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.

The Multilateralist

World Bank Charts New Energy Course

The World Bank's executive board debated yesterday a new policy on investments in the energy sector. The future of coal projects was a particular focus of the policy paper the board members considered:

The paper addresses the use of fossil fuels. It affirms that the World Bank Group will “only in rare circumstances” provide financial support for new greenfield coal power generation projects, such as “meeting basic energy needs in countries with no feasible alternatives.” It says the Bank Group will scale up its work helping countries develop national and regional markets for natural gas, the fossil fuel with the lowest carbon intensity.  The paper also confirms the Bank Group’s intention to increase support for hydropower projects.

As Brad Plumer noted here, a project in the Balkans will provide an early test of just how rare support for coal projects will be:

A big early test case for both the White House and the World Bank will come in Kosovo, which is planning to build a new 600-megawatt plant fired by lignite coal, a particularly carbon-intensive fuel. The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided technical assistance to Kosovo over the years, and the World Bank is deciding whether to provide loan guarantees for the project.

Michael Brune of the Sierra Club is cautiously optimistic that the strategy document may mark a real shift in Bank policy. "This is an important first step for helping developing countries around the world avoid the health and environmental costs of coal pollution," he wrote in the Guardian. "Jim Yong Kim showed he was up to the test, but we'll be watching closely to make sure this policy is backed up by real action."

As was discussed yesterday, however, the hydropower projects that the Bank may shift toward as it eschews coal have their own environmental critics.