Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis
Senior Advisor for Special Political Affairs
New York, New York
February 24, 2022
MODERATOR: Next I’d like to introduce Peter Yeo, President of the Better World Campaign and Senior Vice President for United Nations Foundation. Peter joined UNF in 2009 after more than 20 years in senior roles at the State Department and on Capitol Hill. Today he will moderate the next discussion on the U.S. and the UN partnership.
MR. YEO: Well, thanks, Rachel, and I am just so pleased to be moderating this session.
We have a great discussion planned on global affairs and the U.S.-UN partnership with two highly seasoned officials. We will be covering the topic of the day, Ukraine, as well as China and the Western Hemisphere and the U.S.-UN relationship.
We recognize that we’re hosting this event and this panel in the middle of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I know that we are all seriously concerned by the actions taken by the Russian Government against Ukraine and its people, and are hoping that the world comes together to pressure Russia to return its soldiers to its borders.
We only have 30 minutes, and so with that I’d like to dive right in. Before I introduce our speakers, though, I do want to make a quick point about American attitudes towards foreign affairs. In general, on issues of foreign policy, there has been bipartisan agreement on the need for partners and global cooperation, and that’s something that has been evident in polling that we have done for the past 20 years. In fact, last year we did our first state-by-state poll where we asked American voters in all 50 states about their perceptions of the relationship between the U.S. and the UN. And this poll showed that regardless of where members of Congress – where they come from, whether they represent Alaska or Arkansas—that majorities of voters, Republican and Democrat, felt that global cooperation serves U.S. values and interests and that global cooperation is greatly strengthened by active and sustained U.S. leadership at the United Nations.
Today we’re going to talk about leadership from the U.S. and at the UN, and we have two great speakers to join us and guide us.
We have Congressman French Hill, who represents the Little Rock area in Arkansas. He is in his fourth term, and in 2021 Representative Hill was appointed as one of two congressional representatives to the United Nations General Assembly. In that role, the Congressman demonstrated just the type of U.S. leadership in New York that we need. He has a long history of being involved in global affairs. The Congressman served as a senior official in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall he led the design of U.S. technical assistance to the emerging economies of Eastern and Central Europe in the areas of banking and securities. The Congressman has also been deeply interested in the Western Hemisphere during his time in Congress.
Which meshes well with our other distinguished speaker, Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who is currently the Acting Alternate Representative for Special Political Affairs at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. Ambassador DeLaurentis has been a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and has served in a variety of key roles at the U.S. Mission and abroad, including as deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, director of inter-American affairs at the National Security Council, and as a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota.
You have all their full bios so I can stop right there and we’re going to get into some questions.
Ambassador DeLaurentis, if you don’t mind, may I start with you on the topic of the day? Can you give us a sense about what’s happening in New York on Ukraine, on the Russian invasion? Has anything surprised you on how other Member States have reacted, either in the Security Council or in the General Assembly? Tell us more.
AMBASSADOR DELAURENTIS: Thanks, Peter. Good to be with you. We have kind of a fast-moving day here. President Biden just finished speaking to the nation, where he announced major sanctions on Russian banks and elites and export controls and other things. The Secretary-General just made – of the UN just made a statement talking about criticizing the unilateral measures of Russia conflicting with the UN Charter. We had a G7 statement today. We had a General Assembly session prescheduled yesterday where we heard a lot of voices criticizing what the Russian Federation has done.
But in terms of what’s going to happen next, as President – as Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield announced last night, today we, in coordination with our allies and partners on the Security Council and in the region, have circulated to Council members a resolution on Russia in response to their aggression against Ukraine, and we expect and are pushing for a vote as soon as possible.
I think it’s important probably to say for those following UN practices that, of course, we expect Russia to veto, but in so doing so we think that they’ll underscore their own isolation, and I don’t think we should be abandoning our principles and do nothing. It’s an important – it’s important that we send a message to Ukraine, to Russia, and to the world that the Security Council won’t look away. It was established precisely for this kind of scenario, a stronger country waging war against a weaker neighbor in violation of the UN Charter. And so we view the Council as a critical venue in which Russia must be forced to explain itself. And then we’ll of course move to the General Assembly in due course.
Our own kind of view is they’re not going to veto our voices, as Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said last night, and it’s really a first step toward holding Russia accountable for its actions.
MR. YEO: Well, thank you, Mr. Ambassador.
Congressman, you have talked about comprehensive sanctions and about bringing together allies to back Ukraine’s sovereignty. Tell us more about your take on what’s happening in Ukraine and the U.S. response, and the likely response from Congress.
I believe you’re muted, Congressman. I’m sorry. There you go.
REPRESENTATIVE HILL: That prevents the audience from listening to my dog. I apologize for that.
I want to say it’s a pleasure to be with you, Peter, and the Ambassador. Let me start out by saying how much I appreciate Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s firm voice over the last few weeks representing the United States in the outrage of what Russia is planned – has planned and is carrying out. My regret is fairly simple. I don’t believe Russia has ever paid a diplomatic or economic price for their malfeasance in Syria, Crimea, or in eastern Ukraine over these past few years. And I have to say that as bluntly as I can. And likewise, I wish we’d had a bicameral, bipartisan resolution in – for the protection and support of the sovereignty of Ukraine by the Congress even last fall. We’ve not even debated that on the House floor yet. And as a part of that, Peter, I think we should add our word on strong, stinging sanctions as well.
So in summary, I wish we had sanctioned Russia much more firmly over the years as they broke the UN Charter many times, violated international law many times, not just in the last few weeks; and likewise, I hope that Congress when we come back in session next week can have a bipartisan, bicameral resolution in support of the people of Ukraine, its territorial integrity, and add, too, our firm views on sanctions.
MR. YEO: Great, thank you. And this is obviously a topic that is going to continue – we’re all going to be continuing to deal with, whether in Congress and the Executive Branch or in the advocacy community.
Congressman, if I may, you were one of the two congressional delegates to the General Assembly beginning in September, and you traveled to the UN, had a series of meetings while you were there. What issues did you discuss? And how important is it from your perspective that members of Congress go to New York, understand what the UN is doing? Because as we have seen, as Ambassador DeLaurentis has laid out, there’s a lot of important steps being taken here in New York – taken in New York related to Ukraine and the other topics of the day.
REPRESENTATIVE HILL: Well, I think members of Congress need to be intimately familiar with our UN Mission, its efforts on behalf of representing the United States, and be familiar with the UN agencies that are working around the world either in health or in food or in many other ways, including the peacekeeping mission. I think that’s an important understanding for members to have.
On my November visit, that was very informative. First and foremost, I wanted to talk about the food program. I’d visited Rome in August and I wanted to get a perspective on trying to deliver food aid despite the collapse of Afghanistan and turning the country over to the Taliban. So we talked a little bit about the food issues there. We talked about how the UN works in that environment. That was very informative to me in a nation that’s in collapse where we don’t even recognize the government.
We also talked at length about a new peril I think that’s facing Europe and the Gulf states, which is that Bashar al-Assad, the dictator mass murderer in Syria, is now in the drug manufacturing business. So we talked with the appropriate UN personnel about Captagon, which is a deeply addictive, damaging methamphetamine being manufactured in Syria and being distributed across the Mediterranean and in the Gulf. That was an important issue in the UN’s mission around drugs and drug interdiction.
And finally, Peter, we talked about the democracies and how the democracies can work together in the UN on a collective basis. For example, encouraging more of our citizens to become UN officers in the various UN missions, from our own countries, so that we are not – that we are developing future leaders at the UN that come from a democratic background.
And finally, on a related subject, how is China using its influence in the UN and UN agencies, and that was a keen topic and I learned a lot from talking not only to our staff, UN officers, but also representatives of G7 nations in New York.
MR. YEO: Well, it’s an important point about sort of the role of China, and we did a – as part of our state-by-state poll, we found that the vast majority of American voters understand that American leadership at the United Nations is important to help counter Chinese influence and counter the influence of non-democratic countries and countries that don’t share our values. And so I think it’s a – Ambassador DeLaurentis, maybe if you could tackle that a little bit. To what extent is U.S. leadership at the UN – showing up, paying our dues – important to ensuring that when the UN implements programs and decisions are made at the UN that the U.S. has maximum leverage and that we are effectively able to counter countries that don’t necessarily – with whom we don’t see eye to eye, like China and Russia? Tell me a little bit more about leadership and how that plays out in New York.
AMBASSADOR DELAURENTIS: Right. Well, it’s – I mean, it’s a good question, and certainly a very timely one. I think showing leadership, being present, being actively engaged, and of course paying our dues are all very critical.
In the case of sort of China and our focus on China at the UN, we should point out that our activities and engagement at the UN are not necessarily aimed at countering China’s rise, as kind of one of the questions in the series suggests; that the international order that we helped build and continue to defend today has enabled the rise of some of our fiercest competitors. We should maybe reiterate Secretary Blinken’s framework for our relationship with China, which is that it’ll be competitive when it should be, and collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be, and this all plays out here.
We should then note also that the overarching framework for our engagement at the UN is to preserve the integrity of the multilateral system the world came together to build in the aftermath of World War II. And we can then address sort of the other countries’ part. We can say that it’s all in our interest to ensure that the purposes and principles of the charter are upheld, and when China acts in a way that is inconsistent with these principles and purposes, such as by defying a legally binding decision of a tribunal that its claims in the South China Sea are invalid or by committing gross human rights violations, other countries take note.
So this cuts across regional lines, I would say, and the U.S. will stand on common ground with any country that upholds its commitments to the order we founded together. And I think on that basis we can challenge China effectively.
MR. YEO: Great, thank you very much. Part of the discussion today that you’ve raised, Congressman, was focusing on issues that Americans care about, like the rise of methamphetamines and other types of drugs that are in our communities, and what can the UN do. But there’s a broad range of issues. Americans are concerned about immigration; they’re concerned about drugs in our communities; they’re concerned about our role in the world. How important is it when we think about the UN’s work that we try to identify programs and initiatives, including those in the Western Hemisphere, that actually are on people’s minds and are on voters’ minds and try to communicate about the relationship between what the UN is doing and how it actually matters to Americans?
REPRESENTATIVE HILL: Well, you raise a good point, and I think drugs is a key issue. That challenge is not going away; it’s gotten worse. We’ve now interdicted at our Southwest border with Mexico enough fentanyl, most of which is manufactured in China, to kill the entire population of the United States seven times over, and that was just in the last fiscal year. And we lost 100,000 Americans to an opioid overdose last year.
So these are tragedies that touch all of our American families, and the United Nations is another place to tackle that drug interdiction, drug response and organization by governments around the world. So often, America tries to deal with it obviously at our border with Mexico, with the challenges we see right before our eyes, but these issues are all complicated – they’re all transnational, and they all require a much larger support, whether you’re talking about anti-money laundering and Bank Secrecy Act enforcement on the economic side or drug interdiction through Customs or through the intelligence agencies. And that’s why taking these important table issues at home that affect our American families and extend the American influence through the multilateral is important, and we could talk about many others, including human trafficking and migration as well. But I think drugs strikes home in the American household at this moment, at this time.
MR. YEO: Thank you. And Mr. Ambassador, you have an extensive experience working in Latin America. These issues have been – you’ve been working on for years. What do you see as the relationship between the issues that are sort of hot topics in Latin America and the UN’s role?
AMBASSADOR DELAURENTIS: Well, we can look to the Security Council, for example, and its authorization of a UN mission in Colombia related to a problem that Colombia has faced for a long time. And I think despite sort of all the work that remains to be done, the peace accords were and are a major accomplishment and symbol worldwide, and there’s been a UN mission there that Colombia requested to accompany it as it moved through this process.
But the bottom line, despite whatever imperfections, is that thousands of former combatants laid down their weapons to take part in the democratic process, and I think it’s fair to say that Colombians have faced far less violence since and the new transitional justice processes foster reconciliation while also addressing the rights of victims and including historically excluded communities. We would hope going forward that the Government of Colombia continues to invest in peace-building in Colombia’s 2022 national budget, including funding for the special jurisdiction for peace and the truth commission.
And we also hope that it prioritizes peace accord mechanisms, because we think that regular meetings within these peace accord mechanisms ensure all people affected by the conflict will have a voice and a role in accord implementation. And of course, in the past the Council, the UN, has been involved in the peace processes in El Salvador, in Guatemala, and Haiti as well, which is going through a very rough patch at the moment.
MR. YEO: Great, thank you. So we have time for a couple of questions from our audience, so if you have questions, please feel free to put them in there. Congressman, I just want to let you know that Teena Halbig gives you a shout-out for mentioning human trafficking. So this is an issue that is of deep interest to many of our UNA-USA members. So thank you for raising it.
There’s a general question about – a couple of people have raised, Mr. Ambassador, about what’s the solution. As we look at Ukraine today, what is – what do you see as likely solutions as a result of the pressure that we bring to bear over the next weeks and months and years on Russia? What do you think is a reasonable solution that we can get to?
AMBASSADOR DELAURENTIS: Well, it’s a tough question. But look, I would say that the steps that we’re taking now, both here at the UN and with our allies in Europe and elsewhere, in terms of a very tough regime of sanctions and so forth is obviously to extract a significant cost for them. But it’s the first step toward holding Russia accountable, and we’ll keep at it and continue to shine a spotlight and do everything we can to try and persuade them to reverse course.
But we’re just at the beginning of this and we will continue to be focused like a laser, if you will, on it. These are very difficult issues, but our first objective is to get a very strong and persuasive showing in a resolution that will isolate them, and they will understand that they don’t have very many friends around the world.
MR. YEO: Great. Congressman, you talked a lot about the perhaps missed opportunities to demonstrate to Russia the cost of various interventions internationally, and particularly ones that were counter to U.S. interests and global interests. As you look at what’s happening moving forward, do you believe that there will be bipartisan support in Congress for tough new sanctions on Russia in order to try to bring about a resolution of this crisis?
REPRESENTATIVE HILL: I believe there is that possibility, and I believe we could have obtained that weeks ago, but we were encouraged to not do that. You’ve heard the line of logic that if Russia was sanctioned severely prior to, quote/unquote, an invasion, that somehow that would be no deterrent – that they would just go ahead and invade. I never shared that view. I understand it completely from a diplomatic point of view. But I’ve never shared it because of the previous failed efforts to discipline Russia over whether it’s an incursion in Georgia, taking the Crimea without firing a shot, or the continued support of the butchery in Syria. When you don’t pay a diplomatic or economic price, it encourages more bad behavior, and we’re seeing that.
So my point is that I really do believe there is strong bipartisan support in both sides of the Capitol to support significant sanctions that will hopefully draw the line, be supported by our allies in North Asia, like South Korea and Japan who are watching this very closely, as well as all of our partners in Europe, whether they’re NATO members or not.
MR. YEO: Thank you, Congressman. Mr. Ambassador, I have a question to you that is posed by the former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte. “Is there any effort being mobilized to assist Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland?” And oh, you’re on mute. Mr. Ambassador, you’re on mute.
AMBASSADOR DELAURENTIS: I’ll get used to this technology one day. And by the way, I should say if anyone is looking for a reason why we need the UN and multilateral diplomacy, we’re in front these machines instead of together because of COVID, and between that and climate change these are sort of two trends, transnational issues, that we’re going to have to cope with.
There is a significant ramping up of humanitarian assistance. We’ve been talking to the UN for quite a while now to be ready, and we believe they are – both OCHA that I’m sure your audience knows what that is, and also the various agencies. And the Secretary-General, I didn’t hear his remarks but he addressed this in the statement that he made I think 45 minutes ago in terms of what the UN planned to do in terms of wrapping up – ramping up, rather, assistance. So all of these elements are well underway.
MR. YEO: Great. Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.
Congressman, you talked previously about human trafficking, and one of the questions that we got was about what can we do with the UN and bilaterally to help deal with the causes in Latin America, among other places, that drive people into trafficking, and is there a role for the United Nations, UN agencies, for the U.S. bilaterally to sort of combat trafficking by helping to meet the needs of people, including rule of law, before they’re trafficked in the first place?
REPRESENTATIVE HILL: Well, it’s an important question and I really appreciate the United Nations and the General Assembly having a special engagement on that topic and revising the resolutions and taking testimony on it in November. Also in my recent trip to Rome in August, I went to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican. They too have just released a significant study and a policy on human trafficking.
What we need to do is make sure we have best practices among our legal operations bilaterally and multilaterally. What’s the definition of human trafficking? Get those laws in line, get those sharing of that information in line across borders.
But the other thing we must recognize, that the majority of human trafficking – just looking at the United States, for example – are American kids being met by someone, meeting someone on the internet and being trafficked that way in our own backyards and our own neighborhoods and our own communities. And that’s a severe part of human trafficking that I think more Americans need to understand, not just the cross-border aspect of it.
Finally, secure your border. Secure your border with the right personnel and the right policies, because so much of what we see are people being transported into the United States by the cartels. They’re spending five to ten thousand dollars a person to be trafficked into the United States. That’s fueling transnational crime. The cartels, as estimated by the Customs and Border Patrol, CBP, in February alone of last year they earned $400 million just in the trafficking business.
And finally, of course, we’re already working with our partners, our allies to improve economic conditions and humanitarian conditions in countries where there’s not enough economic opportunity. But I really appreciate the UN’s engagement and those listening today to help spread the word and how we need to affect public policy to stop this tragedy of human trafficking.
MR. YEO: Well, Congressman French Hill, Ambassador Jeff DeLaurentis, we very much appreciate your taking time on this incredibly busy and consequential day to be with us, and for your leadership both in New York and in Washington. And Rachel, back to you.
REPRESENTATIVE HILL: Thanks, Peter.
AMBASSADOR DELAURENTIS: Thank you.