Up Front

« Previous | Next »

Susan Rice and 21st Century Diplomacy

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice waits to speak with the media after Security Council consultations at U.N. headquarters in New York (REUTERS/Allison Joyce).

Susan Rice’s decision to withdraw her name for consideration for the position of Secretary of State was characteristic: putting country and loyalty to the president first. It’s America’s loss.

For the past two months, Susan Rice has been the subject of a sustained and plainly political attack over her comments about Benghazi. Because I have personal ties to her[1], I felt compelled, uncomfortably, to stay silent. But I can certainly comment on her qualifications to serve this country. For four years, I've had courtside seats as Susan Rice has served her country as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations – an institution I've worked with and watched for nearing two decades.

What’s striking about the debate about Rice’s credentials, is how little of it drew on her work over the past four years. That’s strange, because the who, the what, and the how of her experience at the U.N. is centrally relevant to U.S. foreign policy.

First, the who. America sometimes doesn't pay much attention to the U.N., but the rest of the world does, and they send highly talented people there to fight their corner, often with close ties to their chief executives. To navigate an issue to conclusion at the U.N., you have simultaneously to handle Russia and China, and an array of actors whose influence is rising on the global stage. That doesn't only include the likes of Brazil and India who each had a two-year elected stint on the U.N. Security Council during Rice’s tenure, but also key American partners like South Korea, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Turkey, Singapore, and Australia. Rice used her Africa experience effectively too; Africa matters at the U.N., as they do in a growing number of economic and global negotiations – few Americans would focus on this fact, but Africa’s combined middle class is larger than China’s, and America has critical energy and security interests on the continent. Rice has also forged close and effective relations with core U.S. allies who also invest considerable political capital at the U.N., including Canada, the U.K. and Israel.

Second, the what. Odd as it may seem to some in Washington, many of America’s top security issues flow through or around the U.N. Security Council. That’s especially true where the Security Council has been directly engaged on sanctions or interventions (Iran, North Korea, Libya, the Syria debates). Because Rice was simultaneously a member of President Obama’s national security cabinet, she actively participated in decision-making around these issues, beyond just their Security Council dimension. Then there are also core interests in places where the U.N. has mediation, elections, peacekeeping or humanitarian roles, from Myanmar to Lebanon to Somalia to Afghanistan. And there are the ‘global’ issues: climate change; development; human rights. These issues are growing in significance in U.S. diplomacy, because they matter to the U.S. economy and to U.S. values, and because they matter to U.S. allies as well as the emerging powers – if very differently.

That takes us to the how of the U.N. Now, quite a bit of what the U.N. does, especially at the General Assembly, is simply incomprehensible: interminable debates about issues of modest consequence conducted by countries with no ability to affect the outcome. Rice has wisely stayed away from much of that part of the U.N., and concentrated her efforts in those areas where U.N. decisions do matter or where countries that matter to the U.S. have chosen the U.N. to pursue an important agenda. In those arenas, there’s a lot of talking and meetings involved, along with large doses of patience. That Rice has been able to muster that patience again and again shows how far the reality of her performance is from the caricature of her personality.

There’s a broader point here too, about multilateral engagement. Before he left office, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg concluded that the business of building and management the tools for collective action have gone from a side business to the core of American foreign policy. Diplomats who ply their trade in multilateral arenas like to joke that they play chess while their bilateral colleagues play checkers. For all its warts, the U.N. requires the discipline of corralling and cajoling allies and others into collective action – and pushing hard to get people out of the way when deference to a false consensus would impede results.

The defining element of Rice’s worldview is that America should be able to use its power in all its forms to protect its interests and to defend core values. Pundits have said that she strongly defends the president’s vision, and that’s true; but she’s shaped it as well, bringing him to a more effective vision of how to marry American power to leadership in a changing world. Between her role at the U.N. and in the cabinet Rice has had four years of demonstrating how to marry American diplomacy with the tools of hard power to effect outcomes.

In the debate over her qualifications, the argument that she’s unqualified is trivial, and she’s proven to have the character for modern diplomacy. As a testing ground for the diplomacy of a changing world, it would be hard to design a better four-year tour. I can imagine her in a wide range of other national security and Cabinet positions in the near future. For now she’ll continue to serve in a vital way as ambassador to the U.N., putting country first. Would that her critics had had the character to do the same.


1. Susan Rice is a family friend; a former colleague at Brookings; and my wife has worked for her at USUN for the past four years.

blog comments powered by Disqus