The Era of Engagement Takes Shape

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama came to office with a promise to renew America's global leadership. That leadership would be firmly rooted in our national interests but also guided by the President's vision of a common security bolstered by investments in our common humanity. Central to the President's promise was an active, responsible return to the multilateral arena -- an era of principled and purposeful engagement.

As we near the one-year anniversary of this new era, two of its salient features have been repeatedly reinforced: first, our nation's most pressing foreign policy challenges demand robust U.S. multilateral engagement, and second, such engagement requires unflagging energy and resolve.

The challenges we face have never been more shared, more common in nature: climate change, nonproliferation, disarmament, food security, human rights. While the United States may pursue a variety of responses to such challenges, it has never been more crucial that we work constructively, vigorously, and effectively in multilateral channels, most importantly, the United Nations. And so we are.

The recent UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen offers a good example. Over the past year, the Administration dramatically altered the U.S. approach to the global climate change negotiations, a shift that provided renewed hope for meaningful action to curb emissions. The President underscored his commitment to such action in person in Copenhagen, as did Secretary Clinton.

In Copenhagen, President Obama and leaders from both developed and developing nations developed the Copenhagen Accord, an important and meaningful step toward meeting the global climate change challenge. The Accord outlines key elements that are essential to a long term solution: actions by all major economies to mitigate climate change, transparency to see that those actions are taken, and financing and technological support to help the poorest and most vulnerable developing nations.

On the urgent question of global hunger and food security, the President again led by example, first committing the U.S. to at least $3.5 billion over three years for agriculture-led economic development, and then reaching out to global partners to propose a marked departure from the models of the past, an approach that was endorsed during November's World Summit on Food Security.

This new approach is designed to address the causes of hunger and under-nutrition in comprehensive terms by investing in country-led plans, strengthening strategic coordination, leveraging the benefits of multilateral institutions, and making sustained and accountable commitments, all while maintaining our commitment to emergency and humanitarian assistance.

The United States is also reinvigorating its multilateral engagement on human rights. We joined the UN Human Rights Council in June, and among our early actions was reaching across old ideological divisions to pursue a groundbreaking resolution on freedom of opinion and expression. That resolution, co-sponsored by the U.S. and Egypt, speaks out forcefully against efforts to interfere with the exercise of free speech.

These are but a few examples of how the President's vision for a more engaged United States is being realized. It encompasses myriad issues -- peacekeeping and peacebuilding, economic development, global health, science and technology, etc.

Clearly, multilateral engagement is not an end unto itself. As the United States rejoins conversations on a host of important issues, we encounter much goodwill. That goodwill and improved global attitudes toward the United States are positive trends, but only meaningful if that improvement affords new opportunities for effective global action.

We appreciate that the UN has weaknesses, of course it does. It will only ever be as effective as its membership demands. But rather than demonize the institution for its flaws, the President has charted a course back to the United Nations, where the U.S. can not only participate fully in the global conversation, but also where our influence can help propel the United Nations toward a more effective, efficient, and accountable future.