How will Susan Rice be remembered at the United Nations? Since President Barack Obama announced his decision to appoint Rice as his national security adviser last week, analyses of her service at the U.N. since 2009 have swung from the gossipy to the philosophical. The gossips have recycled stories of Rice’s robust sparring with her counterparts, which at times involved fiery language. The philosophers have reflected on the ambassador’s role in advancing the cause of humanitarian intervention in Libya, as well as in later debates over nonintervention in Syria.
But many commentators have missed one basic point: Rice kept the job of U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations from becoming irrelevant. By 2009, the post risked marginalization due to factors ranging from the George W. Bush administration’s ill-treatment of the U.N. to the rise of the G-20 as an alternative forum for the big powers. Rice reasserted the centrality of the U.N. to American policy on issues from Iran to the Koreas.
Over the past two years, as the U.S. and Russia have traded blows over Syria in the Security Council, it has been easy enough to feel depressed about the state of multilateralism. But it’s equally easy to forget how excruciating U.N. diplomacy had become during the later years of the Bush administration.