Why Is the United Nations Ambassador in the Cabinet?

Why Is the United Nations Ambassador in the Cabinet?

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is beginning hearings today on the Obama administration’s nominee for United Nations ambassador, Samantha Power (full disclosure: I know and admire Power and expect her to be a strong ambassador). While she’ll likely face a few tough questions, all signs point to a relatively easy confirmation. There’s one question that she probably won’t face that I think merits attention: Does it make sense for the United Nations ambassador to be part of the cabinet?

It’s a practice that very few other countries follow (an astute observer pointed out that Rwanda’s U.N. ambassador is in that country’s cabinet). Nor has U.S. practice been consistent. Ronald Reagan included Jeane Kirkpatrick in the cabinet, but George H.W. Bush (himself a former U.N. ambassador) discontinued the practice. That meant that one of the country’s most effective recent ambassadors, Thomas Pickering, wasn’t a member of the cabinet. (His diminished status didn’t prevent him from skillfully managing U.N. diplomacy in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War.) Bill Clinton’s administration restored the ambassadorship to cabinet rank, and Madeleine Albright moved from that post to become secretary of state. George W. Bush shifted course again, however, deciding to keep his U.N. ambassadors up in New York.

Does it matter whether the point person for U.N. diplomacy also has a seat at the inner table in Washington? I think it does, and I’d argue that the consequences are mostly negative. For one, having a cabinet role means that America’s U.N. envoy spends much less time in New York than she would otherwise. This limits her ability to engage in the detailed, informal consultations with other permanent representatives — particularly on the Security Council — that are so critical to U.N. diplomacy. The jet-setting of U.S. ambassadors has been a persistent point of tension with fellow U.N. ambassadors. Asked recently to give Power one piece of advice, a senior diplomat at the U.N. almost pleaded that she spend as much time as possible in New York.

Cabinet rank for the U.N. ambassador also creates the potential for unnecessary friction in the making of U.S. foreign policy. In bureaucratic terms, the U.N. ambassador — like any ambassador — serves under the secretary of state and executes policy ordered by the secretary. But the ambassador’s presence in the cabinet confuses that chain of command. By virtue of her seat at the cabinet table, the U.N. ambassador can help "write her own instructions." This arrangement has in the past created all sorts of problems. Dwight Eisenhower’s man at the U.N., Henry Cabot Lodge, had cabinet rank and a close relationship with the president. He once told the secretary of state that he only took instructions from the president. In the Reagan years, Kirkpatrick and Secretary of State Alexander Haig feuded badly. Given the visibility of the U.N. ambassador, this tension might occur in any case, but cabinet rank makes it much more likely.

One hears a variety of arguments in favor of the practice: It elevates the place of the United Nations and multilateralism generally in U.S. foreign policy; it means that the U.N. ambassador speaks with added authority; it adds another foreign-policy perspective to cabinet deliberations. To my mind, none of these is compelling, and to the extent they are advantages at all, they do not compensate for the costs.