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Video and text: Dr. Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN, on the US approach to the UN

Dr. Rice delivered these remarks at Howard University on October 8, 2000 at the Clarence Clyde Ferguson, Jr. Annual Lecture.  Here is the text as delivered:

Good afternoon every one. Thank you very much for that kind introduction. It’s great to be here with Howard students, faculty, and alumni. I see family members, dear, dear friends who are in effect family members, people who have been long time mentors. This feels like a warm wonderful place to give such an important lecture.

I’m particularly honored to accept the invitation of my friend, Dean Schmoke, to speak at this historic school. Dean Schmoke—or Mayor Schmoke, as I am accustomed to calling him—serves every day as a model to us all of the great and selfless public servant. His career spans, as you know, the academy, elected office, the White House staff, and the private sector. And in each realm, he has served with tremendous distinction. Personally, I owe him a huge debt of gratitude because when I was a young woman, a senior in college, he helped select me as a Rhodes Scholar, an honor that set me on the path to my own career in international affairs.

The man for whom this lecture is named, Clarence Clyde Ferguson Jr., was not only one of Dean Schmoke’s most revered predecessors but, in many ways, a person who blazed the trail that I and other diplomats continue down today. I’m so pleased that we have members of his family here with us. Dean Ferguson’s work at Howard and in the Foreign Service helped demonstrate how international law and human rights can and must be essential components of a pragmatic and principled American foreign policy. I walk today many of the same hallways, quite literally, that Dean Ferguson did when he served at the US Mission to the United Nations under Adlai Stevenson with the rank of Ambassador, and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, the bureau that I was privileged to lead in the 1990s at the State Department. And I hope very much that many of you will also walk these halls.

Now I will fess up here today: when I was an undergraduate, now many years ago at Stanford, I always thought I would become a public interest lawyer and work on issues like civil rights, poverty, and inequality. Dean Schmoke may remember that I once even thought that I might run for public office. But I veered off that path while I was at graduate school at Oxford. There, I studied international relations and became fascinated by the complexities of foreign policy and the parallels between history and the challenges of the present. I spent a lot of time grappling with the decision of which road to take—whether to go on to law school, as I had long planned, or whether to stay at Oxford and convert my Master’s degree into a doctorate in international relations. I decided, ultimately, to follow my heart, if not in every respect my head, and I went on and got the Ph.D.

So, speaking to the students here, let me offer one piece of unsolicited advice: do what you really want to do. Follow your gut, not your pocketbook, not your parents’ ambitions for you, not even your own pre-determined course. Decide what really excites you. And change your mind if need be, and pursue your choice with passion. That will enable you to do what you love well and derive great satisfaction from your profession, whatever it might be.

I hope that a number of you might be interested in foreign policy—and not just those of you who are Americans here. One of the great strengths of a Howard as an institution and of a Howard education is the tremendous global diversity housed in this great American institution.

This is an important phenomenon; not only at Howard, but the diversity that we share is of real strategic value to the United States. It’s not just because diversity is an important ideal, but because harnessing that diversity in fact serves our national interest. It gives us wisdom and insights that we might otherwise lack. And it lets us show others all that we are as a nation.

We are the world’s leading power in a complicated world that is being woven more closely together by the day. We will do better at navigating that complicated world if we have as many women as men and many more African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, East Asians, South Asians, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Buddhists and many others engaged in making our most critical foreign policy decisions. We need people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, with a panoply of language skills, actively involved in formulating and executing our national security policy. Without that, quite simply, we are playing with one hand tied behind our backs.

Lawyers have a tremendous ability to shape and to sculpt the course of our policies and the character of our nations. It won’t always be easy to make your way, as undoubtedly you’ve already found. We don’t live in a perfect world or even in a perfect union. But this school and your education not only equip you, but I would suggest, obligate each of you to try to give something back, whether to your community, your country or to the larger world.

And now I would like to turn to that wider world, and the change that President Obama is seeking to bring to it.

Today our world—the world you will inherit—is more interconnected than at any point in human history. Increasingly, we rise or fall together. If Somalia is forsaken, violent extremists can find their way to our soil. If horrific violence in Guinea or the Democratic Republic of Congo is left to rage on unchecked, all of our consciences are shamed. If disease festers anywhere, pandemics can affect us everywhere. We face an extraordinary array of transnational security challenges that cross borders as freely as a storm. By definition, they cannot be tackled by any one country alone, even one as powerful as our own.

But just as our perils are shared, so too are our opportunities. To seize these opportunities, the United States needs to help grow the ranks of capable, democratic states—states that can deliver on both their responsibilities to the international community and to their own people. Capable states are those that control their territory, govern justly, provide security and essential services, protect their citizens’ rights, and offer their people hope for a better future. When a country cannot—or will not—perform these core functions, when a nation is wracked by war, when a state becomes a shell, its people suffer immediately. But over the longer term, a fragile state can also incubate global trouble that can spread far beyond its borders.

It is not enough simply to build up the corps of capable, democratic states. We need states with both the capacity and the will to tackle common challenges. As we have been reminded in recent years, we cannot take that will for granted, even among our closest allies. If we want others to help combat the threats that concern us most, then we must help others combat the challenges that threaten them most. For many nations, these are first and foremost the things that afflict human beings in their daily lives: corruption, repression, conflict, hunger, poverty, disease, and the lack of education and opportunity.

When the United States joins with others to confront these challenges, it’s not charity. It’s not even barter. In today’s world, more than ever, what is good for others is often good for us too. When we manifest our commitment to tackling the threats that menace so many other nations; when we invest in helping protect the lives of others; and when we recognize that national security is no longer a zero-sum game, then we increase other countries’ will to cooperate on the issues most vital to us.

We build that will by demonstrating responsible leadership. We build will by setting a tone of decency and mutual respect rather than condescension and contempt. We build will by abiding by the rules we expect others to follow. We build will by pursuing pragmatic, principled policies and explaining them with intelligence and candor. And in the broadest sense, we build will when others can see their future as aligned with ours.

A fundamental imperative of U.S. national security in the 21st century is thus clear: we need to maximize the number of states with both the capacity and the will to tackle a new generation of transnational security challenges. We need a modern edifice of cooperation, built upon the foundation of responsible American leadership, with the bricks of state capacity and the beams of political will.

And day in and day out, my colleagues and I at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations are working, very simply, to build that structure. We are on the front lines of what President Obama, speaking last month before the United Nations General Assembly, called “a new era of engagement with the world.”

I had the privilege of being a leader of the U.S. delegation and witnessing the palpable response to that important speech, and I can tell you: people notice when a superpower becomes an agent of change—in word and deed, in policy and tone. We are demonstrating that the United States is willing to listen, to respect differences, and to consider new ideas. Along with the ability to compel comes the responsibility to convince.

As the United States changes course, and changes fundamentally the way we are approaching the world, we are also changing rather dramatically our approach to the United Nations.

In both the Security Council and the United Nations General Assembly, we seek to forge common purpose with other nations. But the fact is: we cannot and will not always agree. Some things are just not negotiable. We will always choose to stand firmly on principle rather than fade like cowards into a crowd.

And we have no illusions. A serious gap still exists that separates the vision of the United Nation’s founders from the institution of today. The Security Council is less riven than it once was in the coldest days of the Cold War, but it still stumbles when interests and values diverge, as they have over such issues as Darfur, or Burma or Zimbabwe. In the General Assembly, member states still often let political theater distract from the real deliberation and decision making that must occur. Israel is still unfairly singled out. And the UN system must still confront waste and abuse even as it struggles to meet daunting new responsibilities for peacekeeping, for humanitarian assistance, and for development.

As President Obama has said on a number of occasions, the UN is imperfect; but it is also indispensible. There can be no substitute for the legitimacy the UN can impart or its potential to mobilize the widest possible coalitions. There is no better alternative to sharing the costs and burdens of UN peace operations and humanitarian missions around the world. There is no doubt that we are more secure when the UN can foster nonproliferation and promote disarmament. We all gain when the UN spurs sustainable development and democracy, when it improves global health, upholds women’s rights, and broadens access to education. And we reap the benefits when the UN sets little-known global standards that enable our cell phones to work properly and our airplanes to fly more safely.

In short, the UN is essential to our efforts to galvanize concerted actions that make Americans safer and more secure.

Today, as we steer a new course at the United Nations, our guiding principles are clear: We value the UN as a vehicle for advancing U.S. policies and universal rights. We work for change from within rather than criticizing from the sidelines. We stand strong in defense of America’s interests and values, but we don’t dissent just to be contrary. We listen to states great and small. We build coalitions. We meet our responsibilities. We pay our bills. And we push for real reform. And we remember that, in an interconnected world, as I said earlier, what’s good for others is often good for the United States as well.

Let me recount for you the six ways in which we are working to put these principles into practice.

First, we work at the United Nations to promote America’s core security interests. Consider North Korea. In June, after North Korea’s nuclear test, we negotiated a unanimous Security Council resolution imposing the toughest array of sanctions on any country in the world today—sanctions aimed at pressing North Korea to fulfill its commitments and at achieving the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

We also continue to work in the Security Council to ensure that Iran meets its obligations. Especially in light of the recent revelations about the previously secret Qom facility, all of us need to see practical steps and measurable results from Iran, and we need to see them soon.

In the cases of both Iran and North Korea, our efforts are advancing one of the President’s top priorities: nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. On September 24, President Obama became the first American president to chair a session of the United Nations Security Council. On that occasion, the Council unanimously adopted a landmark resolution to advance the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. That resolution gave renewed momentum to efforts to staunch nuclear proliferation, reduce weapons stockpiles, and strengthen control of fissile materials that terrorists might buy or steal.

President Obama’s leadership of the Security Council was an historic moment, but we should also remember the quiet work that the UN does every day which advances our security interests. The UN is playing vital roles in two other countries at the top of our national security agenda where American troops are in harm’s way. In Iraq, the UN is providing expert advice on elections, mediating the longstanding internal boundary disputes between Arabs and Kurds, and assisting Iraqi citizens displaced by war. And in Afghanistan, the UN is helping to adjudicate and resolve allegations of electoral fraud, promote political and social development, coordinate donor assistance, and build the capacity of the Afghan state.

Elsewhere, the UN strengthens America’s security by preventing the smoldering embers of conflict from blazing back to life. For 60 years, the United Nations has played a crucial role in ending violent conflicts in such places as Korea, Namibia, Mozambique, Guatemala, Cyprus, the Golan Heights, Haiti, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to name just a few. Where people are suffering—where conflict is enduring—where hope is fleeting—that is where you will likely find the United Nations.

Second, the United States participates constructively. We don’t throw up our hands; instead we roll up our sleeves to try to get things done.

Consider the United Nations Human Rights Council. Through three election cycles, the United States refused to seek a seat on the newly formed Human Rights Council, dismissing the Council as flawed and anti-Israel—which frankly, it is. But what did this approach achieve? Dictators were not called to account for their records of repression; abused citizens did not have their voices heard; and unproductive Israel-bashing raged on.

So in May, we changed course and we won a seat on the Human Rights Council with 90 percent of the votes cast. We joined well aware that, in many ways, the Human Rights Council is the poster child for what ails the UN. But sitting on the outside will not stop the posturing in Geneva nor defend those bleeding under the boot of despots.

Real change can only come through painstaking, principled diplomacy. So we will work hard to reduce customary divisions. We will amplify the voices of those suffering under the world’s cruelest regimes. And we will lead by example through our actions at home and our support for those risking their lives for democracy and human rights abroad.

We have already seen early progress in the Human Rights Council, including strengthening the mandate of the independent expert on Somalia, a new resolution co-sponsored by the United States on the independence of judges, and worthy initiatives on HIV/AIDS, extreme poverty, and other critical topics. One particularly important early success builds on President Obama’s historic speech in Cairo: and that was the adoption, by consensus, of a resolution co-sponsored by the United States and Egypt affirming the fundamental universal values of freedom of expression, speech, opinion, and freedom of the media.

We still have much still to do at the Human Rights Council and in the UN system as a whole. And it will not be easy, nor will it be quick. But I like to remember the words of a former university president who once said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Well, if you think engagement is imperfect, try isolation.

Third, we stand firm on principle on the issues that matter most—but we don’t indulge in petty battles. In the past, we have sometimes let ourselves be defined by what we stand against, rather than what we stand for. Well, no more. Over the past nine months, the United States has taken a fresh look at our positions across the board, including some policies that left us and others scratching their heads to understand what we objected to—policies that failed to advance our interests or our values.

So we have taken concrete steps in a new direction. We have changed course, embracing the United Nations Millennium Development Goals as our own. We rescinded the Mexico City policy that barred U.S. assistance to programs that support family planning and reproductive health services. We stopped withholding contributions to the UN Population Fund. We signed the first new human rights convention of the 21st century, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We changed course to back a UN General Assembly statement opposing violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation. We no longer reflexively oppose mentions of reproductive health. We no longer balk at any reference to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women or mention of the International Criminal Court. And we’re forging a new path on climate change that matches our global responsibilities.

Fourth, we seek constructive working relations with countries large and small. So we’re reaching out not only just to the five permanent members of the Security Council, to our Western partners, and to other big powers, but very importantly to nations of all sizes in Africa, in Latin America, in South and Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands—and to the dozens of Muslim-majority countries, many of whose Ambassadors gathered at my residence to watch President Obama’s historic speech in Cairo.

The rifts between North and South are almost as outdated as those between East and West. Yet there’s still a widespread perception at the United Nations that the countries of the North care only about security, and the countries of the South care only about development. Such truisms ignore a central truth: there can be no security without development, and there can be no sustained development without security. These old-school rifts belie today’s realities. Our fates are not opposed; they are inextricably intertwined.

So we work with the vast majority of countries on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect. We seek to bridge old divides. And we resist the efforts of a handful to spoil shared progress.

Fifth, we meet our obligations. As we call upon others to help strengthen the UN, the United States must do its part—and pay its bills.

Thanks to strong support from Congress, we are now able to clear U.S. arrears to the UN’s regular budget and to those on the peacekeeping budget, which accumulated between 2005 and 2008. We met our 2009 peacekeeping obligations in full. And the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget request, if fully funded by Congress, will meet our obligations on both on the regular and the peacekeeping accounts. Our dues to the United Nations are treaty obligations, and we are committed to working with Congress to pay them in full and on time.

Sixth, and finally, we push for serious reform. All the world’s citizens deserve a United Nations that runs right. It’s not enough that costs be contained and funds be spent without corruption; each dollar must serve its intended purpose, be it for development or for peacekeeping.

That means particular attention to UN peacekeeping—an essential instrument that has saved untold lives and averted numerous wars. It accounts for the bulk of the UN’s budget expenditures, but the system is under severe strain. We need peacekeeping operations that are planned expertly, deployed more quickly, budgeted realistically, equipped seriously, led ably, and ended responsibly. To help, we are robustly supporting UN peacekeeping—including with a new willingness to contribute more U.S. military staff officers, military observers, civilian police, and other civilian personnel to UN missions.

And at the same time, we aim to ensure the UN has the management culture and leadership it needs to succeed. Our priorities are greater transparency and accountability, stronger ethics and oversight mechanisms, and buttressing the Secretary-General’s initiatives to overhaul the UN’s procurement and human resources practices.

Let me conclude by reinforcing a simple message: the United Nations is vital to our efforts to craft a better, safer world.

The United Nations and its personnel take extraordinary risks every day to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and mend the broken places of the world. Yet the UN still struggles to enforce its will and to live up to its founding ideals. But that, I believe, is an argument for greater resolve and for even harder work. We have seen the costs of disengaging. We have paid the price of stiff-arming the UN and spurning our international partners. The United States will lead in the 21st century—not with hubris, not by hectoring, but through patient diplomacy and a steadfast resolve to strengthen our common security by investing in our common humanity.

As President Obama put it directly to the world’s leaders last month, the United Nations can “be a place where we bicker about outdated grievances, or forge common ground; a place where we focus on what drives us apart, or what brings us together; a place where we indulge tyranny, or a source of moral authority.”

The United States stands ready to do its part, and we expect others to do theirs. We have turned the page; now we seek to write with others a new chapter of international cooperation—one that not only recognizes the rights of other nations but that insists upon the responsibilities of all nations.

Let us remember that the human ambition to create peace and justice can defeat the human appetite for power and strife. Let us remember that enduring change is within our reach. And let us remember that people and nations can accomplish far more when they stand together than when they allow themselves to be driven apart.

Thank you very much.

This strikes me as a very sound approach. Needless to say, the proof will be in the implementation. Numerous other Administrations have made claims to  take a more engaged approach to the United Nations.  So far, the Obama Administration has been doing the right things. His address at the General Assembly sent the correct signals. And the special session of the Security Council on nonproliferation, which the President chaired,  was an excellent step in the right direction.

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.