Turtle Bay

Is diplomacy really such a dead end?

American politicians have long derided a career in diplomacy as a dead end for men and women with ambition, as well as a dumping ground for has-been politicians and businessmen who wile away their final coddled days in far flung embassies. Tyler Cowen, the terrific blogger of Marginal Revolution, played on a similar theme last ...

American politicians have long derided a career in diplomacy as a dead end for men and women with ambition, as well as a dumping ground for has-been politicians and businessmen who wile away their final coddled days in far flung embassies. Tyler Cowen, the terrific blogger of Marginal Revolution, played on a similar theme last week as he mused about the surly state of the diplomatic life.

“Diplomats are in some ways like university presidents: little hope for job advancement, serving many constituencies, and having little ability to control events,” he wrote. “Plus they are underpaid relative to human capital.  They must speak carefully.  They must learn how to wield power in the subtlest ways possible…The entire time on mission the diplomat is eating up his capital and power base, and toward what constructive end?  So someone else can take his place?  And what kind of jobs can you hope to advance into?”

That dim view of diplomacy has long had particular resonance at the United Nations. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1965 until 1968, approached his job with trepidation, recalling that a generation of top American officials had been sent to New York to see their careers run aground. “I had seen Stevenson humiliated. Goldberg betrayed. Ball diminished. Wiggins patronized. Yost ignored. Bush traduced. Scali savaged,” Moynihan recalled in his memoirs on his U.N. days, Dangerous Place. “I had twice said no to the post I was now to assume.”

Dean Acheson, an affirmed believer in multilateral diplomacy, ran into Moynihan at the Metropolitan Club in Manhattan to convey his contempt for the top American job at the U.N. “Moynihan,” Acheson said. “My respect for you took a precipitous decline when I learned you even considered that ridiculous job.”

Even Moynihan showed disdain for the job he so clearly coveted. “Scarcely anything of consequence in the world of high politics had happened in Turtle Bay since Korea in the early 1950s, and few could imagine that anything of consequence would ever happen there again,” he wrote.

But a quick look at the historical record shows that a top job at the U.N. is actually one of America’s great political launching pads. Yes, there are plenty of counterexamples. John Danforth, the former Missouri Senator, and Richard C. Holbrooke, were both passed over for the Secretary of State job after serving at Turtle Bay. And the U.N. was the last stop in the careers of Adlai Stevenson and Arthur J. Goldberg. “I had an exaggerated opinion of my capacities,” recalled Goldberg, who gave up his seat on the Supreme Court in 1965, to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, where he hoped to lead America out of the Vietnam war. “I thought I could persuade Johnson that we were fighting the wrong war.”

But George H.W. Bush went on to become the president of the United States. Madeleine K. Albright, an obscure academic, used her perch as U.N. ambassador to become Secretary of State. Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will almost certainly be a contender for one of America’s two top foreign policy jobs, Secretary of State or National Security Advisor, if they open up in the coming years.

Prospects for advancement among foreign diplomats is even better. Russia and Egypt’s foreign ministers, Sergei Lavrov and Aboul Gheit, served as their country’s U.N. envoys. And Danilo Turk, who served a stint as Slovenia’s U.N. ambassador, and subsequently served as a top U.N. official, has gone on to become president of his country. Even Moynihan went on to win elections as New York’s senator, serving nearly a quarter century from 1977 to 2001. So, all in all, it’s not such a hopeless gig.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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