Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Relevancy of Diplomacy

Let me try to unpack several of the assertions Julian made in his argument that the UN ambassadorship (wait, all ambassadorships!) is “irrelevant.”

Does the job of UN ambassador matter? It matters on two levels. First, it matters to the foreign policy making process as much as the President decides it will matter. Over the years, some presidents have made it a cabinet-level job, most have made sure that the UN Ambassador was a member of the National Security Council principals committee (along with the Secretaries of State and Defense, Director of Central Intelligence, etc.). So the extent to which the UN ambassador has a strong voice in policy-making within the government depends on what the particular administration wants to do with the job. (On this first point, it appears that Bolton will not be given a seat at the cabinet table, and that he will officially have to report through the Assistant Secretary of International Organizations up to Secretary Rice.) Second, it matters to the process of decision making at the UN and to promoting the US agenda at the UN. A lot goes on at the UN besides the rare televised meetings of the Security Council. The UN ambassador has to manage the US team in NY, the process and yes, to actually meet with UN management and counter-parts from around the world, and communicate US views on a range of issues to those counterparts.

Does it matter who is UN ambassador? Well of course. Historically, we remember those UN ambassadors who were present at certain crises moments (Adelai Stevenson and the Missiles in Cuba come to mind). But we also remember those who made a difference to the organization and the US relationship with it, e.g., Richard Holbrooke. Holbrooke made a difference at the UN beyond what the administration might have envisioned for the job. He directly and successfully lobbied across party lines to get Congress to pay US arrears to the UN. He succeeded in part through sheer force of personality, in part through convincing the Hill that paying the dues would be central to the US ability to clean up some of the messes at the UN and to get a fairer funding structure in place. And he was right.

I’ve blogged before on why the question of personality might be relevant to how the US is able to forward its agenda in NY. But Julian dismisses all high-level diplomacy -- “ambassadors almost never matter, one way or another.” Even (perhaps especially) an uber-realist would recognize that the ability to effectively manage US bilateral (and multilateral) relationships around the world is at the heart of our national security. It’s not for nothing that we have a professional Foreign Service, that ambassadors are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and that, when in those positions they serve as personal representatives of the President. It is the curse, I suppose, of diplomacy that it is most successful when it is least noticed. That is, when nothing bad happens. Fortunately, the US Senate and even this administration do not share Julian’s view on the complete irrelevancy of diplomacy. Secretary Rice appears to recognize that the Bush administration ignored the UN at its peril during the first four years. See this post at America Abroad on the contours of the new policy – including the reform agenda -- that has been pursued since early this year.

The problem with Bolton has less to with whether he is smart, conservative or blunt-speaking, and more to do with whether he will be effective. Of course, if you don’t think the UN matters, and you don’t think diplomacy matters, then we don’t need an ambassador at all, much less an effective one. But in making the recess appointment, Bush seemed to indicate that it was vitally important that we have an ambassador there (not withstanding the fact that a career foreign service officer has been competently filling the job temporarily for the past few months). And all the objections to Bolton seem to provide evidence that the public cares what happens at the UN. If that is the case, then we should all want someone there who will be an effective diplomat and an effective member of the policy team. At this point, the extent to which Bolton himself is "irrelevant" is entirely in the hands of the President and his Secretary of State.


Blogger Julian Ku said...

Hi Peggy,

Maybe I overstated my argument a bit. I actually think Foreign Service officers can be very important, and diplomacy can be important. My complaint is really about ambassadors, who appear increasingly to be superfluous figureheads. They rarely have any diplomatic experience and perhaps their most important role is as a ceremonial representative of the U.S.

Moreover, even conceding that diplomacy can be useful, I wonder if it is quite as centralized in the modern era of telecommunications and jet travel. It seems that countries are interconnected on many different, often non-diplomatic levels (military, trade, administrative, technical, etc) and that governmental relations are no longer always funneled through a country's embassy, its foreign service, and its figurehead ambassador.

The UN Ambassador, i think, doesn't matter in the sense that much of the work of UN reform can occur without an ambassador at all (as the past few months have illustrated). And he doesn't really matter in the sense that the U.N. is not really the central stage for world diplomacy anymore. Leaders can hang out personally much more frequently than they ever could in the past, at informal gatherings like the G-8. Foreigners know the U.S. president from TV, but the vast majority will never know or care who the UN Ambassador is. I guess I'm just not sure that the UN ambassador's profile is really as large as some folks seem to think.

I do applaud the effectiveness of UN ambassadors like Holbrooke, but I really think his greater achievement was his relationship with the U.S. Congress and his impeccable Washington credentials than with his UN diplomacy. Maybe I'm wrong here, but Holbrooke was UN Ambassador during the years when the UN began its current slide in reputation and credibility, so I wouldn't say he did a lot to bulk up the UN on his watch (other than getting that money out of Congress).

8/03/2005 2:50 PM  
Blogger Peggy McGuinness said...

Hi Julian-

Let's not confuse titles with jobs. Of course, any chief can end up a "superfluous figurehead" if he or she is not doing his or her job. Just as in many organizations, there are no doubt ambassadors who have focused on the ceremonial title and not the job description. But the majority of US ambassadors remains FSOs (somewhere around 60% I think), and the vast majority of ambassadors (career and political) work incredibly hard at their jobs.

Of course countries are interconnected on lots of non-official levels. That's been the case since the dawn of transportation. Large corporate actors and leaders of the larger NGOs have direct access to almost every government in the world. But it is through official contacts -- through the bilateral embassies, and at the mutlilateral institutions -- that most of official state-to-state and state-to-IO work is still carried out. The physical proximity of all the UN missions and their ambassadors in NYC (and, correspondingly, at UNO in Geneva) makes it easier to get things done. Indeed, it is in the modern era that cetralization of meetings has become more important, and easier to carry out. (I haven't seen any academic studies on this, but there may be some parallels to the work that has been done trying to understand why, in the age of electronic communication, computer-based industries tend to cluster in certain places like Silicon Valley. Face-to-face communication and interaction plays and important role.)

Anyone who has attended the UNGA in September (or has been stuck in NYC traffic in the week that most heads of state and nearly every foreign minister in the world is in town!) might disagree that the UN is no longer center stage for diplomacy. In fact, even on issues where the UN as an institution may not be playing a leading role, the UN as the forum through which talking gets done is as relevant as ever. (And I wouldn't call the G-8 summit, with its pre-summit sherpa meetings, formalized agendas and joint statements an "informal" gathering. I'm not sure, short of Blair's visits to the Crawford ranch, there is such a thing as "informal" heads of state meetings anymore.) Yes, there are other excellent fora -- US-EU summits, NAC meetings, ASEAN, etc. But at the UN, everyone happens to be in one place at the same time. And especially for many of the small and micro-states, it is the ONLY place they have a seat at a table with the United States.

Sure the work at the UN, just as with any mission or embassy, can go on without an ambassador. That's not an argument against whether the job itself matters. But it's not a terrific long-term strategy to leave a high-profile ambassadorship unfilled, since the temporary job-filler is often not accorded the full credibilty that comes with the ambassadorial appointment.

As for Holbrooke, I think you are missing the other half of the equation. Holbrooke was effective in bringing both sides--Republicans in Congress and entrenched bureacrats in the Secretariat building -- to agreement on how to carry out certain reforms and restructure the budget. Yes, it took someone with a lot of Washington experience. But it also took someone with broad international and diplomatic experience. And it was no mean feat.

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