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Cabler of the Week: Timothy E. Wirth

Cabler of the Week: Timothy E. Wirth

Where we ask questions that help us to understand one of the personalities making foreign policy in the age of Obama: This week’s subject: U.N. Foundation President Timothy E. Wirth 

1. Which American president do you look to as the model for your approach to foreign policy ideology? Jefferson, Wilson, FDR, LBJ, JFK, George W. Bush, someone else? 

I think the Roosevelts did a great job – all three of them! Teddy Roosevelt promoted a strong but humble foreign policy (“walk softly but carry a big stick”) and won the Nobel Prize for his work negotiating a peace settlement between Russia and Japan. He was engaged in the world and had a vision for shared progress through such endeavors as the Panama Canal.

FDR helped steer us successfully through the Second World War and inspired the nation to greatness. He helped broker the deal that resulted in the creation of the UN. And he supported his wife as she became a worldwide leader on behalf of human rights. Eleanor Roosevelt’s work on behalf of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains one of the most important contributions to human dignity and progress.   

2. How do you view U.S. hegemony leadership in the world in the 21st century? Is America a hegemon in decline or going strong? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? 

We live in an interdependent age.  No one nation – not even one as well-intentioned and powerful as the United States – can go it alone in addressing the great global challenges we face.  This reality is both humbling and inspiring. Humbling because even as strong as we are, we must recognize the limits of our power and the necessity of international cooperation. Inspiring because the United States has the responsibility and opportunity to lead in solving the world’s great global challenges related to economic progress and poverty alleviation; global warming and protecting the Earth’s life-support systems, human rights, peace and security.   

3. What’s the number one narrative about the UN so far that you feel has been mischaracterized by the media? 

The media has underestimated the effectiveness of the UN. In an interdependent age, the world has 200 board members with different backgrounds, perspectives and views on global plans and priorities. In this context, the UN does a remarkable job. UN peacekeepers are deployed in the world’s most dangerous places, and have been instrumental in post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction in places like East Timor, the Balkans, Liberia and Sierra Leone. As the world’s 911 service, the UN leads humanitarian relief in places like Haiti and quietly cares for 20 million refugees around the world. And the UN is the platform through which nations work together to address common economic, environmental and social challenges — with concrete agreements in place to protect the environment, ensure equal rights for women and men, and enable the trade, travel and commerce we take for granted.   

4. Who is the UN official that we should we watch more closely? 

Kandeh Yumkella, the Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the Chairman of UN Energy. Yumkella, from Sierra Leone, is one of the bright young international civil servants drawn into the UN and is typical of the remarkable talent there. A graduate of Cornell with a PhD from the University of Illinois, Yumkella taught at Michigan State before returning to his native country. Among his other responsibilities, he is tasked with coordinating and building the UN’s capacity for factoring energy access into all their policies. 

5. What do you see as the top three challenges for the UN over the next three decades? 

Strengthening the UN so that it has the systems, governance, personnel and resources needed to propel international cooperation on the new and emerging challenges of the 21st century, from climate change to terrorism; 

Ongoing work to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and promote peace around the world; 

Addressing persistent poverty and global demographic challenges that will alter the world’s economic, environmental and security priorities, rapid population growth in the world’s poorest countries, aging and associated dependency issues, urbanization and the issues of scarcity of food, water and energy. Climate change will exacerbate all of the challenges facing the UN, and must be both understood and factored into every programmatic and political calculation.

6. Why did you decide to go to work for the UN? What do you hope to accomplish?

I don’t work for the UN directly, of course, but I am delighted to help support and advocate for the UN as part of an independent organization.  I was honored when Ted Turner asked me to work with him and the board to create the UN Foundation. Having served as undersecretary of state for global affairs, I was and remain convinced that the great challenges of the future require broad-based international cooperation. It doesn’t matter whether coal is burned in Cleveland or Calcutta, we all get warm together. Global problems require global solutions and that is why the UN is more indispensable than ever before. But the challenges are great and this institution, like every institution, needs support from the outside. That is what we do at the UN Foundation and I think this is one of the most interesting and important jobs in the world.  

7. Who was your mentor in the early stages of your career and how did they help you?

John Gardner, the former secretary of health, education and welfare, and leader of the non-profit sector was a great mentor to me. He encouraged everyone around him to aspire to excellence, to be true to enduring values and to work very, very hard. John impressed on me the importance of attention to detail, which makes all the difference. And he insisted that meetings be less than one hour.  

8. What is your favorite country to visit for pleasure and what should we do when we go there?

Argentina – visit the Tango Parlors of Buenos Aires!