The role of UN ambassador, explained

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, distinguished global leader-in-residence at Perry World House, describes the workings of the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.—and whether it matters that it’s no longer of cabinet status.

United Nations member flags raised outside of the UN building in New York

There are few jobs in a president’s administration as curious as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Neither a member of the State Department nor the Department of Defense, or a cabinet member (per se), it’s a job that can appear elusive with no clear sense of its influence. All the same, 29 people have filled the role since the United Nations began meeting in 1946, with the likely 30th—Kelly Craft—in the midst of a confirmation process in the U.S. Senate. 

Here, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who spent time in various roles in the United Nations from 1996 to 2014—including as Jordan’s permanent ambassador to the U.N. and high commissioner for human rights, and president of the U.N. Security Council—and is the distinguished global leader-in-residence at Perry World House, describes the responsibilities of the U.S. ambassador. He also discusses the team surrounding U.S. ambassadors, what challenges Craft can anticipate, and what it means that the Trump Administration has downgraded the position back to non-cabinet status after making it cabinet status for former U.S. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. 

What is the overview of what the ambassador does?

It’s not just turning up there and reading out statements like, ‘We won’t give an inch.’ If that were the case, we shouldn’t be there to begin with. The whole thing is, you state your position and then try to find common ground. And you need a team of people to chaperone all of that. That’s the basics of the job, essentially. And out of it you have two primary organs: the General Assembly that produces resolutions that carry the weight of a recommendation and contribute to norm setting, and the Security Council, which produces binding law. 

What the Security Council decides in resolutions is law. But out of the General Assembly, you can also have law in the form of treaties being negotiated there, which subsequently become binding law. In sum, the decisions themselves may be recommendations, but the General Assembly is also the nursery for international law. What you find yourself doing as a head of a diplomatic mission is both pursuing what you’re paid to do and volunteering for extra duties—such as chairing conferences and meetings, facilitating discussions. Out of 193 ambassadors, possibly 30 do the volunteering—only 30. One-hundred and sixty will do the minimum, which is just, ‘I’ll read out my written international statement. That’s it. All I’ll do.’ But negotiating, facilitating, chairing, there’s generally about 30 that do that. 

The permanent members of the Security Council, U.S., China, UK, France, and Russia, normally don’t do the volunteering because the work of the U.N. Security Council is so overwhelming that they spend most of their time there, and in the case of the U.S., only in two other broad areas within the spectra of U.N. work do the U.S. ambassadors venture out of the U.N. Security Council. One of those is on candidatures—if the U.S. has a candidate running for the International Court of Justice, for example, you might find the U.S. ambassador is lobbying. Or, if there is a country the U.S. doesn’t want to have as a candidate or member of the Security Council—for instance, Sudan many years ago, when the U.S. lobbied to have Sudan off the Council and did so successfully. 

And the other area where the U.S. ambassador ventures out is on U.N. reform. If there’s a series of reform initiatives, the U.S. ambassador is often willing to come out of that Security Council and deal with those issues. Basically, most of the work of the U.S. ambassador is within the U.N. Security Council. That’s where they spend most of their time.

Is it unusual to go so long without an ambassador? Nikki Haley has been gone for six months.

Yes. While it has happened before, it’s still unusual because you need to have someone there. I also believe you need to have someone who is quite a political heavyweight, who can help. The key thing is this: Is the person who is speaking on behalf of the U.S. also speaking on behalf of the U.S. president? Is there any daylight between the two? If it’s perceived by the other countries that the person speaking is at variance, or isn’t speaking on behalf of the U.S. president, then the words may sound eloquent but they will ring hollow, and the other diplomats will know this is not a policy that has any support from the highest authority in the country. That’s not always to say the U.S. ambassador in New York at the U.N. will always have instructions on everything. Partly why any government sends a good ambassador is the government hopes it can trust you to make the right decision if things are moving very quickly. 

Has that been a constant throughout U.N. history?

A lot of it will depend on the person and how far they want to push the envelope, and so there’s been much discussion over the past couple weeks about Richard Holbrooke when he was the ambassador in New York [under President Clinton]. And he was this enormous personality. He exerted his influence in the U.N. and it was felt clearly. Sometimes he would harangue others, sometimes he would charm or persuade, and this has been the style of some of the most effective ambassadors. 

There’s Tom Pickering [under President George H.W. Bush], for example, who I often felt was a diplomat’s diplomat because he could be exceedingly charming and could be tough. And he knew when to be tough and when to be charming. If you’re just tough, after a while it doesn’t work anymore, so it’s a combination of skills you would need. 

For example, a U.S. ambassador could come up to an ambassador like me and say gently, ‘I need your support. And by the way, my president is calling up your head of state.’ In other words, gentle arm-twisting. But on occasion, the U.S. did try to genuinely persuade us, without the arm-twisting.

For example, when I was in the Security Council, maybe before that, with the chemical attacks in Syria, the U.S. ambassador arranged for intensive briefings to take place in New York for many U.N. ambassadors where the CIA and others briefed us on why they thought these munitions came from Syrian-government-controlled areas. The U.S. could have relied simply on calls to the capitals, but I think [former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.] Samantha Power felt it was important that her colleagues felt the merits of the U.S. argument. Because I also believe she understood that the ambassadors, practically all of them, were close to their own senior officials. 

I would imagine when assessing the suitability of a candidate for the U.S. seat in the Security Council, a central criteria would be, ‘Is this person a quick study?’ There are three types of ambassadors, generally speaking: the ‘postal service,’ which is ‘I take the views of my capital and just pass them along and express them’; then there is the ambassador who has independence to develop their own views; and third, the ambassador who can do that and has the political capital in their own country to reverse national policy. In other words, an ambassador who can go to their own capital and say, ‘Hey look, we have to abandon our position in favor of a new position, which is the right position. And so, we are going to reverse course.’ If that can be achieved, an ambassador is an effective ambassador. 

Who is the reverse?

For instance, John Bolton [under President George W. Bush] was an interesting ambassador to work with because he was certainly outspoken when it came to his views about the U.N. and the effectiveness of U.N. bureaucracy, and was quite famous for that. But removed from the formal settings, you could have serious discussions with John. He is a very smart guy. But he does have his own views on things. He wasn’t prone to negotiating much or showing much flexibility, in the context of the broader discussions at the U.N., and so what happened often is that when he dug in, then others dug in, and if others are dug in you don’t get much of an outcome. 

The way any agreement is reached is determined by the distance you are prepared to travel from your original position on policy to a middle ground somewhere, and the problem with an assertive approach, i.e. ‘It has to be my way,’ is that others will say, ‘Thank you very much,’ because their way is also important and there is no agreement. And the whole system suffers. 

The cabinet status and non-cabinet status, how much does that affect the ambassador’s influence at the U.N.?

I think it helps if the ambassador is of cabinet rank. For example, there were times when we would have ministerial meetings, and the practice was that you’d have 15 members of the Security Council, and some ministers would come to speak, and the U.S. ambassador, if they were of cabinet rank, would speak with the ministers. So it elevates the position of ambassador, and also demonstrates to everyone else that the U.S. ambassador is close to the White House, or close to the president of the United States. That’s powerful. 

Why would a president opt to not have a cabinet-level ambassador?

It may be out of general disdain for what the UN is. I think it’s important to understand this: While there are endlessly boring meetings that take place at the UN, the UN isn’t just that. If you go to some of the worst places in the world where they’re riven by conflict, and the most difficult appalling conditions, you often find the UN is there. And humanitarian aid workers, human rights personnel, peacekeepers, they do extraordinary work, and it’s hard to be critical of people like that.

Is it a problem that there seems to be high turnover with ambassadors?

With the U.S., it would seem to be the case, however, there are many countries that have ambassadors who spend a long time at the UN—I was there a long time. Partly because it takes a while to understand how the place ticks, how the place works. Certainly if you represent a small country, I think the skill levels required are much greater than if you represent a big one. A big one, basically by dint of its economic power and military power, a few phone calls can make a difference. A small country, which has none of that, has to rely on an ambassador to produce the same result. 

What are the issues you see for Kelly Craft when she starts?

It’s a deeply divided Security Council. She will face many issues, where you may have China in opposition, and on others Russia if not China. And she will have to cultivate support from the others. I’ll give you an example: Last March and April, I was invited by France to brief the Security Council on Syria as the human rights chief, and we basically couldn’t get the nine votes needed for a briefing, out of 15. Which is amazing, because you had the U.S., UK, France, Sweden, and the Netherlands, five Western countries. We only needed four other countries to join those five, and we couldn’t get the four others to do so. It raised the obvious question of, ‘In previous times, with the combined influence of these five countries, including the U.S., this should have been quite easy to do.’ There was a perception the U.S. is retreating from the international arena and particularly on human rights.

There are consequences with the language of isolation. It’s a real thing.

Yes, it is a real thing. And the basic premise behind the construction of the UN is that chauvinistic nationalisms, which combined with ideologies destroyed the world twice in the early 20th century, after two wars a response was needed. Rather than continue by peddling chauvinistic nationalism—what we have today, sadly—humanity determined we would solve our problems collectively. In other words, they believed in 1946 that no country could solve problems alone, and any attempt to do so through balance of power politics leads to disastrous consequences. So, we have to solve the global issues together. Analyze them together and solve them together. But the key is that I avoid speaking in the language of ‘What is in it for me?’ I avoid, ‘How much can I gouge out of the UN for myself as a country? And to hell with everyone else.’ And this is wrong.

The key is that if I as a state strive for the global good, it will also have a beneficial effect for me nationally.

How long can we go on this course before people start taking this attitude?

The attacks on the multilateral system are very pronounced, so if it continues a few more years, maybe this nationalistic attitude will begin to dominate. And I think the accumulation of all these crises we see today, which are beyond seeming resolution, are a cause for concern. And so, there is a need to somehow stem the bleeding. And it’s needed.

Anything to add? What has been the biggest change in your career—of how the U.N. operates. Anything radically different compared to when it first started?

Yes. I think clearly in the 1990s there was a huge sense that with the Cold War over we could achieve many things, and so there was lots of activity. We had an agreement in the General Assembly on the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, we set up a system for a system to prohibit anti-personnel landmines. We set up the International Criminal Court. We worked on a verification protocol for the biological weapons convention, set up a process for blood diamonds. And then [the War in Iraq] came in 2003, and after that the atmosphere in the U.N. began to disintegrate. And then with Libya and the Arab Spring it really almost collapsed. And now it’s very fraught. 

Any reason to be optimistic?

In the end, because we’re so terrible at predicting outcomes, when we expect the worst perhaps it will be less than that. The sense of doom often doesn’t materialize in the way you sort of expect it to, and creates openings for those who are better-intentioned to try and keep the global system together. 

And in the end, it’s not an unreasonable proposition to hope we can have peace globally. One of the questions I ask the students in the human rights course I co-teach with Bill Burke-White is, ‘Why do you think we need law?’ I answer by saying rhetorically, ‘Is it not because we’re fundamentally unreliable. We’re untrustworthy. And if we loosen the cage into which we’ve placed ourselves, we pretty much know what will happen.’ So, if you didn’t have laws which are either enforced or abided by and respected, we can’t trust ourselves. There’s very good reason we should be frightened of ourselves. As long as we’re willing to stay within the limits of the cage in which we’ve placed ourselves, then we’re doing OK. But if we try and break out, we have every reason to be worried.