History is being made with Egypt’s Lotus Revolution, as President Obama reminded us on Friday, intoning: “This is one of those moments. This is one of those times.” Big things are happening in the Middle East, freighted with opportunity and fraught with danger. So you might expect that Obama’s ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, would be working overtime, manning the ramparts of the UN’s multilateral councils, mapping out strategies and maneuvering among U.S. friends and foes to enhance the chances that Egypt’s uprising will become a portal to democracy, rather than a replay of Iran.
Guess again. While Egypt was making history this week, Rice was visiting the U.S. West Coast, on a mission to deliver a Friday evening speech to the World Affairs Council in Portland, Oregon, on “Why America Needs the United Nations.” Earlier, she stopped by Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Ustreaming a “conversation” she kicked off by telling her audience: “A good part of my job is explaining to the American people why it is that the United Nations in the 21st century serves America’s interests.”
Funny, but I thought the entire job of America’s ambassador to the UN was — as the job title suggests– to represent America to the UN. Not to represent the UN to Americans.
If the UN is really so terribly useful and important for America, then isn’t this critical juncture in the Middle East exactly the kind of moment in which America’s envoy should be availing herself flat out of the pedals and levers and diplomatic channels the UN is supposed to provide? And if the UN really gets such great results for America, then shouldn’t those results speak for themselves?
The UN already has plenty of help advertising itself. The UN secretariat has a public information department (some might call it a public relations department) with a yearly budget of close to $100 million – and that’s just for the secretariat. Many of the agencies have their own PR offices, PR staff and PR budgets — the biggest share of all this funded by… you guessed it… American taxpayers. Orbiting around the UN, or in some cases entwined with it, and with each other, are a whole raft of outfits devoted to further “strengthening” the image of the UN — notably Ted Turner’s UN Foundation, and the United Nations Association of the United States of America, or UNA-USA. Why is the U.S. ambassador joining this bandwagon at all?
Rice’s talk at Twitter and speech in Portland are just the beginning of a series of speeches she plans to deliver this spring, in which, reports Politico, she will be “making the case to the American people for why the UN matters to national security, and detailing how it is being improved.” This looks like the Obama administration’s response to a new Congress in which some of the lawmakers, such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, are asking serious questions about what’s going on with the UN’s soaring budgets and often anti-American agendas. For the first time in several years, Congress has become curious about what the UN is actually doing with the more than $6 billion in taxpayer dollars that America now pours into it annually.
For America’s ambassador to respond to this by embarking on a UN marketing roadshow across America is a dodge so wrong it’s almost comic. The UN doesn’t need a cosmetic makeover, or an ambassadorial ad campaign; it needs a major, labor-intensive cleaning of the bilges. The U.S. State Department has a slot at the U.S. Mission in New York for an ambassador for UN Management and Reform. Since 2008, that slot has been filled by an acting ambassador. The current nominee for the post has credentials that should assure us he likes Obama, but it’s hard to spot anything that suggests he’s an expert on the UN.
If, as Rice says, a big part of the job of America’s envoy to the UN is now to market the UN to Americans, then why not just streamline the process? Close down the U.S. Mission to the UN in New York, hand over the budget to the UN itself, and let Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon hire Susan Rice as his special envoy to American taxpayers.