Cheryl Saban Ph.D. Headshot

UN Public Delegate -- Public Honor for a Private Citizen

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NEW YORK - I never joined the armed services, Teach America, or the Peace Corp, but last year, from September through December 2012, I had been given the extraordinary honor of serving my country as a Public Delegate to the 67th General Assembly of the United Nations.

At this time last December, I was packing up my things in my State-issued apartment in New York City, in preparation for the move back home to Los Angeles. It was Christmas time. The United Nations General Assembly would be over in a matter of days. I missed my family, they missed me, and it was time to go home.

By then, it was the tail end of one of those salient experiences that resonates for a lifetime. I was a Special Representative of the United States. For a patriotic citizen who thinks her country is a force for good in the world, it was an eye-opening -- and deeply worthwhile experience.

Now -- just as the 2013 Public Delegates are finishing up their jobs -- I am drawn to my memories of the State Department, of our women and men in the foreign service, to the U.S. Mission at the UN -- and, most importantly, to the United Nations itself, and my recollections from the unique perspective of the relatively obscure post of a Public Delegate.

The privilege of the post is astonishing for at least three reasons. 1) Public Delegates are appointed by the president, 2) only three individuals per year are awarded the post, 3) it is not generally known that Public Delegates exist.

I was nominated for my post by then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and subsequently appointed by President Obama. It was an experience that I couldn't have imagined, and one I won't soon forget.

This time last year, my UN experience was about to end. Just when I was getting the hang of it, beginning to understand the vernacular, the government-speak, i.e., the endless acronyms, and the rhythm of UN life, it was time for those of us without portfolio and those being transferred, to disengage and say goodbye. The Foreign Service is essentially a transient life.

During my tenure, I walked the halls of the United Nations buildings unencumbered, credentialed as I was with full security status. I was privy to information and discussions that few private citizens will ever witness. However, the lessons such citizen diplomats learn can be humbling.

First, I discovered that the tremendous influence the U.S. exerts when working on a bilateral basis or with other developed countries is much diminished at the UN. Oh, we're still mighty, and we have plenty of influence, to be sure. But it is important to note that each member state at the UN has but one vote. Often we are alone in our priorities and initiatives -- outnumbered and out maneuvered by smaller countries that swap votes to support each other's parochial positions -- something we don't do. And developing countries -- in some cases whole regions -- engage in block voting to increase their influence. Our UN delegation often has little to offer to advance its positions other than moral persuasion. Needless to say, our delegation has high-level persuasion skills.

Second, many nations don't share the same concern on issues that matter the most to ordinary Americans; issues such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, human rights, gender equality, ending violence against women and girls, Israel and Palestine. Instead, issues like climate change, drug running and gun trafficking are much more urgently important -- even existential in nature -- to many countries. Just ask the Small Island Developing States -- or SIDS, as they refer to themselves -- that are watching their land mass shrink as the oceans rise, or the Caribbean countries that have become way stations for smugglers, who, they say, are supplying American demand for contraband.

The UN is a complex place, with maddeningly diverse interests, cultures and perspectives, and a huge and unwieldy bureaucracy, that seems to bleed money. Gaining traction and building consensus can be a tough, lengthy process. With the odds stacked against it, some suggest the U.S. should take its ball and go home.

This is just one woman's opinion, but I think that would be unwise. More than in any other forum, the U.S. at the UN acknowledges the viewpoints of emerging and developing nations.

It is at the UN where we hear the problems and the hopes of dozens of countries who count on the UN to offer them the resources they need to help them grow up and out of poverty, as well as the expertise they require to implement solutions to their problems.

The U.S. must have a seat at this table and a voice in the decision-making room -- even if the room gets rowdy and the table is messy, and yes -- even if we usually have to pay for the lunch that is served.

Our continued presence at the UN is a symbol of our nation's commitment to its principles. In other words -- we can't only talk the talk. We must also walk the walk -- day after day, in the halls of the UN.

Our involvement in the UN is the only forum that currently exists for us to consistently promote our ideals and those of our allies -- the positions we hold that have evolved from our embrace of liberty, democracy, equality, individual rights, and free market economics.

With that said, I found out that the UN is rife with complications. While certain issues might have seemed like no-brainers to me, and easily resolved -- for example, determining the language needed for a document to describe 'a terrorist,' it turns out, these issues aren't easy at all. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, which is why it can take years for the UN to adopt agreed-upon resolutions on the definition of a terrorist.

On many occasions it felt as though the U.S. was standing alone. And indeed, when it came to issues that involved supporting Israel, for example, we very often did stand alone.

However, despite difficulties and daily challenges, the work ethic and resilience of our delegation under then UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and Deputy Ambassador Rosemary Di Carlo, was stellar.

I've never seen people work harder, with more dedication and stamina in my life. One example: Joe Torsella, the delegation's ambassador of management and reform, was relentless in his efforts to encourage members of the UN to cut unnecessary expenses, and he wrote numerous terrific articles about it. One in particular got plenty of traction in the foreign press. Ambassador Torsella is an unsung hero in this area. I observed an overall sense of duty and devotion among the state department personnel. As private citizens, it would behoove us to be aware that these folks are working tirelessly for us. Whether we agree with the politics or not, they are doing a job that very often puts them in harm's way. I was honored to have befriended them all.

I felt the gravity of our democracy all around me during my time at the UN Mission and during the UNGA. I was intensely proud when I listened to our President speak on the first day of the General Assembly, and honored to deliver statements on behalf of the United States.

As a Public Delegate, I had the opportunity to attend meetings that addressed ending violence against women, the rule of law, the definition of terrorism, to sit in on Security Council meetings, and to hear the heads of State speak. Though I would at times become frustrated at the rhetoric, open hostility, and bluster, I was gratified when I saw real progress being made between member states, and also, more personally, profoundly happy to be able to support Israel as a member of the delegation that is its staunchest ally.

These are all experiences that can both reinforce and alter one's worldview. I believe my worldview expanded during my post at the UN. I'm less naïve. Our best efforts and motives are indeed noble, but are less appreciated than we might imagine in a world with too much poverty and ignorance and not enough freedom and resources.

We're not perfect in all our causes, efforts or actions, and sadly, we certainly don't get it right all the time -- not here at home, and not abroad. But nevertheless, I'm still a patriot. I think we try very hard to get it right most of the time. And our support of justice and global stability and security have an inherent integrity and consistency with what we, as a nation, stand for.

Our willingness to engage, interact and debate as only one country with one vote among 193, underscores our belief in the validity and enduring truth of our national values. Whether they vote with us or against us, the other nations see the actions we take and notice the steadfastness with which we fight for our beliefs, and for the good of mankind. No matter what others may say - it's clear that we are perceived as role models.

Even after a year to ponder my thoughts - this retired Public Delegate believes that our nation's presence on First Avenue, our financial support of a vexing organization, and the often under-appreciated exertions of American diplomats at the UN is undoubtedly worthwhile.