State of the UNA-USA with Chris Whatley

Ahead of the President’s State of the Union address on February 5, 2019, Executive Director Chris Whatley delivered his own State of the UNA-USA address. Held annually, State of the UNA-USA updates our nationwide network of members and advocates on the current state of the U.S.-UN relationship and calls on citizen activists to mobilize in support a strong United Nations.

This year, April Song, a member of the UNA-USA University of Michigan Chapter, served as “Speaker of the House” in our State of the UNA-USA address. Watch the recorded conversation or read through Chris’ remarks below.

April: Hi everyone, my name is April Song and I’m an intern here at UNA-USA’s National Office. A little bit more about me, I was actually involved in the University of Michigan’s chapter of UNA-USA before I came out to D.C. So today, we have Chris Whatley, the Executive Director of UNA-USA here to talk to us about the state of the UNA-USA here on Facebook Live. Thank you, Chris, for being here with us today. And if you don’t mind, we’ll just so straight into the questions.

Chris: Great, April, thanks.

April: So the U.S. and the UN have both these dramatic and differing challenges over the course of the last year. How would you say that UNA-USA has really responded to these challenges, and what would you advise our members and advocates to look out for heading into 2019?

Chris: Well, that’s a great question and it’s been a big year for the U.S.-UN relationship. If you think about it, we’re two years into the Trump administration and for those two years, we had the benefit of not only a fantastic Secretary-General who understood the importance of U.S. engagement, but we also had a U.S. Ambassador who, herself, Ambassador Haley, was a rising star in American politics, had a commitment not to slash and burn UN funding — that’s one of the most important things she said in her hearing when she was becoming U.S. Ambassador to the UN. Now we’ve replaced that Ambassador — we don’t quite have a new Ambassador yet — but we’ve replaced that style of foreign policy leadership in this Administration with Secretary Pompeo, John Bolton — so if you were to contrast Niki Haley’s commitment that she shouldn’t slash UN funding, with John Bolton, who’s known to many members like myself who have been watching U.S.-UN relations for years or those who may be new to us, he’s someone who’s looking to lop off the top 10 floors of the UN. So we’ve moved from a kind of dent between the U.S. and the UN in terms of the basic commitment to U.S. leadership, basic funding streams to the UN system and an Ambassador who was one of the rising stars in American politics to a new set of actors who have clearly defined positions that are not in favor of multilateralism, that are not embracing this institution that is at the core of our mission. So that’s kind of the challenge we face in the year going forward. But how we’ve responded to it is really — in the past year, and how we need to going into this year now — is really the same. We’ve got to organize. We’ve got to tap into the dynamism and entrepreneurship of people like you, who have set up chapters across the country. We had more people on Capitol Hill in June 2018 than we have had in UNA-USA’s 75-year history. We’re going to have to even better that in 2019. It doesn’t end there. We’ve got to organize. As long as there are two senators for every state, we need to have a chapter in every state. We’re getting close, but we’ve got further to go. So we’re needed — that’s the bottom line. We’ve got to organize, we’ve got to be there. Luckily, we have great activists, great leaders like you, to help us do that. Thanks.

April: Thank you. Speaking of organizing and advocating, we’ve seen really significant growth in our community over the last year. So what would you say to our chapter leaders, both ones who have been with us over the years, and leaders like me who have just come into this over the last year who would want to effectively advocate on behalf of UNA-USA in their communities?

Chris: Yeah, I think at the heart, it’s what our message is. It’s beyond just the importance of the United Nations for American foreign policy. We believe in that at our core, but I believe there’s a deeper message to our work and to our mission, which is we are Americans who believe that our connections to the rest of the world make us stronger. We are Americans who look out to the rest of the globe and realize that our values, our interests individually, can only be advanced when we work with others. We believe that so passionately and profoundly that we’re willing to fight for that cause. Ultimately, the cause that enables our connection to the rest of the world is this institution—the only universal institution linking all 193 nations of the world together. So our message is that by joining UNA-USA, you are rejecting those who want to wall themselves off from the world. You are passionately and profoundly showing your embrace of a vision that says “We are stronger as a nation when we lead on a global stage, when we engage other countries in solving global challenges,” and most Americans believe that. Strong majorities believe we should play a stronger role on the world stage. Eight out of 10 Americans believe we should be active participants at the UN itself. But not everybody understands how you play a role in that. Our members do. Our members know that when you join us, you are expressing your belief in the connections to the rest of the world, and how they connect with you individually in a unique and profound way.

April: Speaking of our members, our viewers today come from all different corners of the United States, including my home state of South Carolina and where I go to school in the Midwest. What is one thing you think unites all UNA-USA members today?

Chris: Good point. In addition to this meta-message that drives everything we do, I think UNA members understand their agency and the urgency of our cause. We’re in this new area of individual agency where we see new Congressional candidates come out of nowhere and by virtue of their passion and their voice, now they’re serving in Congress. They know their agency. They know individuals have this key political power that wasn’t there 10 years ago, 20 years ago. When I was a college student like you, we were living in a much more traditional era. I think our members understand the individual power that they have. That our mission isn’t achieved by lobbyists walking the halls of Washington or sending off letters with the UNA-USA brand — our agency, our importance, our power, comes from individuals willing to put [forward] their personal brand and say “I believe in the UN. It connects to something in me, and I want to see our nation pay its share, pull its weight.” They understand their agency, but they also understand the urgency of the cause in that there are a lot of individual causes that make up what we do. We have a lot of members who come to us because they care about climate change or human rights. The fight to address climate change doesn’t happen if the UN isn’t strong. The global imperative to achieve gender equality, to advance LGBTQ rights — all of these things that are part of these human rights commitments that bring so many people to us — they also can’t be achieved without a strong international system of human rights without the UN at its core, and we know we’re the only ones fighting for the UN. Nobody else in this country is going to show up in an in-district meeting in Iowa, or in Michigan, or in South Carolina, and say “I’m here because I care about the UN. It connects to things I believe in and I’m willing to put my voice behind it.” So it’s understanding that we’ve got individual agency but we’re the only ones singing in this choir in terms of our cause. When it comes to other things, like climate change — there are a lot of other organizations out there, but we’re singing in the choir in that case. We’re singing solo when it comes to making the case for the UN and its importance in U.S. foreign policy, and I think that makes us uniquely important in this urgent time.

April: The last question I have prepared for you today is more of a fun one. If you could attend the State of the Union and bring one person with you, who would it be and why?

Chris: I’m a dad, so I would bring my daughter. She is a Gen-Z American, and I think what excites me the most right now is seeing the youth commitment to our cause. We’re seeing it across generations. We’re seeing it in Americans who are over 100, like one of our members in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who is about to celebrate her 102nd birthday, we’re seeing them in people my age, Gen-X’ers who have seen the changes happen in this digital universe, but I think one of the most exciting things is seeing Millennials and Gen-Zs, people like you show up and lead our movement. As a father of a great, young Gen-Z kid, Samantha Whatley, I’d have her sitting with me. Thank you.

April: Thanks, and thank you again for being with us today. Is there anything else you wanted to let our members know?

Chris: We’ve got something big coming up, and it’s not too late to come. On February 22, we’re going to be taking over the General Assembly Hall in the UN. If you want to join us, be there with 1800 people who feel the same way you do about global engagement, please go online to So please join us! It’s not too late. The Secretary-General will be opening it up. We’ve got the permanent representative of the UK coming to talk about Yemen, we’ve got the President of the General Assembly. All the key leading lights in the UN system are there because they want to see you and want to see this great movement of Americans there in the room. So be there with us and thank you so much.