When President-elect Barack Obama announced his nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, he described the world body as both indispensable and imperfect. The woman whom Obama has asked to represent the country there and push for reforms has been a key figure on his foreign policy team since the start of his bid for the White House.
Susan Rice has just the type of impressive resume you would expect of a United Nations ambassador.
She is a graduate of Stanford University and a Rhodes Scholar who earned her doctorate at Oxford University. And she has often spoken of the need for multilateral diplomacy to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
"While, of course, elements of these challenges and elements of the counterterrorism challenge require the use of force, you can't shoot a pandemic disease, and you can't shoot climate change and, in fact, you can't deal with these challenges effectively unless you have collaborative solutions that involve states and peoples all over the world," she told NPR in June.
Before joining Obama's campaign, Rice — who is not related to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where she focused on foreign policy, security and global poverty. She also served as the assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the Clinton administration and was a witness to the genocide in Rwanda.
She has been a sharp critic of the Bush administration's handling of the conflict in Darfur. In the NPR interview, she called Darfur a frustrating and tragic case of the United States' rhetoric not matching reality.
"Obviously, it is not a place where you want to resort to force, but you want to protect those innocent civilians who have no protection right now," Rice said. "We haven't taken steps to ensure that the U.N.-African force, which was authorized, comes up to strength and has the helicopters that it needs to be effective.
"How is it that the international community can't muster 12, 24, 36 helicopters to support a crucial mission to prevent what we have called genocide?" she added.
If confirmed as ambassador, Rice, 44, will likely be asking that same question of the U.N. Security Council. She is known to be tough and has the stamina for the long meetings that take place at the U.N., according to Nancy Soderberg, who was one of the top U.S. diplomats at the world body during the Clinton administration.
"She actually initially worked on peacekeeping issues, which will serve her well at the U.N. [She] quickly rose up the ranks and was made an assistant secretary in the second term," Soderberg said. "She's brilliant, she's nice, and the U.N. community will just fall in love with her."
The head of the United Nations Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group, released a statement praising Rice as well as Obama's decision to make the post of U.N. ambassador a Cabinet-level position once again — as it was during the Clinton years.
This "sends an unambiguous signal to the world that the United States intends to re-engage with the United Nations at the highest levels," foundation President Timothy E. Wirth said in the statement. "Ms. Rice understands the importance of fostering international cooperation as a means of tackling the great global challenges we face, including climate change, poverty, nuclear proliferation and terrorism. The United Nations Foundation supports swift confirmation of Susan Rice."
Soderberg says that giving Rice and her team a seat at the table at the White House (though usually by video conference) is symbolic and important.
"You are part of the team that sets the policy, and if you don't have a seat at the table, the policy doesn't reflect the priorities of the U.N., and Obama understands that it was a mistake for Bush to degrade it," Soderberg says. "Toward the second term, they began to swing back around and show the U.N. some respect, and you have to. It is a frustrating organization. There are 192 countries that don't share our priorities, but you ignore them at our peril."
If confirmed, Rice would take on the job at a time when the global financial crisis is fueling resentment toward the United States and threatening to undermine much of the work the U.N. does to fight poverty around the globe.