The Brown Journal of World Affairs Interviews Ambassador Catherine Russell

May 1, 2016

This interview was conducted by the Brown Journal of World Affairs, which is housed at the Watson Institute. 

Brown Journal of World Affairs: You mentioned in your talk today at the Watson Institute that you’re not worried that the role of the Office of Global Women’s Issues will be circumscribed, even in the post–Obama administration era, since there is now a framework in place to deal with women’s issues and since “no candidate from either aisle has undermined the importance of empowering women and girls.” However, don’t you think partisan politics have played a major role in the fact that the United States is the only democracy not to have ratified CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women]?

Ambassador Cathy Russell: Well, it’s not just CEDAW. The Disability Treaty didn’t get passed either. There are just people in the Senate who believe that we’re giving up some autonomy by taking part in, by signing on to these treaties, which I don’t agree with at all. I just don’t think it’s right. So it’s not so much that these Senators think disabled people or women are not entitled to rights; it’s more that they have this view that the UN is going to take over authority for what is happening in our country. I don’t believe that’s accurate. We’ve been trying to get this thing passed for a long time. On the one hand, it is embarrassing when traveling because people ask me, “Why can’t you do that?” And I have to explain that it’s just the way our system works. But, the second point is, I don’t think that our inability to get CEDAW ratified is holding back women in the United States. We have a free society. We have a lot of people who are pushing hard for progress on women’s issues, and there has been tremendous progress on women’s issues. That’s not the case in many of these countries. CEDAW there is like a lifeline for them. They’re holding on to it because that’s the way they say to the government, “You have to do something.”

Journal: Speaking of the UN, there are plenty of organizations—both in terms of domestic civil society and international bodies such as UN Women—that work on women’s issues. First, do you think the Office of Global Women’s Issues is unique in the sense that only a few countries, for example Australia and Sweden, have an agency that specializes in women’s issues globally? Second, do you think the work of your Office offers the most efficient way of empowering women worldwide? After all, the United States is just one country, and even though it can set an example, don’t you think there must be a better framework internationally, too?

Ambassador Russell: That was kind of the concept of UN Women, and UN Women has turned out to be a very effective partner for us. The United States is a leader on this issue, and we are proud of that role. That said, we aren’t the only country working on these issues. There are many countries—the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Australia, and others—also working on these issues. So for us, I think there will always be a commitment here, for two reasons. One, because we believe it’s right. But two, we think it’s in our interest. We want the world to be more stable and more economically secure. That would happen if women participated at higher rates. Now we’re trying to encourage other countries to have positions like mine, which is helpful. We encourage countries to pass national action plans on women, peace, and security—and many countries are doing that. We have a unique role in the world right now, and that is what it is. But we also, and this is my perspective 100 percent, know that the more we can coordinate, the better we are. None of us has unlimited resources, and we’re trying to make the best use of those resources we have. We’re trying to make sure that we’re learning lessons from each other, that we’re coordinated in different countries to the extent that we can be. It’s not easy to do that—it’s hard. But I think it’s really important. And I think that the combination of all of these different efforts is really valuable. We just started a new project where we’re coordinating with both the World Bank and UN Women. That’s what I’m very much interested in doing because I feel like it takes the best of all of our efforts and really makes us stronger by working together.

Journal: Going off of partnerships—which have clearly made a huge difference—it seems to me that your Office works in a lot of very different areas, including conducting research and creating the evidence base for the argument that empowering women is good for overall development. Do you think that there could be other organizations that do the research, leaving your Office responsible for other tasks, such as forging partnerships?

Ambassador Russell: The way I see our Office is we do a couple of things. One, we are supporting the efforts of our diplomats to integrate women and girls into their work. That’s probably at least 50 percent of what we do, because we have diplomats all over the world. If an office of 30 people is doing something, it’s nothing compared to the impact that all of these diplomats can have, if we’re all moving in the same direction. The second piece of what we do, I think of it as a little bit like a think tank. We come up with what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to do it. That is, from my perspective, the essential role that we play here—that we bring that expertise and that experience that we have, and we try to make it into a coherent strategy so that people can implement it. I think the unique role of the United States is a couple of things. One: that we have an office that is doing this, but there are plenty of people doing research out there. ICRW’s one, but I mean there are many people doing research. But I think where we are unique is that we can bring together different entities to do this. We’ve been doing a series of convenings on different issues, and it’s an example where we bring in people to talk about things that are new and different. We try to draw out the research side of it a little bit, but we don’t actually do so much of the research—we don’t have the capacity to. But U.S. leadership is important. For us to go out and, like I said in my remarks, issue these strategies to make clear what our priorities are, how we’re trying to do it, what we’re trying to do, I think is really valuable.

Journal: You argue that global women’s issues are important and that it’s in the self-interest of other actors to empower women. It seems that many of the interests you’re referring to are economic ones. Do you think the private sector could thus do a better job tackling women’s issues? What has your experience working with the private sector been like when it comes to women’s issues?

Ambassador Russell: We work closely with the private sector in a couple of places. We have a U.S.-Pakistan Women’s Council—the private sector in Pakistan is working with us on that. We do the same thing in Afghanistan. And through APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation], we also work with the private sector on issues like gender-based violence and its link to economic growth. I think that the private sector in the United States, there are two pieces of it: there’s what they do in terms of their CSR [corporate social responsibility], community service piece, basically, which is really philanthropic. They’re great on that, they do a lot of work on that. And then there are the places where they see it as in their interest, for example, to help develop the local talent pool. I see our job as trying to set up a framework so that they understand what we’re trying to do and that they can work with us in places where it makes sense for them. I’m not out looking for those, that’s not my job. But if there are people who are trying to do things, we’re happy to work with them and try to be supportive and try to bring them in because it goes to my basic concept about this job, which is the needs are tremendous. The more we’re working in conjunction with each other, the better. And I think sometimes with the private sector, they get asked to do kind of one-off things, which I don’t think they particularly like. I think they like understanding how they’re part of a bigger effort.

Journal: You mentioned that the Obama administration’s support has been invaluable, perhaps most clearly in issuing the Executive Order that created the Office of Global Women’s Issues. What advice would you give to those entities that don’t have that kind of support from the top? How can groups with less access to resources in more local or regional initiatives implement the comprehensive approach that you advocate? Would the methodologies be different?

Ambassador Russell: There’s already a lot happening out there, and the key is to try to figure out are there truly gaps. And if there are gaps, that’s great, let’s jump in. If there aren’t gaps, maybe there are places to work together on things with people who are already doing things. It’s not like everyone has to have their own thing—and you see a lot of that in the world. So I think what I would suggest is: do your homework, basically. Get the lay of the land, figure out who’s doing what, is there something that you want to be a part of. And if there’s some need that you’ve identified that nobody else is doing, go for it. But then I think to the extent that it’s possible—and this may be more of a government bias—but I think understanding what other people are doing is tremendously helpful. I can’t waste any taxpayer dollars. We operate on a really tight budget, and I have to make sure that every dollar we’re spending is being spent in the best way possible and for the greatest impact. So if I can find somebody else who’s doing something and if I can partner with them, great. Sometimes I can’t, if there’s something that’s a uniquely either government function or unique function that U.S. leadership needs to weigh in on. A lot of that would be diplomatic interventions; if our Ambassadors or if I go to a country and raise an issue, that’s something that is somewhat unique to us in our ability to do that. But you know, other things we’re happy to work with people as much as we can. We like to try to redouble everybody else’s efforts and try to make sure that we’re being as efficient as we can.

--Asya Igmen '17, BJWA

To read more from the Brown Journal of World Affairs, visit their website. 

For the full event video: Ambassador Cathy Russell: Why Empowering Women and Girls is Good for U.S. Foreign Policy