You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why Do So Many Intellectuals Get Appointed as U.N. Ambassador?

There’s a classic Simpsons where the children are participating in that bizarre elementary-school pageant known as Model United Nations. Things get out of hand, bickering ensues, and Principal Skinner issues his ultimatum: “Do you kids want to be like the real U.N.? Or just squabble and waste time?”

Yet pan down the list of past U.N. Ambassadors, and you will notice something interesting: more than any other prominent executive branch position, the ambassadorship in Turtle Bay has been filled by intellectuals. Not merely “people who are smart and have advanced degrees,” but people whom you would, perhaps, describe as men or women of letters; people whom even the French would consider intellectuals. Arthur Goldberg had been a Supreme Court justice. Daniel Patrick Moynihan hobnobbed with the neoconservative circle around The Public Interest and, even in government, was most (in)famous for a report on African-American families. Jeane Kirkpatrick had a socialist past and contributed prominent articles to Commentary. Even established politicians and diplomats who held the job tended to be scholarly types like Adlai Stevenson and Richard Holbrooke. You could even lump John Bolton, a prolific think-tanker, into this category.

In nominating Samantha Power to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Barack Obama is following in that tradition. Power is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a history of genocide, a former Harvard professor, and, before she joined government, a frequent contributor to tony magazines like The New Yorker and, er, The New Republic. (She’s also married to Cass Sunstein, the Harvard law professor, TNR contributing editor, and fellow public intellectual.)

Jefferson and Kissinger were both Secretaries of State, and even Robert Reich served as Secretary of Labor. But there is clearly something about U.N. Ambassador that provokes presidents to nominate intellectuals. What is that something, and what does it say about the Power pick? A few theories:

Who’s the boss? The average public intellectual’s CV doesn’t feature many line items that involve managing anything bigger than a semester’s roster of teaching assistants. By contrast, the Secretary of Defense is in charge of more than three million employees. The Secretary of State runs a far-flung bureaucracy with a massive budget. Even the U.S. Embassy in Beijing has close to 1,000 employees beneath the ambassador. With only about 150 employees, the American U.N. mission is a place where even an inept executive can’t do much harm.

New York, New York. The ambassador to the U.N. is the only top executive-branch position based in the country’s intellectual and media capital. The other major diplomatic jobs are in Washington—a city where the media opportunities are many, but the opportunities for hobnobbing with literary and artistic titans are fewer1—or, worse still, abroad: A three-year hitch in New Delhi or Tokyo may be rewarding or vitally important, but it tends to make you disappear from the scene for a while2.

Low stakes. Take up residence at the embassy in Moscow and you’re responsible for managing the relationship with a large foreign government—a task that involves cultivating professional and personal ties with government leaders and possibly attaining real influence. In Turtle Bay, you’re just representing: You have to follow instructions from Washington when it comes to voting, and cultivating fellow U.N. ambassadors can only accomplish so much, since they have to do the same thing. All the same, there’s a national interest in having someone of substance representing us on a stage with 192 other countries: This is the only ambassador that is considered Cabinet-level.

Polymathematics. One of the distinguishing traits of the intellectual is, to varying extents, that he or she is a generalist, at home with all manner of subject matter: Moynihan had thoughts about American inner cities, Cold War alliances, and everything in between. U.S. ambassadors to other countries who are not donor-types tend to be career foreign service officers with proven abilities to master the language, politics, and culture of a specific country. The U.N. ambassador, on the other hand, is by definition a dilettante. Power is something of an exception to this rule, in that one of her areas of expertise is, in fact, international governing bodies like the U.N. (the same is true, terrifyingly, of John Bolton). But Power is not a professional diplomat. And she won’t need to be.

There are all good reasons why a president could nominate an intellectual to this position. Why would he, though?

Spokesman-in-chief. The U.N. ambassador has served as an eloquent mouthpiece for American values at the clearest symbol of “the world community” that exists. Think of Stevenson standing up to the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or Moynihan denouncing Communism and the equation of Zionism with racism. Particularly at the U.N.’s lowest moments, where the place seems little more than a collection of schoolchildren squabbling and wasting time, the ambassador’s job is less to get things done and more to forcefully advocate for what the adminstration believes America should stand for. Given how justifiably harsh “A Problem From Hell” was toward U.S. administrations that looked on as genocides took place3, Power seems like a great choice: she is fierce, she is articulate, and she is decidedly un-diplomatic—and that’s exactly what the job calls for.

  1. Novelist Claire Messud recently said, “I always felt that all the people who you knew and hadn’t been friends with in college—they were all in Washington.”

  2. Quick: Can you remember the name of America’s ambassador in Beijing, our second—or possibly first—most important ambassadorship? It’s Gary Locke.

  3. Which may now include the present one