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by Catherine Bertini

Editor’s note: The author was Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme 1992-2002 and United Nations Under Secretary General for Management 2003-2005.

President Biden’s nomination of Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield as US Ambassador to the United Nations promises to bring effective leadership, professionalism, and immense knowledge to the role. She is one of only a few American diplomats who have had leadership postings dealing with important UN operations at every level—in countries where she served as a foreign service officer, in Geneva, and in Washington DC. In New York, the ambassador will need to summon all her skills and experience to lead the American team at the US mission to the UN.

Along with the USUN ambassador and the Secretary of State, US multilateral efforts are led by the Assistant Secretaries of the Bureau of International Organizations and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration and the Permanent Representatives to the UN in Geneva, Rome, Vienna, and Nairobi.

The president should nominate people for these positions who have in-depth knowledge of the system and related issues, solid judgment, and strong interpersonal skills. The diplomats must be strategic, prepared, creative, goal oriented, and personally engaging. Process oriented micro-managers will not accomplish much.

These multilateral diplomats must juggle a complicated morass of interlocking ecosystems of member states, UN principal organs based in New York, agencies, boards, commissions, and the influence of the press, the Red Cross movement, non-governmental organizations (including think tanks and foundations), all while representing their government and convincing ‘all of the above’ that the United States of America once again puts a high value on multilateralism and institutions that reflect it.

Some of the first actions of the Biden administration will send that message—such as the return to the World Health Organization, supporting the UN Population Fund, and a re-commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, but it will be the tone established by his appointees that will prove to the broader international community that the US is serious.

Setting Goals

The administration should set broad goals for what it intends to achieve or set in motion at the UN during these next four years, as well as goals at each of its multilateral missions. This is true whether establishing goals at the United Nations Security Council, the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or any other UN entity. Key to this effort is internal multi-departmental US administration support and communication. For instance, with the State Department as the lead, the Department of Agriculture (USDA), US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Treasury Department should all be part of goal setting discussions for US policies relative to the UN agencies based in Rome – the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

For appointments to multilateral posts, the administration should consider the culture inherent in each location as well as the substance of the roles in each of the major postings. New York is different than Geneva, which is different than Rome, and so on.

New York is a political place. Important decisions made there are primarily done through the major organs of the UN, which are headquartered in New York. Successful representatives are those who can maneuver through complex political environments, making ‘friends,’ influencing agendas, and having success in getting the large ship of any UN organization moved in a desired direction.

Those who serve from other countries are often people who choose multilateral as a track in their foreign ministries, and for whom a posting in NY, at any level in their career, represents a big notch in their belt. As there is little press coverage of the intricacies of internal UN statements or actions, many junior diplomats from other countries can criticize the US on issues that their national leadership would never broach, either for fear of alienating American support, or because the issues are not important enough for their attention. For the diplomats in NY, criticizing the US in this context is a free shot, and it makes them look good as they progress up their career ladder.

The UN agencies headquartered in Rome and Geneva, however, though not devoid of politics, generally put a higher priority on substance. Successful diplomats in these postings often have significant experience in relevant issues, for instance, agriculture or development and humanitarian assistance in Rome. The US ambassador in Geneva has a large remit; the administration should nominate someone with significant organizational skills to have the most impact.

Increasing US Staff at the UN

The Biden administration also has another personnel subset to consider—the appointment of Americans to UN organizations. Contrary to common belief, the US is NOT overrepresented on the staff of most organizations of the UN. There is significant room for improvement. The State Department needs a much more robust program for assisting Americans applying for jobs within the UN. The department should significantly enhance its Junior Professional Officer program, which selects young Americans to join the UN, and it should better connect returning Peace Corps Volunteers to UN opportunities.

In addition, the US should review all the positions of UN agency heads and deputies, know when they are coming open, determine which would be appropriate for qualified Americans to lead, and develop a strategy for same. Too often, the US waits until too late to decide to get involved. China, on the other hand, has been regularly active in recent years and now holds four UN agency head jobs—all elected by member states, a feat only a few Americans have accomplished.

Putting Forward Americans for the Top Jobs

Until 1992, the US had never held the top job at the World Food Programme despite providing more than one third of the WFP’s resources annually. Secretary of State James Baker agreed to USDA Secretary Clayton Yeutter’s proposal to put forward a US candidate for the position, even knowing that the US might eventually have to relinquish one of its other appointed UN agency positions. I was fortunate to be the candidate chosen. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations John Bolton ran the “campaign” to convince UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, and the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Edouard Saouma (not considered a US fan) to appoint me. This required patience and strategy, but I was appointed, and then reappointed to a second term with the support of the Clinton administration. In the nineteen years since I left, the position has been held by four others – all Americans.

The decision of whether one country should maintain a semi-permanent hold on one UN position has to be part of an overall US strategy. The UN promotes diversity in nationalities on paper, but often not in reality. The position of UN Under Secretary General for Peace Operations has been held by France for the last 24 years. The World Bank and UNICEF have always had American leadership. UK citizens have headed the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs since 2007. A Russian national is usually the head of the UN Geneva office—and so on.

Reviewing and Reforming the System

Beyond the grand strategies and priorities that envelop the UN Security Council and General Assembly, the US needs to think more broadly about the health of the multilateral system. Some issues cry out for attention—such as the way the international community shares information and support globally during a global health crisis, or the numbers of forcibly displaced people being larger now than any time since World War II. The US must address responses to these issues and more broadly about the basic functioning of most UN agencies.

Most UN entities were created in the aftermath of WWII and have never been adequately reviewed against their mandates and effectiveness. When Kofi Annan first became the Secretary General in 1997, he proposed that all UN agency organization mandates be reviewed. The idea was dead on arrival. Each agency has its own governing board, so projects like this are difficult—but not impossible. Even the humanitarian agencies, which are considered among the best run, were built with top-down structures, significant donor earmarking, and little feedback from the people they serve. The large financial investment made by the US each year would be more responsibly met by a general review of mandates, funding, and operations, to ensure objectives and goals are well met.

The US review should include the way the UN hires, supports, promotes, and manages its human resources operations—antiquated systems made worse by the vast expansion of temporary appointments which, by design, blunt out transparency and put young staff members wanting extensions at risk of the whims of their supervisors

In the Bush 41 administration, Juliette McLennan, the first US Ambassador on the Status of Women, was outspoken in UN bodies about the need for the UN to hire and promote more women. Since then, approximately one-third of the people the US recommends for top UN posts have been women. Perhaps the US could match Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ commitment to fifty percent female appointments. In addition, it should work to ensure that each agency has a priority for diversity within its own personnel policies.

In 2019 I published a paper entitled “Leading Change in United Nations Organizations”.1 After consulting with two dozen former UN officials, I did so to provide “food for thought for incoming senior officials of the United Nations on a range of issues related to leading their organizations and embarking on change.” Change can happen even without a broad consensus on a political decision of the UNGA or other grand body.

To change, however, a UN agency leader must be committed to do so and strong enough to handle the process, or an agency board must insist on it. The US multilateral team could make significant progress in improving systems and agencies, even if it does not take on the entire system. Priority should be given to influencing the choice of agency heads for each UN organization around the issue of their proven change leadership and management capacity. The US should also ensure that diplomats who sit in the US chair at board meetings are trained and capable of moving a process along. As multiple people take turns in the same US board seat, this also requires assuring strong communications between US agencies and team members; training on effective board membership and an effective communications system are keys to success.

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield and the entire Biden-Harris multilateral team have challenging assignments ahead. They will have to design their work and their actions in careful and deliberate manners. Working together, they can achieve a lot in the best interest of the United States of America and indeed, the world.End.




Catherine Bertini
UN Photo

Catherine Bertini is a Distinguished Fellow, Global Food & Agriculture, Chicago Council on Global Affairs. As Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme 1992–2002, she was the first American woman to serve as a UN agency head, later serving as Under Secretary General for Management, United Nations 2003–2005. In 2003, she was named the World Food Prize laureate for her success in leading major change at the World Food Programme. WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020.


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