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Friday, November 21, 2014


U.S. Mission to the United Nations: Remarks at the Center for American Progress' Making Progress: 2014 Policy Conference
Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
Washington, DC
November 19, 2014


Senator Tom Daschle, Moderator: Let me begin the conversation, if I could, by talking about America’s role. There’s a growing debate across the political spectrum, within really both political parties, about what America’s role in the world should be in this day and age; what sort of leadership we should play in foreign affairs. Over the years, especially in the last two decades in particular, we’ve experienced everything from unilateralism to coalitions of the willing to a reliance on our core alliance structure of leading from behind. But there are little consensus about the role of America today and how we should play it, and how best to advance American interests. U.S. leaders face – many U.S. leaders have called for retrenchment, and some have even called for isolation on both the right and the left. So, Ambassador Power, I’d like to start by asking you the question: is it up to America to be the lead actor in the world today? How should we look at that role? Is there a correct model as we look at the circumstances we’re facing worldwide?

Ambassador Power: Thank you, Tom. And thank you everybody for being here, and to CAP for putting on this conference and doing such important work. I mean, you put your finger on a key question for our times. I think that what we see today in the fall of 2014 is American leadership being used on key issues, whether climate, Ebola, ISIL, but whereby we don’t take simple ownership of the issue and decide that we’re going to bear the entire burden alone. We invest our resources, we lead the world, and we bring other coalitions to our side.

So, in the effort against ISIL, in Iraq, in order to support the Iraqi government forces as they try to fend off this monstrous movement, our use of airstrikes. And then we went around the world and said, “Okay, who wants to join on airstrikes? Who wants to join in providing training and equipment to these forces as they reconstitute? Who is going to take care of the humanitarian burden of all the millions of people who’ve been displaced as a result of ISIL’s explosive move across that region?” And now we have a coalition of 60 countries.

Ebola, equally dramatically; President Obama goes before the United Nations in September and says, “Look, here’s what I’m going to do. But if I do this,” and it’s a lot, “it’s not going to suffice.” And if we tackle the problem only in Liberia where the U.S. is deploying more than 2,000 troops and hundreds of CDC and USAID personnel, and aid workers and partnering with Doctors without Borders – but if we just do Liberia, and other countries don’t take the lead in Sierra Leone and Guinea, then our efforts in Liberia are going to be pyrrhic, because people can just cross the border and so forth.

So, you lead by articulating to the American people in the first instance, and to the world why it’s in your interest, and in the collective interest, to act. And then you mobilize other countries to make sure that you’re not bearing these huge burdens alone. And it’s not just even about burden-sharing and resources, which are major issues, but also just the very nature of these kinds of transnational threats, as you all know, are ones where, even if we had all the resources in the world and could bear every burden, you just, you can’t. You know, the foreign fighters in Syria, unless you get other countries to tighten their controls on their borders and prevent people from traveling, the United States, even if it wanted to, couldn’t deal with the foreign terrorist fighter problem alone. And so I think the mobilization of the world around what President Obama said way back when he was a candidate, are common security, common humanity.

Senator Daschle: This conference, as you know, is about making progress, and that applies both domestically as well as in our international efforts in our agenda. We talk at a lot at conferences like this about core progressive values. How would you say core progressive values align with American interests internationally today?

Ambassador Power: Well, I think probably people would define core progressive values in different ways. For me, it would start with regard for human dignity; the dignity of work, the dignity of a fair wage, the dignity to be treated with respect by your neighbors or respect for your own preferences in the way you live your life. And I think President Obama has really urged us to inject concern for human dignity in our policymaking, whether that’s being hugely generous in the face of ethnic violence in South Sudan, or in the face of the horrible displacement out of Syria, or wanting to close Guantanamo, recognizing again that that is – remains even – a recruitment tool and something that terrorist movements use a way of mobilizing their base and so forth.

But I think dignity is one piece of it. And then I think not only looking to make sure that you have domestic legal authority, but also being very conscientious and very dedicated to international norms and international law, while of course always pursuing U.S. interests. So, I think that those: dignity and recognizing that we live in a broad – we live on a planet where our interests also depend on having other people play by the rules, so we are stronger when we lead ourselves by playing by the rules of the road.

Senator Daschle: One of the important roles for the United States historically, and I think especially today, is bringing other countries together in multilateral forums. And there could be no one more sensitized to the need to do that and the importance of doing that, than you at the UN. But whether at the UN or as we saw with the ASEAN and G-20 forums last week, there are multilateral settings that offer opportunities for progress, but can also get bogged down, in part because –

Ambassador Power: I’ve noticed.

Senator Daschle: – of conflicting agendas, in part because you get into just a lot of talkathons that come with the very nature of groups wanting to make points. So how can America balance the importance of working with partners around the world, and the efficiency of our ability to pursue core interests on our own?

Ambassador Power: Well, I get to live a daily talkathon up in New York, so I feel I have a privileged positioned on which to talk. You know, there are a lot of inefficiencies in the international system. Just as within governments, we need to constantly try to streamline and simplify and enhance the interface that citizens have with governments as they regulate, you know, so too in the international system. If you imagine aggregating government habits across 193 governments, imagine what you end up with, right? I mean, that is not ideal. It’s not – if you were starting from scratch in 2014, you’d build a different, a different airplane, probably.

Having said that, if the United Nations didn’t exist, you would definitely build it, because you want a venue to come together. And even those countries with whom we are estranged or not cooperating in visible ways, it’s a channel for communication so you don’t have misunderstanding. It’s a way of pooling resources. You know, it is very, very obvious on the one hand, but also striking to live it where you see that the things that matter most to us, you know, may be very low on the mattering map for other countries. And so too the things that matter the most for them may not be in the top five for us. And so finding – but yet we need them to cooperate with us, let’s say on foreign terrorist fighters, where they think maybe that’s a distant problem compared to, you know, economic development or even climate change, and they need us of course to invest in their economic development and in their dignity, particularly in developing countries.

So we've tried to – I’ve certainly tried to mix it up in New York. And my impatience is the stuff of legend now, insofar as, “How are we still talking about this? I mean, what are you doing?” So, I think you’ve got to inject that spirit. You can’t accept that these institutions need to just be talkathons. We’re trying to do much more brainstorming, you know, much more – trying to bring countries together sort of staring out at a common problem and defining it as such, and then being in a position of, what could we do about it, rather than this sort of positional form of diplomacy that we’ve done, and where there’s certainly a place for that.

The one thing I’d just add finally is it’s tempting to sort of see bilateral dealings as somehow separate from or juxtaposed with the multilateral framework. But the fact of the matter is the way multilateralism works at its best is you start small, and then you expand the circle of consensus and the circle of problem-solving. But ultimately, successful multilateralism will turn also on the extent to which we have maintained, you know, stable and healthy partnerships with different countries around the world. Aggregating those friendships is what allows us to come together. And aggregating the sense of shared destiny and shared interest is what allows us to get a lot of countries to the table around shared threats.

Senator Daschle: So, how does our approach to multilateralism compare or contrast to other great powers, like China or Russia, or even allies like Britain or Japan? Similar or a lot different?

Ambassador Power: That’s an interesting question. I think that – we have embassies in just about every country in the world. And every minute of every day, we have a foreign policy of some kind with that country. And I think we view the multilateral system as a place to advance, whether human rights and fundamental freedoms in the country, or economic prosperity or trade relationships, etc. So, we’re constantly looking to advance our very particular foreign policy objectives in particular countries.

So, for instance yesterday we had very important General Assembly votes on resolutions on the human rights horrors in Syria, those in the DPRK, and those in Iran. And these votes – you know, we treat each of those votes as if it’s a huge priority for the United States. We have our embassies fanning out around the world trying to make sure that countries in the Caribbean or countries in the Middle East are voting a certain way vis-à-vis DPRK, in order to send the strongest possible signal to the regime there that they’re going to be held accountable, particularly in light of the recent commission of inquiry, the horrible commission of inquiry report on the camps and the human rights conditions in DPRK.

That ambition, you know, that range, that ability to draw on those resources, I think, is distinct about the United States. And that belief that it is in our interest to go all out on the DPRK at the same time we go out on Iran at the same time. Most of the time with other countries you’ll see some subset of the larger global agenda prioritized and that kind of effort perhaps being brought to bear, although without the resources and the reach that we have. So, and even countries like China that are taking more and more assertive leadership roles within the UN system, including by increasing in a very helpful development, increasing their contributions to UN peacekeeping in a substantial way, sending doctors and other medical professionals to deal with Ebola. So, you’re seeing them begin to step up. But, still, that – what I just described in terms of campaigning around a discrete issue, whether on economic development, on climate, on human rights in any particular country – you wouldn’t see, again, that same kind of ground game or yet that prioritization of that set of issues, certainly with human rights issues, needless to say.

Senator Daschle: So, as I look at our options, is there a downside to bilateralism, like what we’ve just recently seen with our announcement on climate with China, versus taking the traditional multilateral approach?

Ambassador Power: You know, I think that when we do strike big deals and deepen partnerships in very visible ways, it’s a lot – the relations between countries are a lot like that between individuals. Like there’ll be someone over there saying, “What about me?” Like, “Why wasn't I a part of that?” And I think you see that a little bit here and there in the margins, but compared to the good it does – for instance, if you take the historic agreement, the CAP alone – that past and present CAP leader John Podesta, his leadership in helping negotiate that on the president’s behalf; hugely important agreement. And with China and the United States leading together and early, and constituting the two biggest economies and the two biggest emitters, that puts us in a position to lead the world. And the leverage associated with us doing that together, I think, vastly outweighs any momentary kind of sense of, “Oh, I wish that would’ve been a bigger multilateral framework.” And as I said earlier, that is the way you do multilateralism. You start and get key stakeholders to make agreements, and then you broaden out the circle. And that’s of course what our hope is to do on the climate.

Senator Daschle: So let me ask one more question on multilateral institutional infrastructure before I – I want to give to couple of other issues before we run out of time. A lot of the institutions created from multilateral cooperation were created after World War II. We had a big role to fill. Those institutions really haven’t changed much, whether it’s the UN Security Council, the IMF. To what extent do they reflect today and the world as we see it globally? And to what extent, if it’s not as reflective as they should be, is there a potential for reform as we look at making these institutions perhaps more reflective of the current lay of the land?

Ambassador Power: Well, let me separate a couple of different planes on which one can look at that question. I mean, I think you’ve seen over the life of the Obama administration a real emphasis on the G-20 as a hugely important global forum, not only to deal with economic issues, but as we just saw, the G-20 issued a very strong statement on Ebola. And we would view that group of countries as in the first instance the most likely group of countries to contribute health professionals, money, building materials, etc. in the context of Ebola. So, it’s a convenient proxy for those who should have resources that they’re prepared to invest in dealing with common threats and common challenges.

So, that, I think, shift and that emphasis has occurred over the life of the Obama administration. With the crisis in the Ukraine, of course, the G-7, now, has taken on new importance, particularly with regard again to that set of issues. That’s a very useful forum for that, and for a host of other things. So, again, that venue remains important, but the G-20 is of a different order than it would’ve been back even in 2008. And this was happening with the Bush administration toward the end, as well.

In the United Nations, Security Council reform has been something that many have aspired to, for many, many years, for the obvious reason which you state, which is surely 69 years after the founding of the UN, the dynamics, the power dynamics, the economic dynamics, and so forth in the world, the demographics, everything has changed and surely there should be some modernization. The challenge is that one of the reasons that we would, that one would wish to see an updated set of international institutions is to enhance legitimacy and effectiveness, and to enhance a sense of shared ownership over the entire United Nations, because there’s a sense of alienation by some of the powerful countries that have been doing more than their fair share, like Germany and Japan – you know, tremendous contributors to the UN over many years, but were not part of the regular decision-making body.

But having said that, and with that alienation, and with that aspiration to render it more effective, there is no more divisive issue in the UN membership. And so there just hasn’t been a proposal that has attracted a kind of plurality or a majority because everybody wants – at a moment when things are being revisited, everybody wants in. And so, just as I was describing earlier in the context of bilateral deals, so too this is something where people want UN Security Council reform, but they, again, have very different views as to how you would bring it about.

So, we remain open, you know, and as these debates play themselves out – they’re heating up now because it’s the 70th anniversary approaching. And the question it poses of course rightly being asked. But it’s not clear that there’s a pathway that could gather a critical mass. And, of course, we would remain very attached to our veto, which is a hugely important feature of our leadership within the UN system. So that’s not something we’d be prepared to give up. But on the membership, we certainly see the case.

Senator Daschle: Let me turn to a couple of very specific challenges that you’re very involved with. The first is Ebola. You just came back from Africa a couple of weeks ago.

Ambassador Power: I did. Thank you for giving me a hug earlier.


Senator Daschle: Yeah, and I’d do it anytime. But I’m curious, as you explored the challenges we face, as you saw firsthand what we’re up against, and the progress or in some cases maybe the lack thereof, how would you characterize our biggest challenge today?

Ambassador Power: Well, we just still don’t have enough. There’s not enough that has been committed. Progress in – whether it’s funds, health workers, beds, as in beds in isolation units, ambulances, fuel. I mean, since again, President Obama went to the UN and stood with the Secretary General and made this appeal and we waged a full-court press around the world to get people to contribute, we have closed, we have narrowed, we say, a very large number of gaps.

But, again, particularly as you get out into the rural areas in the three countries, I mean you still have people who have never heard of Ebola. Our ambassador in Guinea was just out hiking in the countryside away from Conakry, the capital, and just went up to a group of women and said have you heard of Ebola, speaking to them in the local dialect and everything – we have a wonderful ambassador in Guinea. And so, just, social mobilization, basic, again things that money can buy: SIM cards for cellphones, cellphone coverage in parts of the country that doesn’t exist, and how that – and these are the kinds of things you can’t turn on a dime.

So, what is so gratifying is in my own experience in dealing with crises and foreign policy challenges, there’s something very unique about the anti-Ebola effort, in that you can really measure progress. You can – on my trip a couple of weeks ago, four days before I arrived, the rate of safe burial within 24 hours in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, was only 30 percent. The British had come in, they revamped the command of control working with the Sierra Leone military and civilian authorities, and that safe burial rate, just in a four-day period, had gone up to 98 percent within 24 hours, which stands to play a really important role in infection control, because unsafe burial is a huge source of infection. Same in Monrovia, because of the U.S. effort.

The U.S. has deployed these mobile labs around Liberia. We visited one about an hour flight away from Monrovia, about an eight-hour drive in Bong Country, and there are these three Navy microbiologists who had just set up this lab two weeks before we arrived. One of them had decided to become a microbiologist 20 years ago because he read Hot Zone, the Preston book about Ebola. So he can’t believe his fortune that he’s sitting here looking at Ebola under a microscope to test local samples. Before this little three-person unit of microbiologists, contributed by the U.S. Navy, arrived, the testing in that area was taking as much as a week. The samples were being driven on motorcycle, and sometimes getting lost en route to Monrovia. There was only one lab in Monrovia, and everyone in the country had to wait in order to get their test results.

So, just by showing up, that one-week time has now been cut to between three and five hours. Now what does that mean? Tangibly, it means that before, people who were Ebola-positive and Ebola-negative but didn’t know it were cohabitating within Ebola treatment units for a week. That’s not good. That’s not isolation; that’s not what one would seek. Moreover, the beds were full. And now the testing results are coming back, and 70 percent don’t have Ebola; they may have malaria, they may have a cold. If you’re lucky, if there has been social mobilization, people will be coming forward. So, now those beds are being freed up, and you’re starting to see efficiencies.

But back to your original question, I am personally, I think we’ve done a very good job on the hardware, which is the Ebola treatment units, building the facilities where people can be isolated. The software, now, is what is needed: more healthcare workers in the here and now, but also if you look out four weeks or six weeks, that next tranche, who’s going to replace the people in-country today? And this is where us making clear as the American people just how much we value the work that American doctors and nurses are doing as they go over there. So, health workers and the social mobilization, getting the locals to do away with the stigma and the fear that pervades, so that the next time our ambassador goes hiking in the countryside, everyone you meet is telling you about Ebola, rather than again, it being perceived to be foisted upon the countryside by the center, which is a bit of a risk right now.

Senator Daschle: So let me ask you – it may be too early to be able to answer this with any clarity – but to what to what extent are there already lessons learned for the next Ebola, the next H1N1, the next SARS? What can we take from this experience that might help us prepare more proactively for the next one?

Ambassador Power: I think if you look at the funding request, the resource request that President Obama sent up a week or two ago to the Hill and that we are working very constructively with both parties now to refine, I think you see some of those lessons already put in place: making sure that every state has the capability to deal with infectious disease or viruses like this that may be foreign in the first instance, but where you have training protocols that are put in place very quickly. Research into vaccines, you know, investing more in the prevention side of things. In the countries in question, part also of our funding request is to make sure that we don’t invest billions of dollars here in dealing with Ebola, get to the back end of the crisis, and then the Ebola treatment units get dismantled because they’re just tents and bricks, and they’re not themselves sustainable structures, the white vehicles belonging to the international community all get put back on cargo ships. And then what’s left of the health infrastructure of these countries?

The reason that it spread so quickly, in addition to some of the issues related to where the outbreak first occurred, being in a border region and with travel and so forth, but is that the systems were too weak to deal with it – unlike Nigeria, which was able to draw on the expertise acquired in an anti-polio – a polio eradication campaign – a generation ago. That expertise was tapped to deal with the challenge in Nigeria. Nothing like that existed in these three countries. So in addition to the U.S. preparedness, which is very, very important in making sure it’s done at the relevant, with relevant health officials at the state level, really investing not only in these countries’ health infrastructure, by bringing the World Bank and others into that effort, but also looking across the continent. And this is what the President’s global health security agenda, which predated the Ebola crisis, is now, but now has new adherents in the international community because of what’s happened. Hopefully, that’ll be the venue in which some of these changes will take place.

Senator Daschle: We didn’t get to ISIS, we didn't get to Syria, we didn’t get to Iran. There is a whole list of things we didn’t get –

Ambassador Power: Sorry about that.

Senator Daschle: But your answers were terrific, and I just can’t thank you enough for taking time out of what I know is an incredibly busy schedule to be here.

Ambassador Power: My pleasure.

Senator Daschle: And I know I speak for every person in this room in thanking you for the incredible leadership you give us every day. Thank you.

Ambassador Power: Thank you. Thank you so much.