U.N. Relevance Depends on U.S. Leadership

A career FSO and veteran United Nations official reflects on this unique institution and its value today.


istockphoto.com / Ian_Timberlake

The author briefing the U.N.
Courtesy of Jeffrey Feltman

“You are like the Secretary of State for the United Nations,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remarked in July 2012 when swearing me in as United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs. A flattering pretension, yes, but I had no expectations given relative authorities, funding and staffing levels that my ex-boss Hillary Rodham Clinton or Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would suddenly embrace me as a peer.

As head of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs (or DPA, now the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs), I oversaw the organization’s global political work, all focused on preventing and resolving conflict. DPA provides support and instructions to U.N. special envoys and representatives who head political missions, and my role included leadership responsibilities in the areas of U.N. electoral assistance, counterterrorism and even residual decolonization. Because DPA provides the administrative and documentary support to the Security Council, I had a ringside seat to council deliberations, often (in the Secretary-General’s absence) as the only non-voting person at its horseshoe table. Yet my entire New York staff, with its global responsibilities, would have filled only a medium-sized American embassy.

In addition to the resource discrepancies, the role of Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs differs from a foreign minister in its function: International civil servants are expected to represent the values and ideals of the United Nations Charter, not serve as advocates for national positions. Now 75 years old and showing its age, the United Nations was the centerpiece of a series of organizations, alliances and partnerships established under U.S. leadership in the aftermath of World War II that would play a vital role in maintaining peace and progress in the postwar world.

While it is natural to question the relevance of the organization in the greatly changed world of today, I come down on the side that the U.N. can remain relevant and a force multiplier for U.S. interests in global peace, development and human rights—as long as strong U.S. leadership remains in the organization.

At the same time, for reasons ranging from changed global power dynamics to U.S. arrears in its dues, Washington cannot assume the same automatic deference inside the U.N. system that it enjoyed for years. The United States needs to compete inside the U.N. for what matters to us, lest we hand over vacuums for the Chinese and Russians to gleefully fill, at the expense of our interests.

Obsession and Neglect

What I learned when I began working at the U.N. was that, within its Secretariat, the speculation about Washington is incessant. One early epiphany was recognizing that Turtle Bay obsesses about Foggy Bottom, while Foggy Bottom neglects Turtle Bay. During my nearly six-year tenure as the highest-ranking U.S. citizen in the Secretariat, my colleagues—peers, subordinates and superiors alike—would invariably ponder “What does Washington think?” on every conceivable issue. Except perhaps in the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, I am not aware of any parallel in Washington.

The point of the question was not to signal that the U.N. Secretary-General or professional staff should automatically march in step with the American position. Rather, knowing the American position or likely U.S. reaction was an essential part of evaluating what the U.N. might do in any situation. Depending on the subject, professional staff would also evaluate the positions of other capitals. Discussions on peacekeeping in Francophone Africa included considerable attention to Paris’ perspectives and interests. One could not plan U.N. operations in Somalia without considering the roles of Somalia’s neighbors, as well as Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. But only Washington’s policies came up in every meeting on peace and security matters. This gives the United States astonishing influence without even trying to exercise it.

One early epiphany was recognizing that Turtle Bay obsesses about Foggy Bottom, while Foggy Bottom neglects Turtle Bay.

An American Foreign Service officer assigned to an embassy in a country on the far periphery of Washington’s consciousness might see an analogous situation in the locals’ sincere, if misguided, belief that U.S. policymakers had a razor-sharp, constant focus on them. But the U.N. was different: the ubiquitous interest in what Washington thinks derived from pragmatic consideration of options rather than exotic conspiracy theories. And instead of calling on the Washington-obsessed locals as a U.S. Foreign Service officer assigned to an embassy abroad would do, I was an insider, seated at the table as one of the U.N. officials discussing U.S. policies. This often felt like an out-of-body experience, as I listened to myself impartially explaining Washington policies rather than promoting and defending them as I had for nearly three decades of proud service as an FSO.

Neither the Obama nor the Trump administration ever put me in a position where my oath of office to the United Nations was tested. I might have been the U.N.’s equivalent of a “political appointee,” a noncareer senior official, but Washington never issued political instructions to me. Soon after assuming her duties as U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N., Nikki Haley made a point of telling me directly that she understood that I worked for the U.N., not for her, and asked me to report back if anyone on her staff ever treated me otherwise. Staff at the United States Mission to the United Nations (USUN) would deliver démarches and non-papers in support of U.S. positions, but these were neither presented nor accepted as instructions.

Of course, as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council (the P5) and as the U.N.’s largest contributor both of assessed (mandatory) contributions and voluntary funding (in dollar terms), the United States hardly needs to rely surreptitiously on a U.S. national in an Under-Secretary-General slot to have influence or gain understanding of U.N. Secretariat thinking. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations can simply call the Secretary-General on the phone. Occasionally, the American respect for my U.N. status seemed to cross the line into curious indifference. When I returned from Pyongyang in December 2017—after the first U.N. political visit to North Korea in six years—at a time when war seemed imminent, many ambassadors to the U.N. came to see me for briefings, a standard part of the job. USUN never bothered (although Ambassador Haley did attend my consultations with the Security Council).

At least I never had to worry about implicit or explicit Washington orders. Not all U.N. member states resist the temptation of using their nationals in U.N. positions to advocate for their interests or report back to capitals, despite their nationals’ oaths of office as impartial international civil servants.

An Interpreter of Washington

So, if Washington has an admirable “hands-off” policy once U.S. citizens are named to high-level U.N. posts, why did the George W. Bush administration decide to lobby Ban Ki-moon to appoint a U.S. citizen to head DPA? Lynn Pascoe, my immediate predecessor, was the first U.S. citizen to head DPA in 2007; Rosemary DiCarlo, my successor, is the third.

Previously, American nationals typically headed the U.N.’s Department of Management, to maintain eagle-eyed scrutiny over the organization’s budget. But in time Washington concluded that the Under-Secretary-General for Management inside the Secretariat had less sway on budget issues than an active member state working through the budget committees that are part of the General Assembly structures. The Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, on the other hand, is the chief foreign policy adviser to the Secretary-General and is present in many, if not most, of the Secretary-General’s meetings on international peace and security issues, while the head of the Department of Management is not. That individual frequently travels with the Secretary-General and (at least under Ban Ki-moon) would be patched into the Secretary-General’s calls with foreign leaders.

To the extent that Washington wants an informed Secretary-General, having an American “translator” by his side makes sense over the longer term.

Thus, an American in that position can provide useful service for the Secretary-General in terms of interpreting or translating Washington policies and predicting likely Washington responses. Depending on the issue, this may or may not serve Washington’s immediate interest directly. But it certainly serves the Secretary-General’s interest in understanding the views of the U.N.’s most powerful member state. To the extent that Washington wants an informed Secretary-General, having an American “translator” by his side makes sense over the longer term.

A good example of the utility of this “translator” function occurred early in my tenure, when the Iranians invited Ban Ki-moon for a state visit to give the keynote address at the August 2012 Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran. Susan Rice, then U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton applied tandem pressure on Ban to say no. Given Iran’s defiance of Security Council resolutions and the incendiary remarks by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for the destruction of Israel, they argued, a state visit by the U.N. Secretary-General would reward outrageously bad behavior and undermine the importance of U.N. principles and resolutions. The problem for Ban was that a majority of U.N. member states would participate in the summit and expect him there, a fact he weighed against the unyielding U.S. opposition and his own revulsion over Khamenei’s anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

“Translating” U.S. objections into a U.N. context, I proposed that to offset the risk that a trip exclusively focused on Tehran would appear to bless Iranian behavior contrary to U.N. norms, Ban wedge the Tehran stop between visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where he would surely get (and indeed got) earfuls of complaints about Iran’s regional meddling. My understanding of U.S. motivations helped Ban find a way to mitigate U.S. concerns, as the additional destinations altered the public image of the trip. One of the most unexpected moments of my entire professional career occurred in Tehran, when I ended up as Ban’s “plus one” in a restricted meeting with Khamenei. The Supreme Leader’s hours-long rant against the United States persuaded me that whatever gaps in knowledge we in Washington may have had regarding Iran, they paled in comparison to the chasms of ignorance Khamenei displayed regarding the United States.

Jeffrey Feltman with his wife, Mary Draper, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton following his swearing in as assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs in 2009.
Courtesy of Jeffrey Feltman

Transition and Trepidation

The author, at left, with U.N. Special Representative for the Secretary-General Ghassan Salameh in Tripoli in March 2018.
Courtesy of Jeffrey Feltman

With António Guterres taking the oath of office as Ban’s successor as U.N. Secretary-General just three weeks before Donald Trump was sworn in as U.S. president, the question “What does Washington think?” assumed a more urgent tone in Turtle Bay circles. Would the U.N. inadvertently cross an ill-defined American red line, provoking President Trump to withdraw U.S. support from, and membership in, the body? Leadership transitions are never easy, and Guterres took office when the sense of an existential threat to the U.N. was palpable among staff and member states alike. An articulate and persuasive communicator in multiple languages, Guterres had received the blessing of U.N. member states in October 2016, at which point a different outcome in the U.S. elections seemed likely.

Perhaps naturally suspicious and prone to micromanagement already, Guterres took no chances of a misstep with the unexpected new administration. He quickly centralized as much control as he could of the unwieldy U.N. structures (while claiming, and perhaps even believing, he was empowering staff). What senior leaders and mid-level managers could routinely decide on their own under Ban Ki-moon soon became subject to second-guessing and, ultimately, clearance by the Secretariat’s 38th floor, occupied by the offices of Guterres and his inner circle. Career professionals soon got the message that his staff considered them and their ideas untrustworthy, as potential creators of problems between Guterres and member states and especially with a now unpredictable U.S. government. A Portuguese diplomat once remarked to me that, to understand Guterres, one needed to study his political career in Lisbon: As prime minister (1995-2002) in a minority government, he constantly sought allies, built coalitions and avoided making enemies. Above all, he wanted to avoid making an enemy of Donald Trump.

To his credit, Guterres used his considerable political skills to form a symbiotic partnership with Nikki Haley over the issue of U.N. reform. Haley could burnish her foreign policy credentials and report to her boss that the U.N. was improving under his direction; Guterres could fiddle with the U.N.’s bureaucratic machinery (telling other member states that reform was essential to continued U.S. support) in ways that suited his 38th-floor hyper control while preserving a relationship with Washington. The list grows of U.N. entities and international agreements abandoned by the Trump administration, and the United States is now behind in its assessed contributions by more than $1 billion, single-handedly creating a financial crisis in the U.N. But the U.S. (so far) remains inside the United Nations. Not unreasonably, Guterres probably considers that his top accomplishment.

1918 vs. 1945 … and Today

But what should the United States think about its U.N. membership at this point? The relationship between Washington and the United Nations has always been somewhat uneasy, as it rests on American willingness to constrain some of its power in the name of global cooperation that it cannot always control. The “democratic” parts of the U.N. structures—the General Assembly, most notably—will always attract attention (and, often, scorn) when the United States “loses” a vote, even though they are nonbinding. There is an obsession in the member state bodies with Israeli unilateral actions toward the Palestinians, while the Chinese mostly get a pass regarding the Uighurs.

All of us who have toiled in Turtle Bay can identify parts of the U.N. that seem dysfunctional or irrelevant (although we may disagree exactly on which parts those are).

The Security Council, which alone has the authority to pass binding resolutions, is currently paralyzed on critical issues, and its frozen composition differs shamefully from current political, demographic, military and economic dynamics. Traditional peacekeeping seems ill-suited for today’s conflicts, with civil wars fusing with transnational terrorism and a resurgence of proxy wars. With China’s rise and Russian assertiveness, the United States cannot expect the same deference to its leadership in the U.N. that Washington enjoyed in the immediate post–Cold War period. With leaders and citizens looking inward, COVID-19 and the accompanying economic crisis have amplified the sense that the U.N. itself and multilateralism more generally are in crisis.

Yet only a few years ago, multilateralism and the United Nations showed powerful signs of innovation and relevance: take, for instance, the unprecedented, Security Council–approved mission (2013-2014) to remove the bulk of Syria’s chemical weapons and precursors; the four-country U.N. emergency Ebola mission (2014-2015); the approval of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (2015); the agreement on financing for development goals and mechanisms (2015); the Paris Agreement on climate (2015); and the tripartite U.N. Mission in Colombia overseeing the disarmament of the FARC rebel group (2016-2017). This is not ancient history. These achievements demonstrate that the United Nations and the multilateral system can address collective challenges and act as force multipliers for U.S. interests.

Behind these initiatives was strong U.S. leadership. Even now, despite the disdain the Trump administration too often demonstrates for multilateralism, no other country comes close to the influence the United States has inside the world body. In addition, for all its creakiness after 75 years, the United Nations remains a generally accepted vehicle for burden-sharing and cost distribution for shared problems that would be hard to replicate in today’s polarized world. (Imagine trying to get the U.N. Charter drafted today.)

Today, every country is affected by the coronavirus, and the International Monetary Fund predicts that 170 countries will be significantly poorer at the end of 2020 than they were in January. Many countries are now coming to terms with systemic racism. Inequality between countries and within countries is growing. These overlapping crises are creating disruptions on a global scale that should spark action. Yet in the United States, the signs are not encouraging so far. We seem to be following a model mimicking the post–World War I abdication of responsibility rather than demonstrating 1945-style leadership and creativity.

Once a broad consensus of governments, industry and civil society groups has agreed on acceptable standards of behavior, the U.N. is the only body that can endorse global applicability.

Some lessons of the postwar period can guide us today. After 1945 the United States fostered a series of overlapping institutions, alliances and partnerships, with varying memberships and objectives, all formed by member state governments. Today, a layered approach would need to include business and civil society representatives able to grapple with questions, say, of political oversight over technological advances or methods to de-escalate potential cyberwar. Starting such discussions in the United Nations would be frustrating and futile, given global polarization and the U.N.’s exclusively governmental membership. But once a broad consensus of governments, industry and civil society groups has agreed on acceptable standards of behavior, the U.N. is the only body that can endorse global applicability. We just need to keep our expectations realistic about when and how to use the United Nations.

All of us who have toiled in Turtle Bay can identify parts of the U.N. that seem dysfunctional or irrelevant (although we may disagree exactly on which parts those are). I often teased my DPA staff that the organization made me realize just how nimble and flexible the State Department was—not words I used to describe State while serving there. Also compared to State, itself not always the most empathetic employer, the U.N. treats its own career staff abysmally, neglecting career development and too often ignoring staff welfare. In August 2019, when three U.N. civilian staff members were murdered in Benghazi, Libya, the Secretary-General swiftly issued public condemnation; but neither he nor his office ever called the U.N.’s mission in Libya to express condolences and offer support. U.N. professionals advocating respect for human rights are currently viewed as particularly suspect, since human rights advocacy can create tensions with U.N. member states. (So far, however, the organization still manages to recruit astonishingly talented and motivated individuals from all over the world, and Guterres deserves credit for significant progress in promoting gender parity at all levels.)

These are not new problems, although 38th-floor disdain for career professionals, combined with the financial crisis provoked by U.S. arrears, has sunk U.N. staff morale to new lows. But if genuine, comprehensive reform often seems out of reach, the organization’s replacement or abolition seems worse.

More than any other country, the United States shaped the development of the U.N. system and brought about the current operating system of normative values in the Turtle Bay machinery. Walking away from where we have, essentially, a home-field advantage in an increasingly competitive world seems short-sighted and foolish: how delighted China and Russia must be when we abandon the playing field and create vacuums they can fill. But U.N. relevance and value as a force multiplier for our interests and values rest on the United States exercising leadership that simultaneously manages to be thoughtful, forceful and respectful.

Jeffrey Feltman is the John C. Whitehead Visiting Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. He served as United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs from 2012 to 2018. Before retiring from the State Department with the rank of Career Minister in 2012, he was the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs (2009-2012). He served as U.S. ambassador to Lebanon (2004-2008) and had postings in Baghdad, Erbil, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Tunis, Amman, Budapest and Port-au-Prince.