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A Most Influential Actor: The US Ambassador to the UN


Susan Rice, US envoy to the UN from 2009 to 2013, with some of her fellow ambassadors, clockwise from left: Peter Wittig of Germany;  Mark Lyall Grant of Britain; Li Baodong of China; Vitaly Churkin of Russia; and Gérard Araud of France, June 9, 2010. A study by a German scholar of US ambassadors to the UN reveals four styles, he writes: unilateralist, moderate unilateralist, moderate multilateralist and multilateralist. EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO

Everyone familiar with the United Nations knows that its relationship with its key member, the United States, has been and still is subject to far-reaching changes. The periods when the US administration and the Congress make use of the competencies of the United Nations in shaping their foreign policies depend on the administration and the makeup of the Congress at a given time. Moreover, both arms of the US government prefer bilateral negotiations in solving political conflicts.

Yet only a small number of UN experts are aware that amid this constant flux, usually based on the political party in the White House, the role of the US ambassador to the UN in New York is of great importance. By virtue of this office, she or he is often a member of the presidential cabinet, and while in theory the US mission to the UN is subject to the political control of the Department of State, in practice it can enjoy a relatively large political autonomy.

In what way have the US ambassadors to the UN used their influential position? Patrick Rosenow, a German scholar, has undertaken in his doctoral thesis, recently published in German by Nomos Publishing House, the laudable effort to complement the relatively small number of systematic scientific analyses on the topic. Rosenow is editor in chief of the “German Review on the United Nations,” published by the German United Nations Association. Although his thesis has not been translated into English yet, this book review offers an important look at Rosenow’s research.

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In the first part of the book, he offers a comprehensive outline of the peculiar political position of the US ambassador, supplemented by a large number of empirical data referring to all US ambassadors at the UN so far. This part makes plain the ambassador’s high relevance in helping to set US foreign policy.

On this theoretical and empirical basis, Rosenow develops an analytical scheme, comprising the factors of personality, political thinking, role in the foreign policy decision-making process and actions within the UN, summarizing the factors in four descriptors: unilateralist, moderate unilateralist, moderate multilateralist and multilateralist.

With this matrix, Rosenow evaluates in selected case studies the political appointee Henry C. Lodge Jr. (1953-1960, under President Eisenhower); the career diplomat Charles W. Yost (1969-1971, under Richard Nixon); and the political appointees Jeane J. Kirkpatrick (1981-1985, under Ronald Reagan) and Madeleine K. Albright (1993-1997, under Bill Clinton). The more recent ambassadors, Susan Rice, Samantha Power and Nikki Haley, are mentioned in the introduction of the book, where Rosenow presents a wealth of statistical data on all US-UN ambassadors. His summaries of the latter three ambassadors are included below.

Rosenow mainly concludes that of his case studies, Lodge can be classified as moderate multilateralist, Yost as a multilateralist, Kirkpatrick as a moderate unilateralist and Albright as a moderate multilateralist.

While “pure” multilateralists (such as Yost) do not have much political leverage in Washington (and consequently in New York), moderate unilateralists such as Kirkpatrick play an ambivalent role in terms of influence in Washington and New York. Modest multllateralists such as Lodge and Albright usually have the highest political leverage both in Washington and New York.

While Lodge used his office in the difficult Cold War era to support the development of the UN institutions and an active multilateral stance of the US foreign policy, Albright played a comparable role after the end of the Cold War by supporting the UN in finding a new role in the international system.

Rosenow illustrates in his case study of Albright that she could be considered one of the most influential US ambassadors to the UN in history. She took a decisive role nationally and internationally in helping to conceive a new type of US foreign policy,  “assertive multilateralism,” combining elements of conservative and liberal internationalism.

Albright also convinced President Clinton of this concept. Her stance gave the UN the opportunity to play a more active role by convincing Congress and the American public of the usefulness of UN peacekeeping.

As to Susan Rice, Rosenow writes that the US administration under President Obama (2009-2017) advocated for a stronger multilateral commitment compared with the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009). This advocacy was reflected in the appointment of Rice as the US permanent representative to the UN, the third woman and the first African-American to hold this office. After Ambassador Andrew Young, in 1977, Rice was the youngest person to have this role as well, when she took office in 2009 and was given a cabinet rank. When she arrived in New York, her task was to make clear that Obama’s foreign policy of multilateralism signaled a fundamental change after Bush and that the US would become a reliable partner again for the UN and its member states. During her time as ambassador, she successfully sought a majority in the Security Council for the military intervention in Libya in 2011 but was denied success in negotiating a peaceful settlement to the civil war in Syria by the time her term ended in 2013.

As Rosenow’s study has shown, cooperation among UN member states has always depended on the individual ambassador personalities, too. A good example is the cooperation between Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN after Rice and under Obama, and her Russian counterpart Vitaly I. Churkin, who died suddenly of a heart attack in February 2017 during his term of office in New York. Although both had diametrically opposed views on the conflicts in Syria and in Ukraine and discussed them controversially in the UN Security Council, Power called him a friend in an obituary after he died. Nevertheless, she stressed the need to work together: “But I also believe that it is imperative that we try to build relationships with individual Russians, who are as complex and contradictory as the rest of us. Indeed, our security depends on our ability to reach across ideological divides — to understand one another, but also to try to solve problems together.”

In her final report as the US ambassador, Power rightly emphasized that a withdrawal from the UN system would irretrievably damage the security interests of the US. This was a direct hint to the incoming US administration under President Trump. Regarding the current withdrawal of the US from parts of the UN system, she might be proven right.

An example of the difficulty in making forecasts is the new orientation of the UN policy and actions of the US government under Trump and his first appointed US permanent representative to the UN, Nikki Haley (2017-2018). Indeed, the US-UN policy under her and Trump’s leadership has changed considerably, compared with the UN policy under Obama. Short-term “deals,” instead of long-term, value-based multilateralism, have threatened to dominate the UN policy under Trump. Even though Haley had cabinet rank, sat in the National Security Council and was considered to be a talented political negotiator, the former South Carolina governor was completely inexperienced in foreign policy.

Although her role needs to be examined more closely before she can be categorized, she could have played a more ambivalent role as a manager in the individual context, as a conservative internationalist in the conceptual context, as a personal adviser in the national context and as a moderate unilateralist in the international UN context — similar to that of Jeane Kirkpatrick. Those roles led her to conclude individual “deals” for the benefit of the US and to assign a lesser role of obligations under international law. However, to have an influence within the UN, Haley would have had to advocate for the UN in Washington — and it was rather unlikely she did so. Only time will tell how things will continue under Trump after Haley. [A new ambassador, Kelly Craft, began in September 2019.]

Overall, Rosenow’s book illustrates that in the complex field of international relations it is highly relevant that great powers establish liaison units with the UN to inform their permanent missions of the institution. And to play an effective role in international politics, the ambassadors should have enough political leverage in their capitals to make sure that the concerns of the UN are adequately addressed in the foreign policy of the great powers.

“Die Ständigen Vertreter der USA bei den Vereinten Nationen,” by Patrick Rosenow, 9783848759040 [In English, the title is: “The Permanent Representatives of the United States to the United Nations”]

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Helmut Volger

Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (

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