15 NOVEMBER 2008


Let's be practical. The United States is the most powerful member of the United Nations. Besides its continued superpower status, it is the host country and the biggest contributor to its budget.

Let us also be fair. The United States, generally, has been a pro-U.N. country in every way. Its people and its varied governments have displayed practical and moral support on basic issues.

Let us, again, be factual. There were frequent periods of tension between the U.N. and U.S. administrations for various reasons -- some regarding a real desire for a more efficient organization, and many were mainly political, that is, playing up to some internal grouping when the U.N. did not go along 100% (though often 70%) on a desired venture -- like, for example, Iraq.

One main determining factor has been the type of Permanent Representative the United States sent to the United Nations. Despite White House and State Department regular input, it is New York's high-ranking, media-watched, Waldorf Towers senior U.S. official -- who rightly or wrongly -- sets the tune. Both American teams in Washington and New York will be reading from the same sheet of strategy, but in many instances the New Yorker of the day applied his own tactics on fellow diplomats and senior Secretariat officials.

For the first fifty years -- a lifetime for Organizations -- the smooth relations were almost ideal. Even when Mrs. Kirkpatrick took dismissive positions during the Reagan administration, it was generally assumed that her heart was actually in the right place, based on a number of her Deputies, like Ambassador Joseph Vernon Reed. And despite President Lyndon Johnson's obvious unhappiness with U Thant over his opposition to the Vietnam War -- to the point of boycotting a General Assembly debate -- the Secretary General and his main deputy Dr. Ralph Bunche, maintained smooth relations with the Hamlet style of Adlai Stevenson and the conceptual approach of Justice Arthur Goldberg. The longest, most effective honeymoon appeared during the easy interaction between Ambassador George Bush and Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar. During a historic shift in world power symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall, Desert Storm over Kuwait, and serious negotiations on the Middle East, there was not a single hitch. Ambassador Thomas Pickering demonstrated exemplary tact in advancing his country's interests in close alliance with U.N. objectives.

Solid, impressive, and popular performance over the earlier years contrasted with decisions by Administrations of both Presidents William Jefferson Clinton and George Walker Bush to saddle the U.N. with some of the most controversial, mostly rude self-promoters who clearly confused their own agenda with the real interests of their powerful great country. Admittedly, they gave us two of the best. The Democratic President designated Bill Richardson, a dynamic politician with a remarkable talent for international outreach, and the Republican President assigned John Negroponte, an experienced professional with impeccable attitude. But, there were also bi-partisan bi-partisan inflictions. To single out John Bolton, who relished his obvious unpopularity, would be unfair. Richard Holbrooke's keen belief in his own historic significance became a discreet internal joke. Using his U.N. post to cater for Vice President Al Gore was somehow understandable. But his relentless pursuit of Senator Jesse Helms' blessing reached a pathetic stage when he gathered the Security Council for a ceremonial hearing, starting with his self-gratifying speech. His obvious hints that peacekeeping troops from Third World countries were likely to spread HIV/AIDS was not only insensitive but counter-productive. So were his open threats to certain Secretariat staff, including a senior Legal Counsel, who did not accommodate him. He had "carte blanche" from his Administration and from Mr. Annan, whom he described as the greatest Secretary General in U.N. history. A veteran observer sarcastically commented at the time: "Move over, Dag Hammarskjold, Big Dick laid the eggs"!

Poor Madeleine Albright's misfortune was that she came after the outstanding Thomas Pickering. No comparison, of course. A former professor and political scientist, she was a new diplomat in a new atmosphere within a brand new world. Thrust suddenly into the limelight by the "hyper power" of the "indispensable" country she represented with the help of a talented ambitious media-savvy assistant, she was caught between her personal horror at catastrophes (Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia) and her ardent desire to play the power game. Her very friendly, then very hostile relationship with Secretary General Boutros Ghali drove both of them beyond reasonable norms while driving their respective staff to the brink of breakdown. At least she gave us some light moments like when she demonstrated the Macarena to Security Council members. And her habitual playful wink pleasantly surprised a number of aspiring diplomats.

Encouraged by a dismissive atmosphere, one or two American staff members out of an exemplary majority tried to take advantage of their partisan relations; they attempted to turn their individual differences with other colleagues into a national issue. A widely connected Democrat party member often contacted the White House to complain against other U.N. colleagues who disagreed with her management style or were mandated to check her budgetary expenditure. Ironically, her adversity to then Protocol Chief Benita Ferrero-Waldner could have been a main reason for the gracious Austrian to seek political service at home. It proved to be a very wise decision. After serving as her country's Foreign Minister, she is now the European High Commissioner for External Relations and a regular member of the Middle East Quartet.

Let us hope that all that is now behind us. Presidential-elect Obama has indicated that he intended to open a NEW page with the world.

Well, the world has an openly known symbolic address. It is at the United Nations in New York. His choice of his Ambassador there will signal what he really thinks of the Organization -- and the world comprehensively reflected in it. A very well considered representation -- one that advances U.S. interests as well as the U.N.'s -- would help develop a refreshed and regained role for an effective, efficient, dynamic, fully representative United Nations. That is the change in which we believe. And, yes, it can be done.