Gillian Sorenson interviewed by James Wurst, January 16, 2014
JAMES WURST: What I’d like to do is for you to talk about your involvement in the UNA and the UN Foundation, so if you could walk me through … from 1976, briefly; how you got involved, what roles you played at what point:
GILLIAN SORENSON: OK. I was named by Ed Koch to be the New York City Commissioner for the United Nations in 1976, and I did that job for the following 12 years. Almost immediately, in fact even prior to that, I’d been aware of an active United Nations Association presence in New York. There were some very distinguished people involved in that. I think my late husband, Ted [Sorensen], had taken part in at least one of their policy projects. But I also came to understand quickly that the UNA was not just a policy group but it was also the grass-roots effort to support, to build support and understanding for the United Nations. And that they had many chapters across the country, in towns large and small, and the chapters were comprised of some civic leaders, some regular citizens, some people from academia or the business world or whatever, who simply cared about the UN. And wanted to support it, to know more about it, to mark certain occasions like UN Day or Human Rights Day.
And I did take part from an early time in some of their members’ events. They would have an annual meeting in New York. Many hundreds of their members would come, they would have at least one of their meetings inside the UN itself, and I began to get a better sense of the activity and to meet some of the leaders from across the country. And they were great. They were informed, they were the kind of people that see across borders; that they may have come from the Middle West or from the South but they were really internationalists. And it was a good thing, it just opened my mind. Foreign relations don’t just happen in New York and Washington. There are people across the country that care and speak up. And I also began to understand much more clearly that if we’re to have Congressional support in both the House and the Senate that those representatives have to hear from their own citizens. So I was invited and attended various UNA events, including their annual dinner. And that has continued to this day. I was recruited into the UN Secretariat in 1993 by Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1993 as Special Adviser for Public Policy. I later served on Kofi Annan’s transition team and was named by him as Assistant Secretary-General for External Relations and served until the end of 2003. I then joined the United Nations Foundation as National Advocate until 2013.
One aspect of my work was external relations, not just to the larger NGO community but in particular in this country to see if we could strengthen the support among Americans. At that point, the UN was becoming at various times a target of criticism and particularly from the right, sort of dismissive attitude – about we didn’t need it or it was imposing on our sovereignty and all kinds of nonsense like that. And I began to feel more strongly that if we didn’t have voices from the field, that members of Congress, most of whom knew very little about the UN, would just think it didn’t matter.
So when I was there I began to do more frequently, briefings, and sometimes to foreign groups of one kind or another but very often to American groups. Not just UNA but Rotary and other civic groups of all kinds and occasionally to travel out, across the country, to speak about the UN, what’s at stake, why does it matter, what is the real cost, how do we contribute and how do we benefit by serving as an active leader. And that seemed to go well, and when I would travel out I’d usually hit two cities — there might be three programs in each city, one at a university, one at a foreign affairs, council on foreign relations group, maybe a women’s group or an interfaith group or things of that kind. So when one trip I could do five or even six programs. And the UN would usually underwrite those; that is, underwrite just the travel. I was never paid for appearances.
JAMES WURST: You were one of the dollar a year people?
GILLIAN SORENSON: No, I was on salary at the UN. But they saw the value of having an informed person who could do this kind of thing. JAMES WURST: And this was during the 90s?
GILLIAN SORENSON: Yes. And I enjoyed it a lot. I saw America in a whole new way. I went to Fargo, North Dakota, and Birmingham, Alabama, and you know, the far corners of the country, and met some very interesting, smart, concerned people, and most of my UN colleagues wouldn’t have wanted to do that. But I thought it was important, and the exchange, the q-and-a’s, were always good. The follow-up, the feedback, was good, and it I just felt like it mattered. And you couldn’t just email, you couldn’t just send them brochures. At least once in a while somebody had to go there, the face to face mattered. And I did that overseas some, too, but since I’m an American, the American audience had a certain logic to it. So, that continued; I came, little by little, I came to know the UNA folks very well.
JAMES WURST: So when you made these trips, it was organized by the United Nations, or they would, some group would in Des Moines would say could you send a UN rep to. . .
GILLIAN SORENSON: Yes, it varied. Sometimes the invitation would come from the UNA; sometimes from a local group. Um, and we would always try to identify who’s the lead. Who’s your main ground contact? And that mattered a lot because they know their own territory and they would help us put — we would say this is what we’d like to achieve, your event is the main event, but while I’m there, can I do x, y or z?
JAMES WURST: So was it necessarily linked to UNA chapters?
GILLIAN SORENSON: No, but I would never bypass a UNA. If it was Washington University in St. Louis who invited, I’d say double-check, tell me about the UNA in St. Louis and immediately, we’d let them know I’m coming to St. Louis to speak at Washington University. While I’m there . . . could we get together, and the answer was always yes. So this became sort of a pattern, I guess what I had to say was well received because one invitation followed another. And I think it was appreciated on that end, but more and more it mattered to me, because I could see the response, feel the response, and I just felt it was useful. In July of 2001, my husband had a stroke and he had a very difficult few years at the start. He managed to get it together after that, but then I was feeling very, very pressed because my hours at the UN were extremely long and the travel and all the rest. At that point, Tim Wirth, who was head of the UN Foundation, said to me one day, why don’t you think about crossing the street? Come over here, make your base with us and go out, you know, get out from behind a desk and go do what you love doing. What you do best. And so when I crossed to the UN Foundation in 2003. I was then part of their senior group. I was one of the few who had actually worked inside the UN. And as you know, UNF’s main office is in Washington. So there were some internal things where I think I was helpful and had good advice and certainly, certainly that time had very strong contacts and so on. But the speaking role, the, as we called it, advocacy, outreach and constituency-building was what they called it. That became a primary function.
JAMES WURST: So now, so your senior group with . . . 2003 — so you continued this work?
GILLIAN SORENSON: Until last month [editor’s note: December 2013]. And if you turn a few pages, you’ll see …
JAMES WURST: Richmond, Naples, Florida, Sarasota, Monterey, Salt Lake City, Switzerland, Fargo; there’s Fargo.
GILLIAN SORENSON: Right. And in Fargo, I remember it well. I thought it would be a sort of Norwegian audience, but there were about 30 Sudanese. Fargo had willingly said we would like to welcome refugees, and a large number of Sudanese came to Fargo. Can you imagine?
JAMES WURST: That has happened like Hmong from Laos, settled in Minnesota.
GILLIAN SORENSON: You’re right, and Iraqis in Nebraska and so on.
JAMES WURST: Did some cases, I think, the Hmong in particular, there was the missionary work that — Lutheran missionaries had gone there.
GILLIAN SORENSON: Right. So anyway, that continued until a few weeks ago, and then I took my leave; the head of the foundation refers to it as “interim leave,” but I’m going to have a little change of scene and change of pace and be up at Harvard for a few months. But I, just to me, it mattered a lot. It’s very meaningful, I met remarkable people, I think of myself as a messenger, a teacher, an advocate, a debater and defender.
JAMES WURST: Now, so that’s thank you very much, those are good broad strokes. I found that from the beginning of every interview, it turns out there were just biography, and which is exactly what I’m hoping for. So if we could now sort of go step back a little bit and look at it from over the years, let me ask you something a little bit more on the biography. OK, so in 76, you start as New York Commissioner; so that, after 12 years brings to 88, and so between 88 and 93?
GILLIAN SORENSON: Oh, 76, I was commissioner until just about 90. Yeah. Then for one year I did something else. And then took a very short break and then I was recruited into the UN.
JAMES WURST: OK, so there’s not really a big gap there. So now if we step a bit back, and let’s look at, so the chapters. And again, you say you didn’t go to the cities exclusively for the chapters but you did interview, I mean you did meet with chapters. Could you kind of walk me through how you saw the evolution and how it reflected general specific policy, Washington policies, but general political policies in the US. One thing that has become quite clear is that public support for the UN did take a nosedive in the 70s. First because of the Chinese admission and then second, the Zionist resolution. From everything I read and what people said, those were two very destructive acts. Now this means that you’re coming in just at that point, where UN, public support for the UN is slipping. Is that a fair assessment?
GILLIAN SORENSON: I think that’s fair. At that point, the membership of the UNA was largely comprised of what I would call true believers. I say that in the positive sense. They tended to be older; some of them had actual memories of the origins of the UN and earliest leadership of the UN and so on. And they would defend the UN under any, at any price. I approached it a little differently. I said, it doesn’t help us to pretend the UN is perfect. It certainly doesn’t help to pretend it’s the servant of the United States. We have to be frank about how it works and how the US in the UN is understood and perceived and how the differences in this country between words and action are noted. And remembered in the UN.
So, you’re right that some of the internal UN policies were creating real problems with the American public and there was some drop-off, and fall away, and there were some pretty intense discussions; certainly, a fair number of skeptics, which is fine; on rare occasions it would get a bit hostile. The only time I felt intimidated was in Michigan, when Michigan militia showed up. The self-appointed Michigan militia, these guys about six foot three, all of them wearing camouflage, and they stood at the back of the room the whole time and never sat down and they had this very macho pose, like this with their arms crossed and they didn’t say a word until the end when, as always, the presider said we have time for one last question, and one of them put up their hand and I knew what he would say. It was really a rant about the UN is a threat to our sovereignty. That issue is still current.
JAMES WURST: Quite surprised at how Agenda 21 has resurfaced as a . . .
GILLIAN SORENSON: Right and totally misunderstood.
JAMES WURST: Oh, yeah, of course.
GILLIAN SORENSON: I think UNA and for, let me say in a larger sense, friends of the UN were slow to react. And the anti-UN types put a lot of these attacks and criticisms out there. Some of them had substance but some were total nonsense. But because there wasn’t a response, a rapid response, they hung in the air out there until people began to think well, maybe that’s the truth, maybe the UN is anti-US. Or maybe it’s, you know, maybe it costs too much. Or maybe it’s a wasted effort; whatever. But I just took the approach you have to respond, as in a political campaign. You have to respond, and the faster the better and not in anger but assertively, with some facts, some statistics at the base of it, but also to speak to both mind and heart. And to acknowledge this is not easy. We’re one country among 100 well, today, 193, back then it was 180-some, and we need to earn respect and trust and credibility, and we need to that every day.
JAMES WURST: I’m just picturing this with the Michigan militia sort of thing. The new laws about open carry, stand your ground and all, that you could actually end up with guys standing in the back room with automatic weapons.
GILLIAN SORENSON: Well, this crossed my mind, this goes back a few years, that particular incident, but believe me, I saw them back there, I saw them the minute they walked in and there was kind of a friction across the room and people were all conscious of their presence. And I did make certain that when I left that room that I was in the company of the leaders and the organizers of the evening. I didn’t want to walk into the parking lot by myself.
JAMES WURST: So let’s go back. I don’t want you to be generalizing about parts of the country but, in general, would you find that over the decades that the public reaction varied from place to place, region to region, or was there sort of like people were kind of reading from the playbook, either pro or con, anti?
GILLIAN SORENSON: I’d say, yes, it did vary by region. Of course, the UN-haters wouldn’t come to these events, but if you move in just a step from that, UN critics did. But what changed, what was different, was the sort of general public attitude. I’m sure you’ve heard about certain parts of the country where there were for a long time, years, big billboards that said, get the US out of the UN. Well, how many thousands, tens of hundreds of thousands of drivers, pass those signs? Who puts those signs up? That does have an impact. And I guess I would say in the more conservative parts of the country that was where I would see that more often. But when they would disagree, they would basically never attack me personally. They might differ or criticize the content of what I was saying, but that was all right.
JAMES WURST: What now dealing specifically with the chapters and not just the tours; during those years, you saw, you said at the beginning that they were older people, the true believers, that people actually remembered the beginning, and obviously demographically that’s going to change, they’re going to fade away. What how did you see the chapters evolving through their personnel, the people involved?
GILLIAN SORENSON: Well, everyone came to be conscious of the fact that the membership was aging. And that if was going to survive and thrive that they had to find a way to bring in younger people, and two things happened that I think were very positive: one is that they began to develop young professionals groups. And they would, and it took a while to come up with this, which is quite a simple idea, that they should try having meetings at different times. Not always in the middle of the day or not always in the evening, you know young professionals have families, they need to get home, and take care of the kids and such. They might have it from 5 to 6. Offer a drink and a tighter meeting. Or breakfast meetings. And to vary that and to figure out what worked for that community, and then to try another thing that’s very simple, and that’s that each-one-bring-one concept to expand the membership and I think that effort with young professionals now is taking off all across the country. The other aspect of that is the work with the Model United Nations, which is an absolute phenomenon at both the high school and the university level, college level. And I’ve never seen an exercise that gets kids as excited and involved and committed as Model UN. I’ve been more times than I can count to Model UNs where you have a thousand kids, two thousand kids, you know they take part, represent countries, one of them is the secretary-general and such, they solve crises. It literally brings them out of their selves, they find their voice or a voice that goes beyond them and they get so excited. I met kids who’d done it three or four or five times. In high school and then right into university. I’ve been to West Point with their Model UN, I’ve been to.
JAMES WURST: West Point has a Model UN?
GILLIAN SORENSON: They do; and so does the Air Force Academy. And Harvard hosts a Model UN with 30 participating universities, so this tells you that at that age there’s interest. And there’s a drive, they want to make a difference, they want to contribute, they want to be part of that; so the question for UNA is how do you capture that interest before these young people go off and get into their careers and go in other directions? That effort now is being made in a very concerted way. And I do see at the meetings a much bigger contingent of young people, even high schoolers, young adults and that’s good.
JAMES WURST: How does this translate from the Model UN into building chapters. Do people seem to …. ?
GILLIAN SORENSON: Well, if the chapters are really attentive, many of them have some involvement with Model UN. They don’t own it. They may or may not be a sponsor, but often they do participate in some way. Maybe they have one of their people be a speaker, maybe they help with the planning or the organizing or the locating a place to have it. And then, now thanks to the Internet, they try as best they can to get the email addresses, so that after the Model UN is over UNA can be in touch.
JAMES WURST: So in broad strokes what you’re doing for the UN and at the UN Foundation is essentially the same thing — outreach to the American public. And maybe under the UN Foundation it might be a little closer relations with the chapters or . . .
GILLIAN SORENSON: In the UN I had many other functions, too. This beat was the sidebar almost. But because it went well and because invitations kept coming in, and because other colleagues either couldn’t or were not interested in doing this, that sidebar developed into a regular part of my function.
JAMES WURST: What were the other functions?
GILLIAN SORENSON: I was the secretary-general’s contact to the, I’d say, the universe of NGOs and as you know there are 4,000 accredited ones. I was sometimes trip captain when the SG traveled. Under Boutros-Ghali, I was the overseer of the commemorations of the 50th anniversary, which as you recall were extensive. And other assignments as requested. Someone called me, what’s that term, in baseball. The utility infielder.
JAMES WURST: OK. I have one more question that relates to the chapters. So you were working for the UN Foundation at the time of the transition to UNA being… I’m not sure what verb I’m going to use here because it gets a lot of people . . .
GILLIAN SORENSON: We called it the alliance. Creation of the alliance.
JAMES WURST: I’ve heard other words. So you were involved at that point. How did you reach out to the chapters? How did they look at it? What did you say to them, what did they say to you; were they concerned; did they feel like that UNA, losing it under the UN Foundation; did they feel they would be embraced or neglected; how did that transition work?
GILLIAN SORENSON: You may recall there were two efforts at that transition. The first one really hit a wall. That is to make an alliance or partnership of some kind. The timing wasn’t right. There were legal and financial and personnel questions that weren’t resolved. So that effort came to nothing… But the second round, it succeeded for several reasons: One was that timing was right. UNA was in financial straits. Everybody wanted it to succeed, but couldn’t quite figure out how. And I knew both groups very well. I began to feel, look there’s a common cause here, a common cause. They have different strengths but they really share the hope of this outcome and that is to have a strong and effective United Nations and a committed US and the American public in the UN. And as the second round of discussion began, I did get into that. And I very deliberately tried to become not just a supporter but a champion of this alliance. And I thought this can work and it’s very important that it work because if not, UNA might sink. And that was unthinkable. So I felt the logistical questions, which were legal, financial and personnel questions, could be resolved. It took at least a couple of years for that to happen. UNA had its own legal standing and its own 501C3, you had to go to the attorney general of New York.
JAMES WURST: Those files are in the archives.
GILLIAN SORENSON: It was very complicated. And I feel good that a lawyer at Paul Weiss that I contacted took on that assignment pro bono. It was thought to be maybe five, six months. Turned out to be more than two years. Just a huge amount of legal work and that lawyer stayed with it to the very end, to the conclusion. So the coming together, and I do call it alliance, that’s the correct term, I hope you won’t use the other terms, that alliance, I believe, was necessary, has turned out to be productive and has given added strength to both UNF and UNA. And naturally, there was a period of adjustment and some apprehension, particularly on the UNA side, but I think just about everyone in the chapters would now agree that it’s, that it’s working and that as a partnership or alliance it’s been a very good outcome…
If you look at UNA website, you’ll see a lot going on. It’s true UNF is a strong presence. But UNA brought something UNF did not have and that’s the grass roots presence across the country. What has changed is that the policy function, the kind of thing you were discussing with Toby Gati; that is now being done elsewhere. But the grass roots activity, which I think is very, very important, is growing and deepening. So it is, it is different, but I think it’s a good outcome.
JAMES WURST: Onto the policy functions. That it’s clear that policies – policy studies, the parallel studies – they evolved as the changing political situation, global political situation changed. The last one was the US-Iran dialogue. OK, and as you say, that’s taken over by other entities, the Asia Society and Suzanne DiMaggio at the Asia Society, and you know, Tom Pickering is still very much involved
GILLIAN SORENSON: Right, and Bill Luers.
JAMES WURST: Yes, and they just sent an open letter to members of Congress, this whole thing about trying to sabotage the negotiations, and Pickering and Luers were among the signatories.
GILLIAN SORENSON: Right; yes.
JAMES WURST: So that is going on outside UNA. Other things have moved on. This is again an area where people , there are going to be differences, for example, the alliance in supporting the International Criminal Court; you know, the land mines, Adopt-a-Minefield, so all these things are still going but not under the UN Foundation.
GILLIAN SORENSON: Yes.
JAMES WURST: That is a long way of coming to the point of asking you how you perceive what has going on since, again, you’ve been with it from several decades’ evolution, how did you from the inside, how did you see that that changing?
GILLIAN SORENSON: Well, those policy efforts were very important and well done. But they were separate and apart from the grass roots activity. And they required a lot of funding. And I think it was the lack of funding that was a major reason for those policy efforts diminishing; also other groups were coming to the fore in policy areas. The International Peace Institute, the International Crisis Group, the Asia Society and the Council on Foreign Relations, and some of the university efforts on policy were moving into that area, so when the UNA, after their Russia project, the China and Japan projects, stepped back and left a bit of a vacuum, very quickly others stepped into that. And the UNA didn’t, I don’t know if they didn’t choose to or weren’t able to come up with funding to continue new policy initiatives, except for the Iran project, which is a personal passion of Bill Luers. When he left UNA, in a sense he took the project with him. And it still exists, but outside of UNA. So it is true, the UNA seems to have let go of that kind of policy outreach, and it’s now being done elsewhere. Tom Pickering would have, you should ask him that same question.
The current executive director of UNA’s name is Chris Whatley.
JAMES WURST: I met him at the last Global Leadership.
GILLIAN SORENSON: Good, he’s relatively new, but he’s very good, very smart. And he has made a real effort to reach back and understand this history better. If you can have a real sit-down with Chris, it would be worth.
GILLIAN SORENSON: Did you go to the dinner in late October? That is that what referring to?
JAMES WURST: Yeah.
GILLIAN SORENSON: Yes. That was a very interesting gathering, and that shows you that there is interest and support here. They raised a million dollars that night. And it’s a lot of work to do that, but that’s probably half their funding right there.
JAMES WURST: And the money was raised simply through ticket sales, or people writing extra checks?
GILLIAN SORENSON: Both, both. Or people who would write a check, take a table for x amount and a fraction of that is the meal, but the rest of that is the contribution to. ..
It gives excitement to it, and I’ve been to those dinners more times than I can recall, but I could see this one was different, it was at a different level, the numbers attending, the kind of program they had, with Malala speaking, I thought that was very interesting. And of course, Ted Turner was there and so on.
JAMES WURST: And also important the changing of the guard, with Kathy [Calvin] taking over.
GILLIAN SORENSON: Yeah, she’s terrific, too.
GILLIAN SORENSON: Yeah, and just yesterday, literally yesterday morning, at the same hour we had, I’m now on what they call — advisory council for UNA. And Pickering was there presiding, Kathy was there, and Chris was there and it was kind of an update, what’s pending and so on. And I thought, you know this was a good place. It is in some ways a different UNA but it’s very productive. The alliance has taken hold; the numbers are growing.
JAMES WURST: What numbers are you referring to?
GILLIAN SORENSON: The numbers of membership and certainly the numbers of activities, programs.
JAMES WURST: What, membership of UNA?
GILLIAN SORENSON: Yeah. It still could certainly be much bigger, but it’s definitely moving in the right direction.
JAMES WURST: Anything else that we didn’t touch that you’d like to mention?
GILLIAN SORENSON: Just to say that I think it’s a very special organization and it’s very important that it survive and thrive. And I’m confident that it will. And the sort of rough patch that it has come through, I think is now resolved. And the relationship, the UNA-UNF relationship, is here to stay.
JAMES WURST: That does raise the point: the rough patch, the financial problems, what would you attribute that to? You look over the history again and you’ve got CEOs of, you know, Fortune 500 companies, you’ve got Lockheed Martin, Goldman Sachs and just extraordinary, extraordinary connected with the major business enterprises of the US.
GILLIAN SORENSON: Well, you may recall we had two or three leaders of UNA over a short period of time, a bit of a revolving door there. And that, I think, that was a distraction and in a sense several years slipped by without the kind of attention both to the internal workings and the ongoing fund-raising, and if you let that go, to rekindle it, to recapture it, is not easy. And that’s what happened. So now to have stable leadership, to have continuity, to have evidence to show, that’s what persuades people to come and you saw that at the dinner. There were faces that I hadn’t seen before, both corporate types and other individuals who thought this is great, this is important, I want to be part of this. I think now little by little they’ll be building that. But it takes sustained attention, it’s such a competitive thing in this city, at least.
JAMES WURST: Yeah, typically at the end of the year, there’s trying to build in, try to put your event that not’s going to step on someone else’s toes, it’s very difficult.
GILLIAN SORENSON: But of course, the chapters have a key responsibility in raising their own funds too, so they all have dinners around the country, too.
JAMES WURST: Do they get any funding from the central source, from the UNA at all, national or are they self-sustaining?
GILLIAN SORENSON: I don’t want to misspeak on that. I’m not sure what the relationship is now.
JAMES WURST: What was it?
GILLIAN SORENSON: They used to pay certain dues to the main office… What they get now is information, email access, reports and sometimes speakers.