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Bruin Rehabs U.S. in U.N.


By Kathleen Micham, Photos by Todd Cheney/UCLA Photo

Published Dec 8, 2009 11:02 AM


Deputy Permanent U.S. Representative to the United Nations Alejandro Wolff '78 speaks to Bruins in a lecture sponsored by UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations.

President Barack Obama's way with world affairs isn't something you just talk about. It's something you contrast with George W. Bush's. That goes for Obama supporters who liked his speech in Prague on eliminating nuclear weapons, and for detractors irked at his handshake with Hugo Chavez — two things President Bush wouldn't have said or done last April.

So where do you go for a longer perspective on the current president and foreign affairs? Alejandro Wolff '78 entered the U.S. Foreign Service soon after graduating magna cum laude and has since been posted to Algeria, Morocco, Chile, Cyprus and the U.S. mission to the European Union. Under Bush, he went to New York City as the deputy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, assuming the duties of U.N. ambassador for five months after U.N. skeptic John Bolton's resignation.


Under Obama, Wolff is again Deputy Permanent U.S. Representative to the U.N. Earlier this month, he addressed a packed conference room in Bunche Hall on "The Obama Administration's New Approach to the United Nations," in a lecture sponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA.

"Most of the problems we encounter today are global: climate change, pandemics, human rights," said Wolff. "Traditional tools are no longer adequate. Not one of these problems can we fix on our own. The best tool we have is the United Nations."

Wolff contrasted Obama's administration not only with Bush's but with U.S. approaches to the United Nations over decades. At the U.N.'s opening ceremonies in September, Wolff pointed out, Obama became the first U.S. president ever to chair a session of the Security Council. It was on nuclear nonproliferation, "an issue close to the President's heart."

Obama has asked Congress to approve funding to make up U.S. arrears in U.N. dues and to keep up with what it owes. That way, Wolff said, officials in New York "see that it wasn't just rhetoric." Obama's also met with heads of state from sub-Saharan Africa and from countries that provide soldiers to U.N. peacekeeping forces.

According to Wolff, the U.S. reputation had deteriorated to the point that, "rather than being a force for good, the United States was seen as a dangerous rogue element." Of course, the United Nations isn't universally popular here. Americans often dismiss the world body as useless, even while endorsing work it does for children and refugees.

Re-engaging the U.N. opens paths to solving problems in Iran, Sudan and elsewhere, Wolff said. But no matter the level of cooperation, he conceded in response to a question, the U.N. won't always find a solution. Specifically, said Wolff, "The U.N. is not always effective in dealing with non-state actors."