our position’s derived from what member states have said. The member states, through the Security Council, in a unified way, talked about the need for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. And one of the things that concerns us about North Korea’s actions is the fact that North Korea is undermining the overall regime for nonproliferation globally.
It’s not simply that they’re putting their own citizens at risk, or they’re putting the region at risk, or even the United States—depending on what these missiles can do—at risk. But they’re undermining the entire global system of nonproliferation. So I think that our position at the U.N. is that we don’t need more nuclear weapons at this point. We don’t need to be looking for ways to bless them. We need to be looking for ways to find a comprehensive solution that allows the region and beyond to feel they can live in peace without nuclear weapons.
MCFADDEN: I interviewed Admiral Jim Stavridis, who I know you know, who was former NATO commander, and asked him how worried he was, how worried should we be about what’s going in North Korea right now? And he said: This is the most dangerous time that he can remember in his lifetime. Would you agree with that assessment?
FELTMAN: I would agree with that. And I think that—I think that Richard Haass and this organization has talked—has talked about something like 50 percent chance of war. We, in the U.N., aren’t giving odds. But what we can say is that the potential—the potential of war there would be catastrophic if it happens.
MCFADDEN: Yeah. So, with that happy note I’m happy we’ve led us right—yes. We have questions. I will remind you. We are on the record. Would you stand and state your name and your organization? We’ll begin right here in the front row, sir. The microphone is arriving.
Q: Stephen Schlesinger from The Century Foundation.
You said that Samantha Power and Nikki Haley had sort of continuity. But one thing Nikki Haley has done is endorse the Trump budget, which presumably is going to be cutting back about $31 billion of U.S. aid to the U.N. How do you reconcile that with what Nikki Haley represented, which was a full notion that the U.S. should be committed to the U.N., and make all the necessary financial contributions that are necessary to carry out our own policies?
FELTMAN: Do I answer this?
MCFADDEN: I couldn’t answer it.
FELTMAN: You know, I’ll speak as an American citizen. I believe—this won’t surprise anybody in this room—but I believe that the investment in the U.N. is a force-multiplier for the U.S. And so—and I would make that case to any administration and any congressional budget official. And I won’t go through all the details because of time, but, you know, the U.S. contribution to the regular budget that covers—that covers the stuff that I work on, that covers the secretariat’s work—is about $600 million a year. The U.S. contribution to the peacekeeping budget is about $2 billion a year. So you got $2.6 billion a year in assessed contributions. Those are the only assessed contributions. There may be a little bit more on tribunals. I may be skipping a little bit on tribunals, but that’s the main bulk right there, is $2.6 billion.
But think about the fact that—and this I what I would say, not—you know, this is what I would say to U.S. officials who would ask me, was that the rest of the U.N. budget, and the case of the regular budget, 78 percent of the regular budget is being covered by others. For peacekeeping, 72 percent is being covered by others. And the U.S. has a determinant say on how that money is being used. There’s not a single U.N. peacekeeping operation that can be deployed if the U.S. thinks it’s not in its interests, because the U.S. has a—the U.S. has a veto. So basically what the U.S. is getting is they’re being—they’re putting down 28 percent for peacekeeping for things they think are necessary, and other countries are paying for 72 percent of that.
So I think it’s a—I think it’s a force multiplier for things over which the U.S. ultimately has a decision, do these go forward or not. So I would make the—I would make the case, for those that want to cut the budget, that this 2.6 billion in assessed contributions is actually a bargain for what you get. Take—I’ll take the—one of my favorite statistics is from the city of New York, that New York estimates—they get about—they reap about $3.8 billion a year by the U.N. presence here in, you know, whatever services are provided, travel, et cetera. And that’s the equivalent to seven Super Bowls. So New York City is basically able to benefit to the equivalent of seven Super Bowls a year because the U.N. is here.
That’s a very mercantile way of looking at the U.N., but I think that in terms of policy and in terms of returns for the money, it’s a good force multiplier. And I would make that case to anybody.
MCFADDEN: Question? Let’s go to the middle of the room. Right here, sir. Yes.
Q: Thank you. Jeff Laurenti.
Q: Hi. Good to see you again.
For the better part of a dozen years, across three administrations, official U.S. policy had been to promote democracy in various parts of the world, often coupled with democracy and free markets. And after the Arab uprisings, there’s been a kind of deflated feeling about whether that really is a magic bullet. Now, the U.N. is a slow-moving ship to turn, but after many years we got the U.N. to make democracy a fundamental part of its political toolbox. So now that Washington appears to have lost interest and no longer talks about democracy, except for Cuba, do you see—first, can you tell us whether you see any positive signs that in those Arab uprisings something good had been emerging, in the sense of long-term democratization? Are there green shoots through all the rubble? And do you see democratic elections as part of the eventual settlements in Yemen, Syria, Libya, or whatever? What’s the future for democracy in areas of such deep conflict?
FELTMAN: It’s a really tough question. And I’ll go back to the charter for a minute, because the U.N. represents, as I said, ideals. The U.N. represents the highest ideals, I think, of humanity, for how governments should treat their citizens, how countries should work together. But the cold interests of member states of the U.N. or of groups within countries often conflicts with those high ideals that people have signed in terms of charters and conventions and everything.
Inside the U.N., and inside the work that the Department of Political Affairs does on peace issues globally, we draw certain lessons. The peace processes that work, the conflict prevention that tends to work—and history books don’t tend to write about conflicts that have been successfully prevented. So there’s been some successful conflict prevention that no one knows about because the conflicts didn’t happen. But the successes derive largely when governments are representative, when they aren’t disenfranchising or marginalizing large segments of their population, and when people feel that they are—that their voices are being heard somehow.
Now, in the Security Council, you’ll hear some member states that will dispute whether democracy is one of the mandates that our special political missions or our peacekeeping missions have. You know, because I don’t think you’ll see democracy in—you know, put out in the mandates by the Security Council, because some of the member states on the Security Council have a different view. But you will see language about promotion of inclusive, credible elections.
You’ll see language—you’ll see euphemisms that basically get at this idea that for the success of a—of a country in transition or in conflict, you need to have some kind of genuine representative government that is meeting the needs of the population. The civil conflicts that we see around the world usually derive when there’s—when there’s a segment of the population that has felt marginalized, excluded, discriminated against. And they eventually turn—they eventually can’t take it anymore. And to prevent that, you need to have representative countries. You won’t—but, again, the word “democracy” is used less, but the concepts therein are included.
MCFADDEN: Back row.
Q: My name is Alex Yergin.
Thank you so much for coming to speak to us. My question goes back to the thing you were talking about at the beginning of your presentation, about sort of updating the U.N. in terms of peacekeeping to the world that we have now, versus the world—versus 1945. So I was wondering if you could talk about ways that the U.N. is sort of updating its structure to reflect the new world—both in terms of that, in terms of the rise of the digital world, and other areas that are fundamentally different from when the U.N. was founded?
FELTMAN: Thanks. I’ll go back to conflicts. When you have a conflict between states, usually one of the states—probably the weaker, or the aggrieved state—will go to the Security Council. So that you have Security Council interest when you have countries—when you have conflicts between states. But most conflicts now are within states. And operate under the concept of member-state consent. So we have to be able to find a way to get into the door to help prevent a problem from becoming a conflict, or resolving a conflict. How do you do that when any member state, naturally, doesn’t want the Security Council spotlight to be on it? You know, you say, hi. I’m from the U.N. We think we’re can—we think we’re here to help you. It’s like, oh no, you’re going to get us on the Security Council. And the Security Council’s going to micromanage and they’re going to watch too closely.
But we’ve had to—we’ve had to come up with a whole new tool—a whole new tool box of how you do this. And one way is to deepen the partnerships the U.N. has with other organizations. The African Union is a prime example. Because the African Union will be able to open the door for U.N. mediation in a country in Africa far more easily than the U.N. itself would be able to do it. It’s less threatening. We have to partner—we have to build partnerships with local civil society, women’s groups, religious leaders. And try to put the conflict prevention tools in their hands.
There’s a conflict that the U.N. helped successfully avert in one African country, where the U.N. never flew the U.N. flag. We used church leaders who had credibility with those political leaders who had the influence to take a country into war or peace. And what we did was these church leaders knew they had a problem, but they didn’t know how to run a national dialogue. So we basically provided the secretariat services, the expertise. So one way that we’re trying to deal with the modern world is not always to have a U.N. flag associated with it. To put the tools that the U.N. has in the hands of those who have influence on the people who could take a country into war.
On the communications issue, we’re not so good at it yet. You just to—
MCFADDEN: Don’t start tweeting, whatever you do.
FELTMAN: You know, to be very, very honest. The secretary-general had a retreat of all the heads of U.N. agencies, funds, and programs. And it’s a bewildering amount of agencies, funds, and programs. The U.N. is a very decentralized organization. It’s not like a Cabinet reporting to a president, because a lot of these agencies, funds, and programs have separate boards of governors, you know, that—so there’s very little executive authority that the secretary-general actually has over many of these agencies, funds, and programs. Nevertheless, he brings them together a couple times a year.
And the one—the meeting that took place a couple of weeks ago, he included those of us within the secretariat as well who are heads of key departments, like the peacekeeping operations and political affairs. We’re not usually there, because we’re represented by the secretary-general himself. Because he wanted us to hear from Silicon Valley about how the U.N. needs to up its game on communications. And he’s basically wet up a taskforce to see if he can—just as he’s trying to yank the peace operations side of the U.N. into dealing with 21st century problems, can he yank the communications to make it a tool in the 21st century? We’re not there yet. But this secretary-general is certainly trying.
MCFADDEN: Fascinating. OK, on the aisle, right here, sir.
Q: Thank you. Manik Mehta. I’m a journalist.
My question to you is about reforming the Security Council. Do you think there is a realistic change of expansion, and also bringing in new members, particularly from the G-4, who have been knocking at the door but are denied entry? How do you see that? Thank you.
FELTMAN: I think we in the secretariat recognize the fact that the Security Council needs to reflect the 21st century realities of power structures and demographics. So we, in the secretariat, believe that the Security Council is ripe for reform. But, this is a member-state issue. The secretariat doesn’t have any influence over this. This is a—this is a member-state issue. The member states themselves would have to come up with how the Security Council is reformed, and then get—and then build momentum to get that Security Council reform passed. It’s happened, of course, once with an expansion of the Security Council from, what, nine to 15. Or—anyway. You know, in an earlier era.
But what’s happening in practice is the member states themselves are divided on what Security Council reform would look like. Which is great for the P5, because the P5 can express general support or not for Security Council reform, while knowing they don’t actually have to face it because the member states—you know, the Africans want a permanent seat. The African group has three seats now on the Security Council every year. They rotate among the various regions in Africa. But they want a permanent seat. Does that permanent seat go to Egypt? Does it go to South Africa? Does it go to Nigeria? Who gets the permanent seat? The Africans are divided on who they would give it.
And you look at—you look at other countries as well. There are—just as—you know, say, India would have a strong case for being on the Security Council, given its demographic weight. There would be other members of the member states who would probably say, hmm, we don’t really like the idea of India having a permanent membership. So right now, the P5 don’t have to deal with it seriously, because the member states aren’t united on what Security Council reform would look like.
MCFADDEN: Mrs. Sorenson, Gillian.
Q: Thank you. I’m Gillian Sorensen, United Nations, formerly, and now with the International Rescue Committee.
There’s one word that I haven’t heard you use at all this evening. And that is the word refugees, a consequence of conflict and of famine and of drought and all kinds of other things. The numbers are staggering. Sixty-five million is the number that I hear used a lot. What are we going to do? We have a High Commission for Refugees, but it’s one agency among others. How can the U.N. possibly cope with this? How can we bring in more world leaders, more donors, more independent groups, NGOs of all kinds, to address a crisis that has grown so exponentially in these recent years?
FELTMAN: Thanks, Gillian. I should have mentioned refugees when I was talking about the Middle East because the export of problems from, say, the Syria conflict, includes, of course, refugees. And what refugees have done politically—to the political dynamics inside Europe. It’s not only a humanitarian issue. It’s become a political issue for recipient countries.
This secretary-general, as wouldn’t surprise anybody, is focused very much on the refugee issue because of, you know, his own history, and also because of his recognition that you—that you start to—that not only do you have a humanitarian imperative to help these people, but you have a political imperative to see that those numbers don’t keep growing. You have a political imperative, which comes back to the part of political affairs work, to try to prevent the types of conflict that lead to the—that lead to the outflow of refugees.
So part of the problem—part of the solution is trying to do our best in making sure it doesn’t happen again. But now we had Myanmar. We had the Rohingya, after August 25th. You know, 600, 700 people fleeing in a very, very short time. We didn’t prevent that conflict. And I think that we shouldn’t avert our eyes from where the U.N. and the world have failed to prevent further outflows. We should—we should try to learn lessons from what went wrong. And so I can’t—I can’t say that I have examples to show you where we prevented the type of massive outflows that you’re referring to.
In virtually every meeting I’ve been in with the secretary-general and world leaders, both on his travels and here in New York. You know, he saw hundreds on the margins on the General Assembly, this issue comes up all the time. It comes up either in terms of the conflict prevent, or in terms of conflict resolution, or in terms of we need your support to deal with these people.
MCFADDEN: Do you see a retraction by host countries, if you will, receiving countries? We certainly know about it here in the U.S., but is it—we know about it to some extent in Europe. I mean, is that part of the U.N. mandate, is to give everybody a kick in the pants and say open the doors?
FELTMAN: Well, there was last year—just over a year ago there was a major refugee summit on the margins of the General Assembly, when Ban Ki-moon was still secretary-general, in order—in order to promote a sort of global understanding of how—of burden sharing. And it was followed up this year Antonio Guterres, with the perspective of him having been a high commissioner for refugees for 10 years. But the lofty words haven’t translated so much into action. Now, the crisis in Europe, I think, has receded somewhat in terms of the political impact. Doesn’t mean that the people themselves are—that all their needs are being addressed. And the outflow from Syria has receded.
But look at—look at Lebanon, for example. Lebanon, where you have one out of every four persons is a refugee from Syria. That’s an untenable burden for Lebanon to be holding. And the Lebanese are eager, eager, eager for the Syrians to go back to Syria as the war winds down. But the conditions aren’t there yet for the—you know, the world agrees in the refugee conventions that you need to have safe, sustained, dignified returns. But if the conditions aren’t there yet, and the host countries basically start pushing, what do we do?
MCFADDEN: I don’t know. What do we do? Mr. Hoge.
Q: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute. Hi, Jeffrey.
My question is a bit like something you’ve been asked before, but I want to focus on Europe, because it’s my notion that European nations have generally be supportive of the multilateral purposes of the United Nations. Some of those nations in the past few years have—now have leaders who are nationalists, who are, in some cases, nativists. And I’m thinking very directly about refugees now and their refusal to accept them, and they’re building walls and fences. Are you still getting the kind of support from European nations that the U.N. has always been able to depend upon before?
FELTMAN: Warren, in general, yes. But you hear a hesitant tone in my voice for good reason, because I said—I said earlier that one of the challenges to our peace and security work is the fact that the nature of conflict has changed to these internal battles. The other thing that’s a challenge for us that there are powerful member states, and even—and other member states who question the value of the multilateralism on which the U.N. is based. And some of those states are in Europe. It hasn’t yet translated into a major impact on our relationship with the European countries more generally, and how the European representatives on the Security Council vote or express their views, on how much the EU as an institution supports the U.N. It hasn’t been translated into big change. But there’s ominous trends out there, that we have—that we—that we need to keep an eye on.
And it—just as there ominous trends in this country, questioning the basis of the multilateralism that this country did so much to establish. And it’s one of the reasons, I think, that motivates Antonio Guterres in his reform efforts, is how do you persuade those people that are giving up on the multilateral system that the multilateral system is still good for them, the multilateral system is still good for their national interests and is a good investment? I think he’s motivated in part too by what he saw as a responsiveness of UNHCR, that he doesn’t feel the secretariat replicates. That he felt that UNHCR was more nimble than the secretariat as a whole is. And so he wants to recreate a faster response inside the secretariat he saw in the UNHCR.
But the larger political issue is: How do you convince the skeptics that, yes, this institution is still worth supporting? And that’s—and there’s—as I said, there hasn’t been that much change yet, in terms of the peace and security issues with the U.S., with some exceptions. You know, the Iran nuclear deal, we’ll see—we’ll see how that debate goes in January when it’s before the Council. And it’s been largely—been this continuity with Europe too. But there are signs there that we need to be—that we need to be aware of. That we’re under a spotlight from both European countries and from Washington to prove our value.
Q: (Off mic.) Oops, is this on? The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
This issue of conflict within the states that you’re talking about is not so new. It’s at least 25 years in terms of the U.N. focus. And we’re in yet another round of discussions about reform of U.N. peacemaking, peacebuilding, peacekeeping. And one of the things that most people—both within the U.N. and in the academic community where I am—agree on, is that peacebuilding is political. And that part of the problem of the failures of the last 20 years or so, and why we’re in a new round of reform, is that there hasn’t been a way of addressing the politics of these actions.
So tell me what you think about the—this is, again, every once in a while discussion about reuniting DPKO and DPA? DPA does the politics, DPKO does the peacekeeping. And it’s like the assumption is that we really need this political expertise and knowledge and so forth. And I can give you many examples of where the two—East Timor is a good example—provided really contradictory advice and operations that were very damaging. But that’s what I’m—I’m just saying, if we could rejoin DPA and DPKO, could we get somewhere better?
FELTMAN: Let me make a few comments. You’re right that it’s not new to have internal conflict. But what is new is that—is that the number of civil wars between 2011 and 2015 basically tripled. And the number of fatalities from 2011 to 2016 went up six-fold. So it’s become a far more acute—a far more acute problem, focusing on failures of the U.N., on failures of national governments to address the problems in their countries, before they became—before they became conflicts. So the rethinking of the toolbox is motivated in part by the spotlight in Europe and Washington on what we’re doing. But in part by the reality that after a relatively quiet period—not universally quiet—after the end of the Cold War, civil wars went way up, and fatalities went way up. So that’s the motivation behind the—behind the new focus on reform.
Now, in terms of—in terms of DPKO or DPA, I won’t spend a lot of time on this, because it would take up the rest of the—the rest of the available minutes.
MCFADDEN: And can you untangle the acronym as well?
FELTMAN: But DPKO is the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. DPKO has, what, 16 missions, something like that, that are—you know, that range from legacy missions such as the peacekeeping operation in Cyprus between—to very dynamic, newer missions, such as in Mali. But they’re mission-focused. And the definitely have a political agenda, because you’re not simply there to separate forces. They’re there to try to create the space for a political solution to governance issues in Mali or the Central African Republic. DPA works globally. We have political missions, but it’s not like peacekeeping on the cheap. We have 36 political missions, but we work whether we have political missions or not. We work through U.N. country teams, you know, UNDP, et cetera.
What the secretary-general—what drives Antonio Guterres nuts is if he wants to talk about Somalia, he calls Jeff Feltman because we have a political mission in Somalia. If he wants to talk about what’s happening now in Togo, he calls Jeff Feltman, because there’s no political mission there and Togo’s part of DPA’s global mandate. If he wants to talk about South Sudan, he calls DPKO. He calls my counterpart, Jean-Pierre Lacroix. And this drives him crazy. He doesn’t like the fact that he has—he has to call different people. And then there’s the issues of the two—the different approaches that the two departments take, simply because they have somewhat different functions.
So what he’s done is he’s proposed a reform that merges the regional offices of DPA with the operational mechanisms and teams of DPKO. So everyone working on Africa, whether they’re working on a political mission, they’re working on elections, they’re working on a peacekeeping operation, would all report to the same assistant secretary-general. But he’s proposing a kind of merger at the operational level to bring all this together. But there would still be two departments, and they would report to the two—these assistant secretary-generals would have two reporting lines depending on what the issues are. It’s too complicated to get into now, but he’s decided not to go for a total merger for a number of reasons.
But as part of the merging, peacebuilding. Peacebuilding would be brought into the inheritor of the Department of Political Affairs. Peacebuilding, you know, has traditionally focused on post-conflict stabilization. But we realize that there’s much more continuity of peacebuilding. Sometimes you need peacebuilding to prevent the conflict. There were peaceful transitions in Gambia and Burkina Faso over the last couple of years. The U.N.—the U.N. played a role in helping the local—in brokering the peaceful transitions. Both countries could have fallen into civil war. But we used it with peacebuilding tools. We used it with the type of stabilization tools you tend to use after conflict in order to prevent the conflict.
So by bringing peacebuilding into the Department of Political Affairs, by merging the regional operations of DPKO, peacekeeping operations, and Department of Political Affairs, the SG wants to have a more coherent, cohesive approach. But we also have to take into account the development of humanitarian actors, going back to Gillian’s question about the refugees, because the type of problems we see now need political solutions. But they also have development and humanitarian aspects that have to be addressed if you’re going to be serious about conflict prevention, because there’s a lot of structural prevention stuff that’s about good governance, that’s about responding to the needs of the population.
We shouldn’t only be responding to conflicts. We should be preventing conflicts. And that includes bringing development actors into some of our political work. I’m sorry if I’m sounding like a U.N. bureaucrat including all these terms. (Laughter.) After 5 ½ years, I’m still amazed myself when I can throw out some of these terms.
MCFADDEN: We have time for one final question, but you have to—you have to be brief, and you have to be brief. One question, yes, ma’am. The mic’s right there.
Q: Leah Pedersen Thomas. I promise to be brief. From VitalPet.
My question is in regards to the engagement of the private sector, particularly in areas like sub-Saharan Africa, where we’re seeing sort of pop-up or preexisting terrorist organizations, like Boko Haram or those in Somalia, East Africa. And to what extent is the U.N. engaging with the private sector in the fight against smaller terrorist organizations, understanding that in these fast-growing economies it’s key to keep political stability intact. And therefore, there’s aligned incentives between the U.N. and the private sector.
FELTMAN: It’s probably like the communications answer. We’re probably doing less than we should and probably not doing as well as we could. But we don’t—I need to make it clear. We don’t—the U.N., in general, doesn’t do counterterrorism. We work on fighting terrorist financing. We work on trying to improve the conditions that are conductive to the growth of terrorism. But in terms of actual counterterrorism, with very few exceptions, the U.N. is not—the U.N. relies on member states or others.
Take Somalia. It’s not—it’s not—the U.N. has a large political mission in Somalia that’s working on reconciliation, on governance, on creating jobs. And the African Union and bilateral member states are working on the actual counterterrorism threat against Al-Shabaab. So we’re probably doing less with the private sector than we should, but we aren’t doing the kinetic counterterrorism activities with, again, a couple of exceptions.
MCFADDEN: If I were to say to you, you have one minute to tell us—it’s the ad. It’s your free—it’s your free minute of network news time to tell us why the U.N., in this very messy world, still matters.
FELTMAN: Look at—look at the challenges that any country faces. And we can talk about the country of which I—passport I proudly hold, the United States. You know, counterterrorism. Pandemics. Sort of virulent ideology. Refugee flows. The problems that we’re facing today globally do not respect national boundaries. And the United States should not be expected to bear the cost of confronting these challenges, which are complex and costly, by itself. So the U.N., the collective action, the multilateralism on which the U.N. is founded I think is the best way for any country, including the world’s richest and most powerful country, to address complex global challenges.
MCFADDEN: You did it. Thank you. (Laughter.) Mr. Ambassador, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much. (Applause.)
FELTMAN: Thank you, Cynthia. Thank you very much. Thank you.
MCFADDEN: Thank you.