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Convocation with Gillian Sorensen

<iday, Oct. 19, Gillian Sorensen, a senior advisor and national advocate at the United Nations Foundation, presented a convocation address entitled “U.S. and United Nations: Can this Marriage be Saved?” In addition to her current role with the United Nations Foundation, Sorensen has previously served in such roles as an assistant secretary-general for external relations for the UN, a position in which she was appointed by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in addition to many other positions in which she worked directly with the United Nations.

After an introduction by Emily Walz ’08, Sorensen opened up her address by discussing the challenges of developing international community with “shared values and aspirations.” According to Sorensen, a key to these challenges is the role of the United States.

“As a country, the United States is today perceived by the rest of the world as a changed or diminished nation. Our stature, our moral authority, our ability to lead, to persuade and to serve as a role model are quite reduced,” said Sorensen, describing the diplomatic difficulties the United States faces. “If we wish to regain our reputation, to reassert responsible leadership and to earn trust, respect and credibility, the question is what do we do? When and where do we engage the rest of the world understanding that we Americans represent just four percent of the population on this earth? How and where do we connect with the other 96 percent?”

Sorensen described the root of the United States’ conflicts within the United Nations as one stemming from its perceived image of itself and its refusal to attempt to play on an equal playing field with other member states in the United Nations. According to Sorenson, “Even superpowers need friends, and we will not win these friends or influence nations by being the bully on the block. We will win these friends and influence nations by being a responsible and cooperative country, a member state of the United Nations that works with the other 192 member states in that spirit of collaboration.”

One of the main remedies to improve the United States’ relationship with fellow United Nations member states, according to Sorensen, is through citizen action and NGO’s in addition to government policy and diplomacy. However, despite efforts from various government and nongovernmental organizations, Sorensen described these efforts as fruitless without the UN playing an essential role. “There is only one United Nations where the entire planet is represented. 193 states are there. Every political system, every background, race and religion all are represented, all come to New York to have a presence, to have a voice, to make a connection, to build partnerships and coalitions and find common cause with other states.”

Sorensen described how the United States was initially a leading force for the creation of the United Nations, and the United States government believed that it could successfully be used to maintain peace and stability in the world, something the League of Nations failed to do. She mentioned that Franklin Roosevelt wrote in his journal that he might desire to resign the presidency after World War II in order to become Secretary-General.

After describing the impact of the United Nations, Sorensen turned to the importance of U.S. involvement in the United Nations. According to Sorensen, “It is folly to turn our backs, to our abdicate our leadership role when working with rest of the world offers infinite possibilities.”

During her address, while she underlined the importance of reform within the United Nations, Sorensen also criticized the popularity of the United Nations-bashing within the United States and described the United Nations as an essential entity in world diplomacy. “There is no other United Nations and we could not recreate it today from scratch if we had to. With all its imperfections, we could improve it and streamline it, but that is what we have and it is full of possibility.”

Despite her criticisms of certain aspects of the U.S. relationship with the United Nations, Sorensen praised the efforts of Zalmay Khalilzad, the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. “It is in Ambassador Khalilzad’s person and method and manner the very essence of good diplomacy and that makes a huge difference because the U.S. is so powerful.”

Sorensen closed her address by describing the importance of American interest and support of the United Nations. “I would wish that America and Americans, all of us, would find our voice in saying this matters. We have a stake in the outcome and hope it will succeed.”

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