New American U.N. Ambassador Faces Tough First Challenge On Syria


In her past life as an advocate against mass atrocities, Samantha Power wrote about the problem from hell. Now, thrust into the middle of high-stakes negotiations on Syria as the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations, she’s living it.

Power was only just recently confirmed to take the place of Susan Rice as the U.S. representative at the United Nations, a return to government service after taking a leave from the National Security Council just months earlier in March of this year. At her confirmation hearing for the role, Power slammed the U.N. for not moving on Syria, calling its inaction a “disgrace that history will judge harshly.”

In fact, the Syria crisis was supposed to be for the most part off her plate, having seen action blocked in the U.N. Security Council time and time again through Russian and Chinese vetoes. When speaking at the Center for American Progress last week, she was so certain that this venue was blocked she deemed it “naive” to believe that the Council would be able to mitigate the issue. “In short, the Security Council the world needs to deal with this urgent crisis is not the Security Council we have,” Power said at the time.

Instead, the issue has been dumped squarely back in her lap, the result of a rapid shift in diplomatic posture from the United States following Russia proposing that Syria hand over its chemical weapons to the international community. France — one of the five permanent veto-wielding members of the Council along with Russia, China, Britain, and the U.S. — quickly moved to propose a binding resolution that would force Syria to follow through on handing over its weapons. The elements of a proposal, which among other things firmly blames the Syrian government for launching a chemical weapons attack against civilians on Aug. 21 and threatens action if Syria doesn’t comply — was met with initial skepticism from Russia, which indicated that it would rather see a non-binding Presidential Statement on the matter.


That tension between the West and Russia, ever present when discussing Syria, means that Power will be forced to navigate treacherous waters in order to see the West’s resolution pass. Power’s newcomer status at Turtle Bay becomes all the more transparent when compared to the man who will either be her opponent or partner in these discussions. Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin is a seasoned diplomat, having been at the U.N. since 2007. A fluent English speaker, Churkin and Susan Rice displayed an at times friendly rivalry that flared to the point of bitterness when Syria was on the table as the Russian used his ability to veto Western drafts frequently.

“Purely in terms of U.N. negotiating experience, Power/Kerry way outgunned by Churkin/Lavrov,” American University professor and U.N. expert David Bosco tweeted out earlier today, referring to Churkin’s relationship with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. When ThinkProgress spoke with him he expanded on the idea, noting that while in these sort of high-stakes negotiations, the decision making can often eclipse the U.N. and go directly between capitals, experience in New York still matters.

“Whether you consider it Samantha Power versus Vitaly Churkin or John Kerry versus Sergey Lavrov, between them, Lavrov and Churkin have decades of experience in intense U.N. Security Council negotiations,” Bosco said. “I don’t want to overstate it, I don’t think it’s the be all and end all, but negotiation experience and understanding the Council dynamics, that matters to some degree.”

On the other hand, having a diplomat that hasn’t built up Rice’s reputation for sharp words may play well in the current debate. “Although having personal relationships matter in U.N. politics as they do in all levels of politics, essentially in the Security Council decisions are primarily made in relation to their governments’ core values and interests,” said Jeffrey Laurenti, a longtime analyst of the U.N. who has worked with the United Nations Association and The Century Foundation.

“To the extent Ambassador Power is presenting a case that is well-grounded in most countries values and interests, whether she is ‘one of the guys’ behind the scenes is of lesser importance,” Laurenti went on, noting that Power’s proximity to Obama himself is also a plus that makes up for her lack of diplomatic experience.


Richard Gowan, a U.N. scholar with New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, warns that Power will need to keep her cool when meeting with the Russian mission. “Churkin enjoys verbal sparring and can fire off some good one-liners, both in private and in public,” Gowan said in an email to ThinkProgress. “Power will need to keep her temper, especially as Churkin is bound to play around with her earlier arguments for unilateral action. He may see this as a chance to frame Power as an enemy of the U.N., which would be unfair but effective.”

In the end, it may wind up that the path for Power to achieve a deal is smoother than it seems at first glance, given the desire of both Russia and the U.S. to find a solution. The fact remains that Russia canceled the meeting of the Council it had called yesterday to present text for a statement, a possible sign that the move was a feint. Instead, the full Permanent Five members of the Council will be meeting Wednesday afternoon to hammer out a possible text. As Power sits across from Churkin and the other permanent representatives in the room, the rhetoric from the last 48 hours will matter far less than whether they truly want to see a Syria free from chemical weapons.