In assuming his position at the United Nations, ambassador Richard Holbrooke brings his personal access to power, a sharp intelligence and a capacity, unusual in government, to translate ideas into action. It is a time of continuing opportunity at the UN for American leadership, but Holbrooke will be dealing with a Secretariat tired of being insulted and demeaned by US leaders. He will be dealing with member states, including our closest allies, who wonder how a great nation can be so untrue to its treaty obligations and who are fatigued by US rhetoric and disdain for the opinions of others. Holbrooke will confront a UN that knows how important US leadership and support are to its success but that has witnessed US abandonment of the institution it primarily created.
Holbrooke knows that most of his new colleagues believe he sees the UN as a way station on his road to becoming Secretary of State in a Gore administration. They presume he’ll play “the Albright game”–doing and saying nothing to offend Senator Jesse Helms, who may control his future promotion. They expect he will defend the Helms-Biden compromise on US indebtedness to the UN without doing battle in Washington against the conditions imposed by Congress that arbitrarily and unilaterally reduce our obligations and send the message that Congress and the President view the UN as a marginal factor in our foreign policy, to be used only when there’s no better means to protect narrowly defined US interests. They also expect that Holbrooke, like his predecessors Madeleine Albright and Bill Richardson, will spend most of his time in Washington or traveling the world rather than doing the homework of an ambassador–building coalition positions in the Security Council and leading the General Assembly to consensus decisions based on world concerns rather than inside-the-Beltway xenophobia.
How can Holbrooke make his tenure constructive? First, he must treat the United Nations and his diplomatic colleagues with respect by listening to their opinions. Second, he must help the Secretariat and the UN make its assignment as administrator of Kosovo a success. Now the UN has been left to clean up the ravages of war and, though it is doing an excellent job in assembling the necessary personnel and resources, the Secretary General is left to beg for the requisite funds. Holbrooke should make the United States a supportive partner in Kosovo rather than scapegoat the UN for the things that go wrong. If, as he says, his top priority is to see that UN reforms are completed, let him begin by assuring the UN the resources to carry out responsibilities like Kosovo. Finally, he should bring the Third World back into America’s consciousness, using the UN as a forum and an instrument to address the needs of the lesser-developed countries.
Holbrooke should put the President, Albright and Congress to shame by reminding the American people that the relatively few dollars we spend on the UN are the most cost-effective investment we can make in our security as well as in our national ideals. We do not chastise him for his ambition as his enemies do. We only hope that in the pursuit of that ambition he will make a commitment to a definition of America’s interests that reflects not unilateralism but genuine leadership.