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Henry Miller

Henry Miller

Posted January 5, 2009 | 09:27 AM (EST)

Susan Rice and the United Nations


President-elect Barack Obama's nomination of Susan Rice to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations adds an intriguing dimension to his Administration's foreign policy team and its priorities. How any President fills that position says much about the Administration's approach to the world community and to foreign policy more broadly. And I have no doubt, having worked for two U.S. Ambassadors to the U.N., that she will be enthusiastically received by the international community.

Depending on the Administration, the status of the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. varies: at times, the Ambassador is a major foreign policy player (sometimes with Cabinet-level rank); at other times, the appointment is more of a political favor (occasionally with the side-benefit of removing the occupant from Washington, DC). Often, the appointment is seen as a message to the world body, whose diplomatic corps tends to look for evidence of just how highly regarded the occupant is within the Administration.

The first U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Edward Stettinius, had already been U.S. Secretary of State; Adlai Stevenson was appointed by his rival John F. Kennedy and conveniently isolated from Washington; Arthur Goldberg was famously convinced by Lyndon Johnson to resign as a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and move to New York, thereby opening a seat on the Court for a closer Johnson ally; and Andrew Young, a close associate of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was appointed by Jimmy Carter in part to underscore his Administration's commitment to human rights.

While Susan Rice doesn't arrive with the fame of some of her predecessors, she is eminently qualified and should be quickly confirmed by the U.S. Senate. A Rhodes Scholar and fast-rising foreign policy star, she has already served in the Clinton Administration as Special Assistant to the President and as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Once confirmed, she will be one of just half a dozen of her predecessors to have previously served as Assistant Secretary, or higher, in the State Department. And, at 44, she will still be the second-youngest person to hold the office (the youngest having been Donald McHenry).

Importantly to her counterparts at the United Nations, she is closely aligned with the President-elect, having worked as a senior foreign policy advisor during his presidential campaign. When he announced her nomination, he emphasized that point, calling her "a close and trusted advisor" who "knows the global challenges we face demand global institutions that work." He also elevated the position to Cabinet-level.

By doing so, he made clear that she will be a major player in his Administration, and he simultaneously sent a message to the world community. He was appointing one of his most valued aides to represent the United States at the United Nations, and she would have direct access to him.

Cabinet rank - neither typical nor unusual for the U.S Ambassador to the U.N. - is a high, if potentially troublesome, honor. The trouble comes from the fact that the Ambassador's position falls within the State Department and, therefore, under the Secretary of State; yet the Cabinet rank elevates the Ambassador to a level similar to the Secretary and provides direct access both to the highest deliberations of the Administration and to the President himself.

That means that during Cabinet discussions there could be two differing opinions coming from the State Department. While it may be extremely valuable for the President to hear separate views, and it may well result in better policy, the dynamics can get complicated. If the Secretary of State and the Ambassador to the UN differ on a policy issue, and the issue is ultimately decided in favor of the Ambassador's position, how will their relationship be affected? Will the Ambassador still have the same access to the Secretary and still be included in key discussions within the Department?

It's easy for the Ambassador, located in New York, to be isolated by the Secretary, and Cabinet rank is, therefore, a key protection. As a result, it's highly cherished by those who have it.

Its symbolism is also especially important at this time. The United States has enormous work to do to rebuild its international reputation, and this appointment at Cabinet level signals both the high regard in which the President-elect holds the world community and the importance he places on understanding their views.

It will be left to Hillary Clinton, the nominee for Secretary of State, and Susan Rice to sort out the dynamics of the relationship. For the first time in history, two women will have that obligation simultaneously. Sharing Cabinet rank just might not be so troublesome after all.

The author, Chief Operating Officer of Goodman Media International, was a political advisor to two U.S. Ambassadors to the United Nations (Andrew Young and Donald McHenry).