Lehigh University
Lehigh University

News

Gillian Sorensen: “Divorce is not an option”

Gillian Sorensen, senior advisor at the United Nations Foundation and former assistant secretary general of external affairs of the United Nations (U.N.), spoke at Lehigh University on an unseasonably warm and wet Wednesday.

With quiet passion, Sorensen expressed her belief that America has a responsibility to serve the U.N. Her lecture, titled “The United Nations, the United States and the University,” was held Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. in Sinclair Auditorium.

Jack Lule, the Joseph B. McFadden Distinguished Professor of Journalism and director of the Globalization and Social Change Initiative, introduced the advocate for the U.N. and explained the importance of her topic.

“The United States and the United Nations have had a rocky relationship,” he said. “Mrs. Sorensen seeks to deepen and improve that very crucial relationship.”

The United States is intimately and inextricably linked the U.N. from its beginning, Sorensen said. Formed in 1945 at the prompting of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United Nations, in some ways, resembles the U.S. government. Even the U.N. headquarters position in New York City has a “symbolic quality,” Sorensen said. “It said we’re in it for the long run,” she said.

She compared the U.S. and U.N. relationship to a marriage.

“It’s been a very long marriage, 62 years. There’ve been moments of stress and strains,” she said, “but divorce is not an option.”

Rather an alienating ourselves from the supranational organization, the United States must learn to work with the U.N., especially in an increasingly global world, Sorensen said.

“Even, we, Americans in this enormous country, we have to understand that what happens 10,000 miles away does affect us,” she said.

Sorensen highlighted some of the U.N.’s missions, including peacekeeping, development, democratization, disarmament, humanitarian relief, human rights, reproductive health, and environmental action and sustainable development.

“To say that it changes lives and saves lives is too little, too small, a statement,” she said. “It truly does that, but it informs; it strengthens government; it reverts strife, and it gives people the gathering place to meet.”

“We are, in many ways, a diminished country”

Recently, the United States has abdicated its role as a leader of this humanitarian organization, Sorensen said. The United States possesses great military and economic strength, she said, but it has failed to seek more diplomatic solutions to some its problems.

“We (Americans) need to find ways to use our soft power – our power of example, our ability to serve as a role model, to set a high standard, to be a beacon in the world in such issues as human rights or respect for women,” she said.

Because it has not flexed its soft power, Sorensen said, “the U.S. has in many ways, lost the leadership role that it enjoyed, and I think fulfilled in a very responsible way for a long time.”

This change occurred in the early in 1990s with the election of what she called a “hard right conservative congress,” Sorensen said, in response to a question. That group of lawmakers “decided that they would make the U.N. their adversary – as if it were the American government against the world.”

Over the past 15 or so years, the international community has come to view the United States as a self-serving and self-indulgent bully, she said. “We are, in many ways, a diminished country,” she said, “in part because of the war, in part because of our relationship with other countries.”

This attitude was embodied in John Bolton, the permanent U.S. representative to the U.N., Sorensen said. When appointed, the former undersecretary of state for arms control “came into the U.N. like gangbusters,” she said.

Supporters of Bolton claim his style was effective, if abrasive, says the BBC.

However, during his one year of service, from August 2005 until December 2006, his lack of tact damaged the country’s relations with the U.N., Sorensen said.

“He said many times that he didn’t believe in the U.N.,” she said. Sorensen also insinuated that Bolton failed to practice skillful diplomacy by working with other nations.

The United States also lost international support by going to war in Iraq without the U.N., Sorensen said. Following 9/11, the United States was “enveloped in an enormous embrace of sympathy and support and care,” Sorensen said. But over the year that followed, we squandered that.”

“If I’m hard … it’s because I love this country”

However harsh she might sound, Sorensen said her criticisms are a form of “tough love.”

“If I’m hard on this country, it’s because I love this country,” she said. “I want it to be the best it can be, and it pains me to see that we have fallen from our own high standard.”

Sorensen said she believes that the United States will be able to regain its position. She praised the permanent U.S. representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, who replaced Bolton in April 2007.

“He is doing an excellent job under difficult circumstances,” she said.

She also believes that the new president will encourage better U.N.-U.S. relations.

“Whoever this new president is will have a very different approach to the United Nations, a very different tone. He will be fully committed,” Sorensen said.

During the question-and-answer session, Sorensen was asked to speculate on who the member of the United Nations would elect, if they could vote.

“I’m only guessing,” she said, “but I think they would vote for Barack Obama.”

Sorensen ended the evening by describing ways the university and the U.N. can work together.

The U.N. uses members of the university as resources, providing expertise and innovation.

It also “develops citizens who have a worldview and can think across borders,” she said. The university plays an important role by covering topics that are not well addressed in American high schools, like global issues and the U.N.

“I’m so glad to see such a range of international studies here, because we have to make up to do if you as young adults are to see yourselves as citizens of the world or to see yourselves as global citizens,” she said.

Sorensen’s lecture was sponsored by the Lehigh-U.N. Partnership, the department of International Relations and the Globalization and Social Change Initiative.

--Becky Straw

Posted on Friday, February 08, 2008

share this story: