Public Diplomacy Fall Speaker Series: Gillian Sorensen

The USC Center on Public Diplomacy welcomed Gillian Sorensen for a presentation on lessons learned during her career as Senior Adviser at the United Nations Foundation. Sorensen is a national advocate on matters related to the United Nations and the United States-United Nations relationship, and she is a fellow here at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.

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Wednesday, October 4, 2006
12:00 pm
Annenberg, Room 207

Event Report

US Should Be More Cooperative With UN
By Amanda Price

The United States must stop playing the bully and assume a more cooperative stance toward its United Nations partners, said Gillian Sorensen, senior adviser of the UN Foundation.

"I'm a partisan, and I admit my bias, and that is that I think we do better together than we do alone; we can do more together than we do alone," said Sorensen, whose UN career spanned the terms of five secretaries-general. "We can share the burden, the risk, the responsibility, and the cost, as well as the benefit, by working together."

Sorensen's speech at the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy on Wednesday marked one stop on a tour designed to stimulate debate on the US-UN partnership. She is former assistant UN secretary-general for external affairs.

"The UN, of course, just marked its 60th anniversary, and I am frank to tell you that we have come through a profoundly difficult time," said Sorensen. Among other problems, "UN bashers on a mission to demean and destroy the United Nations have distorted the organization's global role," she said. "They do their work, and that fills the airwaves and fills a vacuum of knowledge for the many young Americans, especially, who don't know the UN, don't know why it exists, why it came into being, and what its limits and possibilities are," said Sorensen.

Acknowledging that it is fashionable to peg the UN as an "irrelevant" institution, Sorensen nevertheless used another 'i' word to describe the organization. "It is indispensable. It is imperfect, but indispensable," she said. "And the challenge as Americans is to acknowledge and build on its strengths, even as we address its weaknesses."

Drawing on the mindset of American exceptionalism to define its behavior within the UN framework, the United States has acted as a bully, undermining its moral position in the eyes of other member states, said Sorensen. "The United States in the UN is like the colossus, you can't avoid it, ever," she said.

U.S. attitudes toward the United Nations could change by the end of 2006, with what Sorensen believes may be the last term for Ambassador John R. Bolton, U.S. representative to the United Nations. Sorensen said many people have kept tabs on Bolton throughout the course of his UN appointment, "including the ways in which he has set us back."

"I'm just wishing, dreaming that we would have always an ambassador who wanted this effort to succeed, and was committed in every way to that," said Sorensen. "And Bolton has made it clear that he is not."

Sorensen said the United States must enact policies consistent with its principles to avoid further isolation from the international community. "Because we are so big and so powerful, everything we do is magnified; it's writ large, and it's long-remembered," she said.

U.S. efforts to promote democratization and human rights have foundered in light of the country's actions, Sorensen said. She questioned the moral aspect of the messages the U.S. sends to the international community in light of torture at Abu Ghraib, U.S. support of foreign dictators, and controversial detainee policies.

"What you do is as true for an individual as for a nation," said Sorensen. "What you do and what you say has to match." After playing crucial roles in the preparation and drafting of a number of significant international treaties, the United States has refused to ratify them, said Sorensen. Most recently, she said, the United States declined to support the revised UN Human Rights Council.

"I'm an American, you understand, and I'm a patriotic American, but this pains me," said Sorensen, who lamented the self-serving image the United States has projected to the international community. She argued that the United States "squandered" the global outpouring of support following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

U.S. policy, including the war in Iraq, has created a deep divide between the United States and the rest of the world, said Sorensen, and public diplomacy can only go so far to bridge the gap. "You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's not going to make that pig more beautiful or more attractive or compelling or persuasive," said Sorensen. "What it says is if you don't have policies that are honest and persuasive and credible and consistent and coherent, you can do all the face-painting - you can add rouge, too - but it's still a pig."

In the future, the United States should stop bullying the United Nations and try, instead, to deepen dialogue between itself and its fellow member states, said Sorensen. "It's true we're big and powerful," she said. "But we would do ourselves a favor if we would come to this challenge and exercise [our authority] in the United Nations with a different spirit."


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