When Richard Holbrooke presents his credentials to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan today, he takes up a post whose former occupants - former President George Bush, Sen. Patrick Moynihan, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - have shown it can be a steppingstone to higher office.
"It's an opportunity to have your performance judged," says Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, who was Mr. Bush's UN ambassador.
If Vice President Al Gore wins the presidential race next year, he may well tap Mr. Holbrooke, a long-time friend, as secretary of state.
But Holbrooke will not have an easy time at the United Nations. The Clinton administration's star diplomatic troubleshooter - the architect of the Dayton Peace Accord on Bosnia - takes office at a time when the United States' standing at the world body is at an all-time low. And it's not clear that Holbrooke, who has personally committed himself to reducing US contributions to the UN, will be the best fit with the world body.
The UN is owed more than $1 billion by its wealthiest member. Just how much is also a sore point in itself. The UN argues for $1.6 billion. The US tally is $1.2 billion. Regardless, the US faces the strong possibility of losing its vote in the General Assembly if it fails to pay at least $350 million by the end of this year.
And as if to reinforce Washington's tightwad image, Holbrooke has called for the American share of the UN budget to be cut from 25 percent to 20 percent. He also wants the US role in funding peacekeeping operations cut from from 31 percent to 25 percent.
As a result, many diplomats here are convinced that the UN does not figure highly in Washington's foreign policy. NATO bombings in Yugoslavia and British-American air strikes in Iraq went ahead without the Security Council's countenance.
"There's a very strong sense that the UN is peripheral to US interest," says Robert Gregg, professor of international relations at American University in Washington. "It can be used to serve US national interest, but for the most part there's a preference to do something unilateral or through NATO allies."
Undersecretary Pickering contends that the Clinton administration does view the UN as an important forum, but concedes that certain "critical issues" do have to be dealt with outside the UN.
"The fact is that the United Nations has not been able to come together on important issues," says Mr. Pickering, referring to the Security Council's deadlock on Kosovo and Iraq.
"NATO is not an alternative to the UN. In peacekeeping, NATO does well, but there's a thousand other issues that the UN handles."
But in so many of the thousand other issues, the US appears to be a reluctant supporter or even an obstructionist. It will decrease its voluntary contribution to the UN Development Program from the current $100 million to $80 million next year. And it has yet to jump on board several international treaties, including the statute for an international criminal court, the land-mines ban, and the convention on the rights of children. Despite their frustrations with the US, most diplomats here have been eagerly awaiting Holbrooke's arrival. The ambassadorial post, which holds Cabinet rank, has been vacant for a year, ever since Bill Richardson left to become Energy Secretary.
"It's very important that the ambassador have political clout in his own capital, not just someone who reads the cable from Washington," says Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister and former high representative in Bosnia. "I remember [during the Bosnian war] we said, We can talk to Holbrooke because he can influence Washington," adds Bildt, who was the chief European negotiator on the conflict that catapulted Holbrooke to near-celebrity status.
Holbrooke's confirmation was stalled for 14 months as the Justice Department inquired into his personal finances - and congressional conservatives maneuvered on unrelated matters. But when his confirmation vote came in the Senate, it was positive: 81 to 16.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas, blamed him for a Balkans policy that forces "factions to live together in an American model."
It is a criticism that has been heard before. "Stopping the violence itself is a great achievement," says Charles King, an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington.
"The price of that is a long-term international and US commitment to keeping troops in Bosnia."
Negotiators at Dayton did not have a long-sighted approach and therefore left Bosnia in a state of simmering and dangerous tensions similar to Cyprus's problem, Mr. King adds.
"While it's true that the United States, in particular Richard Holbrooke, did a great deal to bring the cessation of violence in 1995, it was largely because of the same cast of characters that it didn't happen earlier."
Most political pundits and diplomats, however, give Holbrooke high marks for Dayton. So given his prominence and his past successes, Holbrooke will play a big role in formulating US policies, says Pickering.
Yet that might not be enough to turn US-UN relations around.
"I don't think that Holbrooke's presence is going to make a difference," says Gregg. "There have been other times when we have sent somebody to the UN as ambassador with the anticipation that this was going to lead to a turnaround in US-UN relations ... Holbrooke is not going to be the tail wagging the dog."
The new ambassador has a little more than a year until President Clinton leaves office, hardly enough time to persuade Congress to adopt a more positive attitude toward the world body, mend fences with his colleagues in New York, and alter the course of the titanic UN bureaucracy.
And though his forcefulness may have gotten him the president's ear during the Bosnian war, it may work against him in the clubby atmosphere of the UN. Both friends and critics describe Holbrooke as "forceful" and "arrogant" as well as brilliant.
"He wasn't that easy to get along with," recalls Jon Pooler, one of his former roommates at Brown University. His uncompromising personality can feel abrasive to some people who do not know him well, Mr. Pooler adds, but he was also a fun-loving person who enjoyed bowling on Sundays and played on the tennis team.
Another classmate points out that Holbrooke was a good leader. As editor of the college newspaper in the early 1960s, he made a point of recruiting women on the staff. "He was a very strong and thoughtful editor who knew how to get the best out of people," says Prentice Bowsher.
"The public perception is that Holbrooke is a man who dominates, but he is also a man of dialogue and diplomacy," says Bildt.
"I've known him for a very long time," says Pickering, "He has the capability to develop warm relations."
Diplomats here can breathe a sigh of relief that at least Holbrooke has a generally positive disposition toward the UN.
Some African delegates, however, quietly complain that Washington has once again appointed a Eurocentric representative. Holbrooke, in addition to being the Balkans troubleshooter, was an ambassador to Germany and was assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs. These later appointments, however, obscure his background in Asia. He cut his teeth in the Vietnam war and later became assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
All this is not lost upon the Chinese mission to the UN.
"He is familiar with Sino-US relations. I think that we will have better cooperation with him," says Shen Guofang, China's No. 2 official here.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society