For the moment, I’ll leave it to others to sift through the credentials of Samantha Power, President Obama’s nominee to become the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Let’s talk about what awaits a new ambassador at Turtle Bay.
In terms of creature comforts, there is plenty to enjoy. The UN is completing a $2 billion renovation of its New York headquarters, 22% of that at America’s expense. The asbestos is gone, the refurbished stonework gleams, the digital eco-age has arrived. For the U.S. Mission to the UN, which underwent its own re-do in recent years, there is a new building — bigger, more secure, and located conveniently across the street from the main UN complex. The diplomatic parties are never-ending, the delegate’s dining room — overlooking the East River — caters to the kind of parties at which Sudan, in 2009, celebrated its chairmanship of the G-77 by serving lobster, shrimp, and strawberries dipped in chocolate.
But for anyone who must ultimately account to the American people — especially someone with big hopes to save the world — today’s UN can be at best a mud pit, and more likely a minefield. When Obama announced on Wednesday that he was nominating Power for the job, he described her as “someone who showed us that the international community has a moral responsibility and a profound interest in resolving conflicts and defending human dignity.” Presumably the idea is that she will now take this crusade, hands-on, to the UN.
But the UN, for all its high-minded rhetoric, is not about moral responsibility and human dignity. Not in practice.
The UN today is a place where Iran heads the 120-member so-called Non-Aligned Movement (119 member states plus the Palestinian Authority) — the second largest voting bloc in the 193 member General Assembly. Currently Iran is also chairing the UN’s Disarmament Conference in Geneva, and sits on the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
The list goes on. The UN is an institution whose special envoys and assorted officials have been wringing their hands over the carnage in Syria, but for more than two years have failed to stop it. The UN is a place where dictatorships field tremendous clout, where the favorite mascot of many committees is Cuba. Where any Security Council resolution, before it can pass, must meet with the approval of China and Russia. Moral vertigo is often the best one can hope for.
That may sound like a hospitable climate for what the Wall Street Journal described as Samantha Power’s “Mea Culpa” doctrine — a reference to her prescription for America in a 2003 article she wrote for the New Republic. But at the UN, a mea culpa won’t get you much in the way of morally responsible behavior or defense of human dignity. If anything, it’s likely to lead to a demand for more mea culpas.
Obama himself tried this approach big time with his first presidential address to the UN General Assembly in 2009. The delegates clapped, and then in 2011 made America the UN’s fourth most-criticized country on the planet for human rights issues. (Number one in the UN’s scrambled universe being Israel, followed by Sudan and Syria.)
So why would any of this be a problem for an ambassador who favors a mea culpa doctrine for America? Because the real world intrudes. Because bad things will come of it. Because the real job of the U.S. at the UN is more often to try to contain the damage and to minimize the waste and corruption, rather than wield the U.S. seat as an active force for good. Override that, and you are riding for a fall. The further question, unfortunately, is how many others might also pay the cost.