Multilateral Diplomacy for a Modern World

Thank you all very, very much. It is a great pleasure to be here at the CFR mothership. Walter, thank you so much for presiding over our event today, but, more importantly, for your extraordinary thoughtful critiques that have enriched our foreign policy debates and that we take very, very seriously.

I am especially and deeply grateful to my good friend, Richard Haass, who has been a wonderful friend, a wonderful counselor, and has done extraordinary things leading this community. I have to say it is particularly nice to have an excuse for a brief family reunion because my parents are here, Donald and Vera Blinken, and many friends from New York.

We are in the midst of one of the most significant national debates that we have had in decades over U.S. foreign policy, although you might not recognize it from the tenor of the campaign. But it is there. And it is real. It does not pit left against right, Democrat against Republican, liberal against conservative. Rather, it’s an argument between those who would erect walls and those who would build bridges.

In the shadow of shared vulnerabilities exposed by the dizzying pace of global change, some of our fellow citizens quest the merits of facing outward, of being open to the world. They worry terrorists are sneaking into our country as refugees. Immigrants are slipping across our borders to radically alter our identity. They have seen their real wages stagnate, factories jobs disappear. They wonder whether U.S. global leadership has benefited others at their expense. What value is there in a system that they feel has left them behind?

The result is a renewed blend of isolationism and unilateralism that argues that our engagement in the world costs us too much, achieves too little, encourages free riders, embroils us in other people’s problems, and distracts us from investing in our own communities.

In other words, they suggest, it’s time for America to come home—or go at it alone.

This debate has its roots in legitimate concerns that we have to better acknowledge and more effectively address together. You can’t really call it progress if too many of our fellow citizens do not believe they are sharing in it.

But this argument—that we’re better off pulling up the drawbridge—is fundamentally flawed. It underestimates the risks of turning inward while overstating the costs and downplaying the benefits of facing outward. It is harmful to the health, strength, security, and prosperity of our nation, and those of us in the foreign policy community have to do a better job explaining why.

Here at CFR, I am preaching to the choir, but here’s the truth: today’s debate is evidence enough that our voices are not as clear, as compelling, as compassionate as they should be to convince our fellow citizens. I think it is a responsibility we share if we believe in an open world and an open facing America to actually try to meet that challenge together.

We don’t work with other nations as a luxury, or as charity. The problems we face today are notoriously resistant to unilateral solutions. We cannot build a wall tall enough to stop the oceans from rising or our planet from warming. We can’t bolt a gate tight enough to stop the spread of disease or break the allure of violent extremism.

If we stepped back from the global stage, Americans of all stripes would be worse off.

Our companies would make less money—after all, 90 percent of the global market, even more, is beyond our shores—and Americans would have fewer jobs, absent our leadership to promote a global business environment favorable to our brands, our products, and our high standards.

Our soldiers would be dragged into more costly and unintended wars absent our leadership to build alliances that share the burdens, however imperfectly, of security and increase the capacity of others to prevent small crises from growing into big ones.

And our citizens would be left unacceptably vulnerable absent international cooperation to spot and stop threats before they reach our shores.

Our national interest demands our global engagement.

This is not a lesson we learned suddenly.

Seventy-one years ago, the United States faced a fundamental choice after World War II. As the world’s rising global power, how we would use that power and our new place of preeminence?

We could choose to come home and turn our backs on a broken world. We could take advantage of the moment to impose our will on others—as victors of war had done for centuries.

Or we could channel our power through a system of rules, principles, norms, and international institutions that gave everyone a stake in the running of world affairs.

On one level, embedding our country in a broader system that bound us to the same rules and restraints as others seemed counter-intuitive—a check on our own power.

But it proved remarkably wise.

It took away the incentive for other countries to band together to block our rise—as happened throughout history when one nation sought to rise above others. And rather than constraining us, the rules-based international order has legitimated, preserved, and amplified our power over time.

Of course, this system didn’t eliminate all turmoil, all conflict, all inequity. It did not—could never—insulate societies fully from the pain of social and economic change.

But with American leadership that married wisdom to strength, it got the big picture right—averting new global cataclysms, ending the Cold War peacefully, and creating the space and stability for countries to prosper. This is a narrative that most of us in this room in one way or another have lived and grown up with, but it is not a narrative that is as familiar to a young generation looking at America’s place in the world with fresh ideas. I think it bears repeating.

President Obama pledged to carry this legacy forward with a “new era of engagement.”

Entering the Oval Office at a time when the United States was a bit more isolated on the world stage, President Obama knew the risks of ignoring our allies and stiff-arming potential partners. He recognized that the international system is not a threat to our interests, but rather a logical, indispensable extension of them. He saw that American leadership in a diverse array of multilateral forums was essential to shaping this wider system to our advantage.

So, we renewed our leadership at the United Nations and worked in the UN Security Council to advance nuclear negotiations with Iran and remove and destroy Syria’s declared strategic chemical weapons capacity. We re-joined the Human Rights Council, brought attention to some of the world’s worse human rights violators, and passed the first resolution on LGBTI rights in a multilateral body. We not only embraced the Millennium Development goals that we had once shunned, but we helped reach agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals to end extreme poverty. And we bolstered the capacity of UN peacekeeping operations by mobilizing pledges for an additional 50,000 troops from countries around the world.

We reinvigorated our transatlantic partnerships by deepening our engagement with the EU, enhancing NATO’s military capabilities to address regional and global challenges, and reinforcing OSCE’s expanded role in working for a Europe whole, free, and at peace.

We strengthened our relationships with Asia’s key institutions—joining the East Asia Summit, sending our first dedicated Ambassador to ASEAN, hosting the first U.S.-ASEAN Summit here in the United States, and hosting APEC in 2011.

We revitalized the Summit of the Americas by updating a Cuba policy that had isolated us in the hemisphere, and we worked with new leadership at the Organization of American States to preserve that institution’s role in defending democracy where it is threated.

There are those who believe that our nation’s overwhelming military and economic superiority means we should and could operate alone—that corralling others at a summit or working through a system is much more trouble than it’s worth.

In the absence of U.S. leadership, multilateral institutions don’t simply disappear. They just take on a profoundly unhelpful shape, as the League of Nations did in 1930s. By turning inward, we lose our ability to advance positive developments, and we forfeit one of our most powerful tools to check negative ones.

We know that there is very clear tactical, as well as strategic and political value, in not having to act alone. We build a foundation of trust, an alignment of interests, habits of cooperation, and greater legitimacy that better enables us to mobilize others against common threats and seize opportunities. By taking a seat at the table, we can drive the conversation and help shape the results.

When a spiraling economic crisis threatened the world, we worked with the G20 to forge an international response that brought the global economy back from the brink and set the stage for the longest streak of job growth ever in the United States.

American leadership and our willingness to work with our partners produced the massive, coordinated fiscal package needed to restore confidence and save families, companies, and countries hit hardest by the crisis. That is exactly the kind of collective action that we continue to need if we’re going to generate sustained income gains for middle-class households.

When we saw Iran’s nuclear program speeding ahead while the window for preventative action was closing, we worked in lock-step with a diverse group of nations over several years to peacefully negotiate the toughest non-proliferation arrangement and most rigorous verification system ever devised.

Without our partners, we could never have built or maintained a sanctions regime powerful enough to help bring Iran to the negotiating table—or knitted together an understanding strong enough to verifiably and comprehensively ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is and will remain exclusively for peaceful purposes.

When Daesh’s campaign of terror emerged in ungoverned spaces in Syria and Iraq, we built a coalition of more than 65 countries to bring every political, diplomatic, economic, and military tool to bear against this threat—undermining the very foundations of Daesh’s self-declared Caliphate and revealing its cause for the savage lunacy that it is.

When Russia violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an independent, democratic Ukraine, we turned to the European Union and the G7, core groups of the world’s great democracies, to design and implement our response. We could have simply imposed sanctions and bailed our Ukraine by ourselves—to much less effect and far greater cost. Instead we rallied others, which also helped ensure sanctions didn’t wind up hurting American or European companies instead of their intended Russian targets.

In each of these instances and so many more, acting multilaterally, acting with others, has made American leadership more effective.

In a little over a week, just 25 blocks from here, the United Nations will gather in its annual General Assembly. Every day, the bulk of our global engagement happens at the UN, the poster child for multilateralism.

From its earliest moments, the UN has been a source of discomfort for some in the United States. Lately, its high-profile failures and endemic shortcomings have contributed to a perception that we may be better off without it than we are with it.

Anyone who is engaged with the UN knows it can be an increasingly slow and frustrating place. And of course, we don’t get our way every time.

But there remains no substitute for the work the UN does, the legitimacy it brings, the reach it allows. We rely on its network of institutions under the UN umbrella to protect us from disease, prevent conflict, deliver life-saving aid, facilitate trade, defend human rights, bring war criminals to justice, and maintain little-known standards that ensure mail is delivered across borders, cell phones work, patents are respected, and airplanes fly safely.

Tarnish and all, it remains the gold standard of global action, and when it is mobilized effectively, the results can be historic.

Just four days ago, the U.S. and China formally entered into the Paris Agreement. There was a time not so long ago when this seemed impossible, when no one believed that the two largest economies and the two largest carbon emitters would join forces after decades at loggerheads. But years of painstaking and painful UN negotiations and leadership, above all, by President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Secretary Kerry helped produce an agreement among nearly 200 nations and our best shot yet at saving the planet.

Part of our challenge is that it is hard to help some of our fellow citizens imagine what the world would look like without the advantages, for all of the deficits, of this multilateral rules and norms-based system.

It would mean building ad hoc arrangement every single time we wanted to act—an extraordinary diplomatic lift that would distract us from the real challenges at hand.

It would mean a world where goods are fewer and more expensive; businesses move slower and the appetite for risk is lower; where travel is harder, educational exchanges tougher, and international research collaboration near impossible.

It would mean anarchy on the high seas, with pirates, drug traffickers, smugglers, and sanctions violators sailing freely—and a global power vacuum filled by those whose values don’t look anything like ours.

So now is not the time to abandon that system, the liberal international order that we have spent so much blood and treasure to build over these last seven decades. Now is the time to strengthen it. To adapt it to new realities.

Even as the United Nations has taken on more and more responsibility, it has struggled to keep pace as major new economies have emerged looking for a platform commensurate to their growing importance on the world stage.

Today, the UN faces challenges its founders could scarcely have imagined—from cyber-terrorists to violent extremists. And its humanitarian system is under historic strain, buffeted by protracted emergencies and extreme natural disasters. To take just one example, and the President will be focusing on this in a couple of weeks at the Refugee Summit on the margins of the General Assembly, we now have around the world the largest single wave of human displacement since World War II. If every person on the planet displaced by conflict was put in one country, it would be the 24th largest country on this earth. Bigger than Spain. Bigger than South Korea. And that is just one problem that the UN is at the heart of grappling with.

Our challenge today is to adapt the international system to suit a young century while also ensuring that its foundation—its rules, the norms, the principles—remain intact and strong.

This work starts at the United Nations, where we will soon have the opportunity to select the next Secretary General. That person must have strong diplomatic and negotiations experience, prove management and leadership skills, a demonstrated commitment to transparency and accountability, and an unflinching adherence to UN principles.

The UN needs a strong leader with a vision for and commitment to fundamental reforms and a culture of accountability so that failures are addressed immediately, effectively, transparently.

And it needs a moral leader with the resolve to speak for the downtrodden, call out bad actors, defend the protection of civilians, and restructure the global humanitarian architecture—putting the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people front and center.

In an age more fluid and fraught with complexity than ever before, it is not enough to make little tweaks around the edges of the existing system. We have to think hard about how we redefine multilateral engagement for the times we are living. We have to boldly defend its value and address its failures—making it real and relevant in the lives of our fellow citizens and responsive to their legitimate concerns.

This work of reform doesn’t come with banners or parades. But it helps real people living real lives here and around the world see the UN is worth fighting for. It ensures our collective action better upholds our promises. And it will help us shape and adapt an international system that actually lives up to the vision of those who first built it—a global project that remains now, as it did then, indispensable to the health, strength, security, and prosperity of every nation and especially the United States.

Thank you very much.