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At the U.N., “America Is Back”

The former ambassador didn't even like the United Nations. Can Susan Rice repair America's relationship with the rest of the world?

In ordinary times, the appointment of the first female black ambassador to the U.N. would be news in and of itself. But during a year marked by the election of the first black president, and with significant challenges present in every corner of the international community, these are no ordinary times.Indeed, Susan Rice's arrival at the U.N. came during the midst of a worldwide economic downturn, rapid climate change, American troops stretched thin in two foreign wars, potential nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, instability in the Middle East and in a nuclear-armed Pakistan, and a brutal American consumer-fueled Mexican drug war. The need for assertive American leadership in the international community has rarely been greater.But America's image has been severely tarnished in the eyes of the rest of the world under the Bush administration. After the controversial buildup to the Iraq war, America added insult to injury when John Bolton-a man who once claimed that "there is no United Nations" and that "if (the U.N. Secretariat building in New York) lost ten stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference,"-became ambassador to the U.N. Ambassador Rice has said her goal is to "set a very different tone to signal to the world that America is back and that we want to lead in a way that can be trusted and respected."By most accounts, Rice is more than capable of tackling these challenges. She was an early Obama backer and served as a top foreign policy advisor on the campaign. Rice persevered despite sharp accusations of disloyalty from aides to Hilary Clinton during the primary battle because of her previous role at the State Department during President Clinton's administration. She emerged from the campaign as top prospect for a number of prominent foreign policy positions in the new administration.


Rice, who often led Obama's foreign policy meetings during the campaign, has been praised for her management skills and toughness, and her ability to maneuver within the bureaucratic system. And many believe that her experience as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Clinton State Department will evince a renewed focus on issues affecting the continent, including the atrocities in Darfur and global poverty.Moreover, by elevating the U.N. ambassadorship to a cabinet-level position, Obama has made it clear that he takes seriously the role of the international institution and values multilateralism, pragmatism and humility in global affairs. This places Ambassador Rice squarely on the front lines of Obama's effort to advance a new era in American foreign policy.Rice's approach is already creating tangible benefits. The United States was recently elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council, the U.N. inter-governmental body created to replace the controversial U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Under the Bush administration, America had a somewhat tortured relationship with the UNHRC: it was one of four countries out of 192 member states (the others being Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau) to vote against its creation March of 2006. America frequently criticized the UNHRC for both its inclusion of authoritarian governments and frequent negative focus on Israel.The transition to a more constructive tone under Rice also seems to be yielding additional dividends in creating a noticeably warmer relationship with U.N. leadership. In an interview conducted for this article with Will Davis, director of the United Nations Information Centre, he commented on the change in tone, saying, "what you don't see is the criticism for criticism's sake that you might've seen in any number of previous administrations."In return, Davis noted that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has "has said very positive things" about Ambassador Rice's tenure so far, pointing out that the Secretary General has invested a great deal of time and energy in the relationship with America. There also seems to be an appreciation within the U.N. for the people Ambassador Rice has chosen to work with her so far, including respected internationalists with wide expertise in topics ranging from peacekeeping to non-proliferation, which Davis described as "a stellar team; an A-Team."United Nations officials further maintain that this change in the United States's approach goes beyond new faces and a different tone. "We have seen tangible gestures from the Obama administration. For instance, the 2010 budget request was unusually healthy." Davis said, referring to the Obama administration's budget request to Congress for the payment of the U.S. financial obligations to the U.N.Yet, it remains an open question how well the current honeymoon between America and the U.N. will stand up when their interests are diametrically opposed. For instance, Davis observed that there was disappointment within the U.N. when the United States declined to participate in the 2009 United Nations World Conference Against Racism (also known as Durban II). The decision followed protracted negotiations between the United States and U.N. organizers to reduce what they considered to be virulent and widespread criticism of Israel in the previous 2001 conference. Following an internal debate, in which some expressed concern that failure to attend would be counterproductive to America's efforts to improve its image abroad, the Obama administration ultimately decided to boycott the conference, even after the U.N. agreed to changes.But that disagreement has not seemed to dim the glowing praise that many in the U.N. have had for Rice's tenure so far. Moreover, it appears widely understood within the U.N. system that resurgent U.S. leadership does not mean the United Sates is expected to sacrifice its own needs. As Davis observed, "We (at the U.N.) expect the Obama administration to take a clear-eyed, clinical approach to the U.N. The White House will use the U.N. where it suits them."Ultimately, while it has fallen on Rice to repair America's damaged relationship with the U.N., the need for the United States to reassert itself as a strong and effective team player in responding to pressing global issues extends far beyond the negative or positive legacy of any particular administration. As Davis says, "There is an eagerness to see the U.S. not only at the table, but also leading."Guest blogger Adam Benz is Regional Editor for the Americas for Foreign Policy Digest.Guest blogger Robert Friedman is Managing Editor of Foreign Policy Digest.
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