Taking Stock of the Era of Engagement: President Obama, the UN General Assembly, and Our Increasingly Multilateral World

Secretary Kerry at Signing of COP21 Climate Change Agreement at UN General Assembly Hall in New York. [State Department Photo]

Shortly after being elected in 2008, President Obama called for a “new era of engagement” with the multilateral system. The President’s call was based on the fact that all of the globe’s most significant and pressing challenges require cooperation and collaboration among countries. Nearly eight years after the President’s call, the United States has an impressive track record of foreign policy achievements that were only possible because we worked in partnership with other nations and through international organizations such as the United Nations.

For example, only through tough, sustained multilateral diplomacy did we successfully negotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that constrains Iran’s nuclear program and cuts off its pathways to a nuclear weapon. That same commitment to collective action yielded the Paris Agreement on climate change, and fueled international consensus on the Sustainable Development Goals.

President Barack Obama speaks during the Leaders Summit on Refugees during the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. [AP Photo]

Strong U.S. leadership at the UN Human Rights Council, which the United States re-joined at the start of the Obama Administration, has revitalized that body, refocused its attention to the world’s worse human rights violators, and spurred new levels of international cooperation on human rights issues. These and many other examples from recent years validate the President’s reinvestment in multilateral engagement.

That investment was once again on full display as heads of state from around the world traveled to UN headquarters in New York City for the 71st meeting of the UN General Assembly, or UNGA. As this was President Obama’s final UNGA, it provided an opportunity for him to describe in his own voice the positive actions taken at the United Nations over the last eight years.

The United States also capitalized on the diplomatic opportunities available during the annual UNGA gathering to make progress on a number of top priorities. For example, more than 50 countries and international organizations participated in the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees that President Obama co-hosted with other world leaders. At a time when more than 65 million people around the world are displaced from their homes – more than at any time since World War II – the Summit led to significant new commitments to strengthen global humanitarian response and improve opportunities for refugees around the world.

This year’s UNGA also provided an opportunity to encourage nations to formally join the Paris Agreement on climate change. This effort followed action a few weeks ago by the United States and China — the two largest emitters in the world — to lead by example in joining the Agreement. Spurred by this momentum, it appears more than likely that the Agreement will receive the necessary number of signatory nations in order to enter into force by the end of this year.

Looking forward, there is of course much work that remains to be done, and many goals that the United States will seek to achieve through the multilateral system.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attend a Security Council Meeting September 21, 2016 on the situation in Syria at the United Nations in New York. [State Department Photo]

For example, Secretary Kerry will continue to engage in relentless diplomacy in pursuit of an end to the conflict in Syria. The United States will work to ensure that the next UN Secretary-General is a leader prepared to guide the organization during these challenging times, and enact much-needed reforms across the UN system. We will continue to assert our leadership at the UN Human Rights Council, including by seeking a new three-year term on that body beginning in 2017. And we will be active and present in multilateral fora wherever U.S. interests can be advanced, including at the upcoming Habitat III conference, which will address the many challenges related to sustainable urbanization.

About the Author: Matthew Walsh is the Senior Advisor for UN Political Affairs in theBureau of International Organization Affairs.

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