Obama's choice to heal rifts at UN

Diplomats believe the appointment of Susan Rice as envoy to the UN indicates a 'dramatically different direction' in US foreign policy.

Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state, has expertise in African affairs.
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NEW YORK // UN diplomats are positive about the choice of Susan Rice as the next US ambassador to the world body, with hopes of renewed multilateral decision-making. Analysts said the selection of Ms Rice, a Rhodes scholar-turned-diplomat, by the president-elect, Barack Obama, indicates an important development in the strained relationship between America and the United Nations. The presidency of George W Bush saw tensions grow between the United States and many of the world body's 191 other members, with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 ushering in a bleak era in global relations. But the selection of Ms Rice, a tough-talker with expertise in reducing poverty in the developing world, is regarded as signalling positive overtures to the international community. Jeffrey Laurenti, director of foreign policy programmes at the Century Foundation, said the incoming 44-year-old ambassador indicates a "dramatically different direction" in US foreign policy. "Obama's people have said they believe in what Roosevelt and Truman created - an international political system that exists to avert the use of armed force rather than rely heavily on it," the New York-based analyst said. He said Ms Rice, an African-American neither "ethnically or socially from the American political elite, sends a hugely important signal of an administration that represents a larger slice of humanity". A spokesman for the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, told reporters on Monday he was looking forward to working with the Obama administration in a "new era of partnership". US engagement is widely perceived as essential for the UN to achieve its goals. Meanwhile, Mr Obama described the United Nations as "an indispensable and imperfect forum for collective action against terror and proliferation, climate change and genocide, poverty and disease". Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes the Bush presidency as "arguably the most tumultuous in the history of the world body". He characterises US attitudes with the phrase: "It's either my way or the highway." After rejecting Security Council diplomacy over Iraq and spearheading a bespoke coalition invasion, the Bush administration "rubbed salt in the wounds" in 2005 by appointing as its ambassador John Bolton, who famously said the loss of 10 floors from Manhattan's 38-storey Secretariat building "wouldn't make a bit of difference". Between 2000 and 2003, the number of nations voting alongside the United States on resolutions dropped to 23 per cent from 43 per cent. In such a climate, UN insiders avidly watched the presidential race between Mr Obama and John McCain, who saw the UN as a "deeply flawed organisation with few redeeming qualities ? which empowers dictators and leads to policies of the lowest common denominator", Mr Patrick said. Mr McCain's popularity dropped further when he voiced support for a "League of Democracies" to rival the UN as a multilateral world body. Mr Laurenti described the "unalloyed enthusiasm" with which Mr Obama's election victory was greeted by "diplomats from most of the countries" in the General Assembly chamber. The analyst said he expected a "change in atmosphere from day one" with Ms Rice engaging in multilateral diplomacy and with greater respect for international law than the outgoing administration. The much-anticipated closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and support for international conventions against torture will repair a record that has "so blackened the American reputation" abroad, he said. Ms Rice, who has no relation to the outgoing secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, must be confirmed by the US Senate before assuming the post in January with the elevated status of also sitting in the White House cabinet alongside Hillary Clinton, the selected secretary of state. Ms Rice, a former National Security Council member and former assistant secretary of state with expertise in Africa, marks a "re-commitment to diplomacy and talking to ones enemies as well as one's friends", Mr Patrick said. But the analyst warned that the transition will not be "as rosy as some people at the United Nations hope". "It will be a policy of tough love," said Mr Patrick, a childhood friend of Ms Rice. "There will be day in, day out, pounding of shoe leather on the corridors of the UN, bringing coalitions together to try to undermine some of the less helpful blocs that occasionally arise in the UN." But the analyst warned that this will be no re-run of the 1990s, when US global hegemony went largely unchallenged. Ms Rice, he said, will have to deal with the emergence of a more multi-polar world. jreinl@thenational.ae