What Does the U.S. Ambassador at the United Nations Do?


June 20, 2005 -- -- The U.S. mission to the United Nations was formally established on April 28, 1947. The United States has its own representative with the title of ambassador. An ambassador is a diplomatic official accredited to a foreign country or government, or in the case of the United Nations, an international organization, to serve as the official representative of his or her own country.

What does the United States ambassador to the United Nations do?

Simply put, U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations -- or "permanent representatives," as they are called -- represent U.S. interests. The No. 1 duty is to keep the U.S. State Department informed of events at the United Nations. The ambassador then makes recommendations to the State Department and the president as to what course of action the United States should pursue.

Other Duties

U.S. ambassadors at the United Nations can be responsible for pushing the sometimes-bloated organization to streamline its budgets, as Richard Holbrooke did in exchange for securing almost $1 billion in back dues in 2000 and 2001. They can successfully push for important Security Council resolutions, as John Negroponte did when the council passed the resolution that President Bush eventually cited in going to war in Iraq. And they can even block secretaries-general from confirmation, as Madeleine Albright did with Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1996. They're almost always the most visible person at the United Nations except for the secretary-general himself.

How are they chosen?

U.S. Ambassadors to the United Nations are approved by the Senate after being nominated by the president.

Are they just there to implement White House policy, or do they set it themselves?

Every country at the United Nations is more or less beholden to its capital, and each U.S. ambassador must stay on message with Washington, D.C. Holbrooke was probably one of the more independent recent ambassadors, creating what some have called a "Holbrooke policy" that he dictated to Washington rather than vice versa. In Bolton's case, Republican Sen. John Voinovich has said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told him that Bolton would be "closely supervised" while at the United Nations. Not exactly an indication that he'll have free rein.

Has it mattered that the United States hasn't had an ambassador at the United Nations since late last year?

With all due respect to the acting ambassador, Anne Patterson, who is very well respected within the United Nations, it has mattered. For example, the Security Council hasn't been able to impose sanctions on the Sudanese government because the committee overseeing the sanctions is stalled by Chinese objections. Some U.N. diplomats say somebody like Bolton would be able to muscle the Chinese. On reforming the United Nations, European diplomats especially have used the absence of a well-known U.S. face to push their version of Security Council expansion with barely any U.S. objection, until recently.

Will the Senate fight hurt Bolton when he arrives at the United Nations?

Bolton's possible future colleagues at the United Nations say he is not one to think of himself as bruised by a Washington political battle, but the U.N.'s member states are all watching the confirmation process, and some diplomats believe he'll be damaged goods upon arrival. But once he's at the United Nations, it's not obvious that anybody will treat him differently over the long run because of the confirmation delay. Holbrooke's confirmation was delayed over a year, and he largely shrugged it off, though his delays were caused by less personal objections.

What if the Senate doesn't confirm Bolton today?

Administration officials privately concede that Bolton may not make it. Bush could appoint Bolton to the job while the Senate is in recess, but that is almost universally viewed as a bad idea -- member states would almost certainly question his authority, at least initially, and the Senate would probably never confirm him for any future job.

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