During an appearance on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” last August, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that sometimes the U.N. General Assembly “feels a little bit like the Star Wars bar scene” full of some “of the most colorful dictators of the world.”
Yet she also added, “Many of the threats we face — terrorism, proliferation, genocide, climate change — are not the kind of things that one country, even one as powerful as our own, can solve, by itself. So we need cooperation. We need countries working together. And the U.N. is the one place on earth, despite its many flaws, where we can marshal the support and share the cost of doing what’s necessary to protect the United States.”
These two statements encapsulate not only what has been the Obama administration’s approach to multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, but also Rice’s approach to her role at the world body. Nearly four years after Obama took office, it’s clear that his administration has established a far less antagonistic working relationship with the United Nations than George W. Bush’s foreign policy team did. “A premise of Obama’s foreign policy is that the United States can advance its national interests best by working within global institutions,” wrote Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations (also see the People of World Influence profile).
At the same time, the administration has not shirked from playing hardball and getting its way on policies as far-reaching as the intervention in Libya and ensuring that an American continues to head the World Bank. The key difference at the United Nations between the Bush and Obama presidencies is the perception that the latter works within global institutions as opposed to outside of them. Carlos Pascual, formally of the Brookings Institution and now the State Department envoy for energy affairs, wrote that “the appointment of Susan Rice to the U.N. makes clear that Obama seeks to fix this institution, not trash it.”
Rice’s confirmation was in marked contrast to her predecessor, John Bolton, whose disdain for the United Nations made him not only an unlikely candidate for the position, but also one unable to meet Senate approval, only assuming the post after a recess appointment by President George W. Bush.
But Rice, like Bolton, is no wallflower. In many ways, her personal style mirrors Obama’s approach to the United Nations — willing to work with it, but just as willing to defend America’s interests in the process. Rice is a no-nonsense, oftentimes undiplomatic diplomat who’s not afraid to butt heads or speak her mind. Yet she’s also close to the White House and in that sense, she has been able to deliver concrete action instead of just hard-nosed rhetoric.
Writing on his Turtle Bay blog at Foreign Policy, Colum Lynch pointed out that “in contrast to her Republican predecessors, including Zalmay Khalilzad and John Bolton, Rice holds cabinet rank, making her a principal in the Obama administration’s national security team.”
To that end, she has been instrumental in implementing many critical aspects of Obama’s foreign policy, such as the intervention in Libya, the sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, and blocking the Palestinians’ attempts to secure U.N. membership.
Though not everyone agrees with these policies, at least the United States is back in the U.N. saddle. Shortly after taking office, Obama made it a point to re-engage with the institution, which his predecessor largely dismissed as an impotent bureaucracy. Notably, Washington joined the U.N. Human Rights Council, long a cesspool of dictatorships that used the council as cover for their own human rights abuses. Many say U.S. participation has helped to boost the credibility of the council, which has been more vocal about calling out in abuses in Syria, Iran, Sudan and Sri Lanka.
“When Rice took over as ambassador after eight years of Bush, the United Nations was in dire need of attention. The bitter feelings provoked by the debate over Iraq had faded, and the era of provocation had largely ended with Bolton’s departure in late 2006,” wrote James Traub in a Foreign Policy profile of Rice called “The Point Guard.”
“But Bush hadn’t been terribly interested in using the institution, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had proved to be an almost soporific figure. The U.N. felt increasingly marginal. So Rice and the administration ushered in a new era with a bang when Obama took office by vowing to pay the United Nations $1 billion in back dues, which it did by the fall.”
Rice’s lengthy foreign policy credentials prepared her well for working at the United Nations. She received a Truman Scholarship at Stanford and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. In the 1990s, she served in various roles in the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton and was assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 1997 to 2001. Rice was also a foreign policy aide to Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis during the 1988 campaign and foreign policy adviser to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) during the 2004 presidential race. Between her work for Kerry and serving as Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser during the 2008 campaign, she was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Throughout her career, Rice has not only proven her foreign policy chops, but also shown an ability to change with the exigencies of American foreign policy needs. The rosy view of the United Nations that Rice presented on “The Colbert Report” was not exactly characteristic of her earlier work. “She approached the U.N. without much idealism, with a sort of reserve,” a former administration official told Foreign Policy’s Traub.
Her inclination toward action over talk, especially in cases of possible genocide, seems more akin to Bush’s ambitious foreign policy agenda than to an administration determined to repair relationships damaged by its predecessor’s unilateral interventionist policies.
Rice’s own interventionist bent in part stems from her work in the Clinton administration as a National Security Council staffer during the Rwandan genocide. The failure to stop that atrocity led Rice to later tell Harvard scholar Samantha Power: “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”
Yet Rice’s belief in the necessity of intervention in certain cases is not so different from Obama’s own outlook. For instance, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama remarked, “There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified,” on humanitarian grounds or in other places that have been scarred by war. “Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later,” he warned.
But he also cautioned that no nation “can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.”
Many have labeled Obama a foreign policy realist, but Erich Vogt of American University told The Washington Diplomat that “every administration, regardless of party, faces realities — that it will not be able to fundamentally redesign the world map and must look at various avenues based on their political cost.”
The Obama administration is no different — and it has experienced this lesson firsthand at the United Nations, where Rice has had to balance conflicting interests, sometimes successfully, and other times less so.
Most recently, Syria has exposed America’s inability to muster a unified diplomatic response to halt the violence raging in that country, leading critics to charge that the Obama administration has gone soft on President Bashar al-Assad.
Likewise, Obama was criticized for his perceived dithering in response to the Libyan revolution, until the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of force to protect the country’s civilian population, allowing the NATO-led intervention that helped dislodge the regime.
In that sense, Libya represented a triumph of Obama’s calculated strategy to intervene but share the burden with international partners so the United States wouldn’t become mired in yet another war in a Muslim nation.
It was also a personal and professional victory for Rice, who pushed for a tough response by the administration and orchestrated the resolution that ultimately paved the way for U.N. action.
But Libya’s legacy is not without its flaws. Brazil, China, India and Russia all subsequently criticized the intervention as exceeding its original mandate. Having felt bitten by the experience in Libya, Moscow has adamantly blocked any strong action on Syria, leaving Rice with little ammunition against the Assad regime other than issuing a barrage of harshly worded warnings and condemnations.
The Palestinian campaign for U.N. recognition, which was blocked by the United States last year, also damaged American standing in the General Assembly. Patrick from the Council on Foreign Relations wrote that the entire fracas “isolated the United States — Israel’s staunchest and loneliest defender — from the mass of postcolonial, developing countries.”
Rice was also embroiled in controversy when diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010 revealed a U.S. spying operation targeting the U.N. secretary-general and members of the Security Council.
Indeed, though Rice has won plaudits for her U.N. performance in some quarters, she’s also drawn fire from both sides of the political divide. Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation contends that Rice has been too hands-off at the United Nations, missing key Security Council meetings.
“The presence of the U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. sends a signal that the U.S. considers the matter under discussion to be important. The repeated absence of Ambassador Rice signals the opposite,” he said. “Moreover, the impression that the U.S. is unwilling to ruffle feathers at the U.N to press its priorities is far-reaching and counterproductive.”
Rice has also been criticized for not consistently adhering to her humanitarian interventionist principles. Some advocates for Darfur, for example, have felt abandoned by her at the United Nations, despite her hawkish stance toward Sudan. Mark Hanis, president of the Genocide Intervention Network/Save Darfur Coalition, told the New Republic that “Darfur has been a clear failure” and that “there have been absolutely no Darfur resolutions during her tenure.”
However, Vogt points out that America’s ability to influence issues abroad, especially absent international momentum and consensus, will always be limited.
Likewise, Rice has to work within the confines of not only the U.N. system, but also the administration, where opinions vary widely.
It’s also difficult to pigeonhole Rice as either a foreign policy pragmatist or an idealist — like Obama, she’s a mix of both, depending on the situation. On Syria, for instance, although she’s blasted the Russians and Chinese for obstructing U.N. sanctions, she does not support a Libya-style military intervention, arguing that the situation in Libya was fundamentally different. Not only is there no coherent rebel force that controls a defined portion of Syria, she points out that establishing “humanitarian safe zones” or other such options could unleash even more sectarian bloodletting that could spill over and destabilize the entire region.
Obama has said as much himself — another example of how Rice and the president have been mostly in sync over the last four years. That melding of the minds has led to rampant speculation that if Obama wins another term, Rice would be a top contender to become the next secretary of state.
So far, she’s been mum on that subject — a change of pace from her blunt style as Obama’s voice at the United Nations.
“I am a direct person,” Rice said in an interview with the Daily Beast earlier this year. “With me, what you see is what you get. I’m not going to lie to you, I’m not going to scam you; if I say we’ll do something, we’ll do it.”
That certainly personifies her tenure the last four years. And regardless whether she moves from Turtle Bay to Foggy Bottom next year, Rice has clearly left an imprint on the United Nations, firmly executing Obama’s foreign policy vision while re-establishing America’s presence in the world body.
About the Author
Talha Aquil is a freelance writer based in Toronto.