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Briefing Report: US Priorities at the UN General Assembly

NOTE: This guest post was written by Katherine Wolchko.  Katherine is a current undergraduate studying Diplomacy and International Relations, with minor concentrations in Russian and Women and Gender Studies. Her interests include healthcare, domestic public policy, and women’s role in the political process. Katherine is currently studying the social/economic implications of compensated maternity leave in the U.S. workforce, a subject she plans to research in further studies. In addition to her role as President of the Women of Diplomacy Leadership Program, she hosts a online podcast titled “The Woman’s Word”, analyzing current topics of women and gender.


September 15, 2015 marked the start of the United Nations’ 70th General Assembly session, an anniversary marked with high hopes of progress, as well as growing concern over global tensions and mounting crises. Climate change, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the Iran nuclear are hot-ticket items are sure to be discussed—and debated—in the coming months.

Although in times past, the United States has had a troubled relationship with the UN (i.e. Iraq), it is to be noted that the Obama Administration has made more extensive use of the UNGA not just a placeholder forum, but as a strategic venue of advancing policy to the greatest extent and involvement of the assembly.

This overview of U.S. involvement in the UNGA introduced Bathsheba’s Crocker’s October 2nd briefing, “US Priorities at the 70th UN General Assembly”. Hosted by the Women’s Foreign Policy Group and the Institute for International Education, Crocker, the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, took the floor and highlighted four (4) key priorities of the United States to address in the following months of the opening session:

UN Peacekeeping
Crocker began by asserting President Obama’s renewed commitment to U.S. involvement in UN Peacekeeping missions, one that has sought to expand member state involvement and acquire greater resources in preserving peace abroad. She cited the President’s recent announcement of more than 50 countries pledging to offer 40,000 troops and police personnel to peacekeeping missions, but also stressed the U.S.’s own activity in accounting for its promise of greater involvement. The U.S. has sought specific, concrete pledges from not only other member states, but from its domestic organizations in way of equipment, helicopters, hospitals, and other vital infrastructure in effort to assist peacebuilding in fragile states.

A continuing issue from last year’s briefing, Crocker mentioned the U.S.’s focus on combatting ISIL, but in addition, how it has expanded the scope of the issue from singularly defeating ISIL to countering violent extremism in entirety. President Obama recently hosted a Leaders’ Summit on the subject, assuring that while the U.S. is determined to combat ISIL along with 60 other member states in the anti-ISIL coalition, the process is sure to take a great deal of time, effort, and requires a comprehensive, “workable” strategy. Crocker highlighted the progress made in anti-ISIL efforts since her briefing last year, noting greater multilateral participation and some territorial gains, but noted that the issue of making sustainable progress in counter-terrorism was a consuming task for any one state to take on.

This subject was the most popular amongst the briefing’s participants, as Crocker was subject to a number of questions and comments on the U.S.’s stance on the “Russian problem,” i.e. the recent bombings of non-ISIL affiliated territories in Syria. Crocker acknowledged the obstacle of decoding Russian intent for the U.S., especially difficult in light of Russia’s power as a member of the P5, but confirmed that the two nations were still talking, and the question of how to handle Assad’s reign would be dealt with in due time.

Climate Change
Crocker appeared to be more optimistic talking about the U.S.’s involvement in combating climate change. She cited Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statement that climate change remains a “top priority,” as demonstrated by President Obama’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Modi on the subject of India’s commitment to clean energy. She, like many others, is turning her attention to the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Paris this December, where the U.S. is “hoping for a durable, lasting agreement” on combating the effects of climate change amongst member states.

Syrian Refugee Crisis
Finally, addressing one of the most awaited points of discussion, Crocker acknowledged the U.S.’s intent on utilizing the timing and circumstances of the UNGA to address the Syrian Refugee Crisis. As it is well-known, the U.S. is the largest financial contributor to the UN’s humanitarian budget, and in this position, U.S. has dedicated its resources to increasing the number of refugees admitted into the country from a cap of 70,000 a year to that of 85,000, per President Obama’s executive order. However, Crocker was willing to admit that the country’s intent is more focused on the political situation in Syria, again referencing tensions between the U.S. and Russia.

To conclude the briefing, the floor was opened to a series of questions. Most of the attendee’s inquiries for Secretary Crocker pertained to U.S.-Russian relations, but one subject of interest to all of the women in the room shifted the conversation to a gendered course: as current Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is scheduled to step down at the end of 2016, would the US have any interest in electing a female to take on the position? In quite the diplomatic fashion, Crocker did not call outright for the election of a woman as the next Secretary General, but that, from the US perspective, the ideal candidate is one of quality and experience, and possesses an array of skills vital to the makings of a successful Secretary General.

The neutrality of this answer disappointed a few attendees, especially in light of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group as a co-sponsor and coming from a woman of political power herself. But it did not undermine the significance of the event as an introduction of what is to come for the U.S. in advancing its policy goals within the UNGA over the next year.

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