‘U.S. Global Leadership Is Back’ Under Obama, Administration Official Tells U.N.

By Patrick Goodenough | September 19, 2012 | 7:59 AM EDT

Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer addresses the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 14, 2009, the day the U.S. took its seat on the body for the first time. (U.N. Photo by Gilles Sereni)

(CNSNews.com) – As a new session of the United Nations General Assembly got underway Tuesday, a State Department official reiterated the view that four years of the Obama administration have restored U.S. leadership in the world.

America today is “more respected, more engaged and more secure” than it was when President Obama came to office in early 2009, Assistant Secretary Esther Brimmer told an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

As administration officials have done in the run-up to September’s UNGA session in previous years, Brimmer argued that its engagement with the world body has made the U.N. a better organization, benefited U.S. interests, and made the world a safer place.

She began by painting a bleak picture of America’s image after eight years under President George W. Bush.

“At that time [January 2009], the United States faced serious questions about the future of our global engagement. We were deeply committed to two long and expensive wars, which hurt our ability to achieve other national goals and strained the fabric of global cooperation,” Brimmer said.

“Many of our traditional alliances had become strained, at best. Our reputation and standing were seriously diminished. The perception of U.S. disdain for international institutions risked undermining their capacity.”

Things look very different now, she declared.

“As I stand before you today, it is clear that U.S. global leadership is back.”

“Since 2009, we’ve ended the war in Iraq, and U.S. troops in Afghanistan will draw down by 2014. In turning the page on a decade of war, the United States has expanded our pursuit of a smarter, more comprehensive engagement with the world, to better meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

“We’ve spent the last three years reinvigorating our traditional alliances and partnerships. We’ve forged new avenues for cooperation with emerging powers and other actors. And we’ve expended real effort to reengage across the United Nations system, to bolster its capacity for action, and to build connections with other multilateral and regional organizations,” she added.

“The end result is an America that is more respected, more engaged, and more secure. And frankly, this reinvigorated U.S. leadership couldn’t come at a more important time.”

Referring to the anti-American commotion in the Middle East, Brimmer said it was “precisely in times like these that we need to maintain perspective about the U.S. role in the world, and how we approach international threats and challenges.”

“Our world today is more interconnected, more networked, and more complex than ever,” she said. “New technology spreads information and influence to more people than ever before – a phenomenon that is not always positive, as the events of the past week have highlighted. But as President Obama said last week, the United States cannot withdraw from the rest of the world.”

Regarding Libya, Brimmer said that the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans last week “underscored the risks that American diplomats face there and elsewhere.”

“But it also drove home how important it is that the international community continue to help the Libyan people cement a peaceful and prosperous future.”

Brimmer also suggested that the administration’s engagement has improved the U.N. significantly.

“In less than four short years, we’ve begun to reverse years of neglect, indifference, and zero-sum international politics at the U.N.,” she said.

Asserting that “U.S. engagement at the United Nations has made the United States – and the world as a whole – safer and more secure,” Brimmer cited areas including efforts to isolate Iran over its nuclear activities; stabilize Somalia; strengthen peacekeeping missions; and increase pressure on the Assad regime in Syria, despite “Russian and Chinese obstruction in the Security Council.”

U.S. taxpayers account for 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular operating budget and 27 percent of the peacekeeping budget, along with billions of dollars more for various U.N. agencies. The total U.S. contribution in FY 2010 (the last year Congress required the amount to be reported by the Office of Management and Budget) was $7.69 billion.

Human Rights Council ‘transformed’

Brimmer then turned to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council (HRC), painting U.S. participation in the Geneva-based body as a major success.

Stymied in its efforts in 2006 to ensure the U.N. was creating a robust human rights watchdog, the Bush administration shunned the new HRC, citing its repeated targeting of Israel and an admission policy that allowed some of the world’s worst rights violators to become members.

Reversing that stance, Obama embraced the HRC and joined it in 2009 in a bid to “improve it from within” – a decision Brimmer argued had proven transformative.

“For three years following the creation of the HRC in 2006, the United States sat on the sidelines,” she said. “In our absence, the HRC seemed to spend more time criticizing Israel than it did on all other countries combined.”

Since the U.S. joined, she said, its leadership and collaboration with others “has helped transform that body, into one that now regularly responds to pressing human rights situations with timely, concrete action.”

Brimmer claimed that the Obama administration has “succeeded in greatly reducing the HRC’s unfair bias against Israel, although more remains to be done.”

Data compiled by the Hudson Institute’s Eye on the U.N. project shows that Israel is still targeted far more than any other country in condemnatory HRC resolutions. The council’s work is not done for 2102 – it is currently in session until September 28 – but so far this year 23 percent of all resolutions passed have been critical of Israel. By comparison, 18 percent of all resolutions target Syria.

Looking back over the years since the HRC was established, Israel accounted for all critical council resolutions in 2006, 36 percent of them in 2007, 40 percent in 2008, 44 percent in 2009, 44 percent in 2010 and 29 percent in 2011.

The HRC continues to have a permanent agenda item reserved for Israel – and no equivalent for any of the world’s other 191 countries – meaning that Israel comes up for discussion at every regular session of the council, regardless of crises occurring elsewhere in the world at the time.

The council last year held a five-year “review” of its practices, but U.S.-led efforts to scrap the Israel agenda item were voted down by an overwhelming margin.

Brimmer reminded her audience Tuesday that the U.S. was running for a second four-year term on the HRC later this fall, saying that “without U.S. leadership, there’s no telling whether the Human Rights Council will continue to be as effective as it has been since we joined in 2009.”

America’s seat on the council does not affect the overall membership makeup, as U.N. rules dictate that at any one stage only seven of the 47 seats are held by Western states. Thirteen members are from Asia, 13 from Africa, nine from Latin America and six from the Eastern Europe group.

When the U.S. joined in 2009, it in effect replaced Canada, which during the previous four years – often singlehandedly – challenged initiatives by authoritarian regimes and sought to resist the skewed focus on Israel.

Of the council’s current members, 12 are “not free,” 14 are “partly free” and 21 are “free” in annual rankings by Freedom House, the Washington-based democracy watchdog.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow