Biden's Cabinet shortlist should include Hillary Clinton for U.N. ambassador

Clinton is a long shot to be Biden's U.N. ambassador, but she should give the idea serious consideration if the job is offered.
Image: A black and white close up of Hillary Clinton is juxtaposed with blurry blue lines that contain an image of her speaking at the UN.
Ambassador Clinton? It could (maybe) happen.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden has started naming some of his White House staff, most notably Ron Klain as his chief of staff. But he hasn't yet publicly named any members of his Cabinet, so, of course, Washington's rumor mills are grinding furiously.

One name has stuck with me after I read it in a Nov. 12 article from The Washington Post: Hillary Rodham Clinton. Yes, really.

"One intriguing name being discussed privately is former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, according to the person familiar with the chatter who spoke on the condition of anonymity," The Post reported. "The thinking behind the move was that it would be a way for Biden to highlight the importance of that position in his administration and that placing her there would raise the prestige of the U.N. itself at a time when global cooperation, and the U.S. role on the world stage, has ebbed."

That all sounds ideal to someone like me, who got his start in this industry writing about how the U.N. was paralyzed by the Syrian civil war. Clinton has international name recognition, yes, but her outsize presence wouldn't necessarily bigfoot the rest of Biden's foreign policy team. What does she have to gain from steamrolling others trying to execute the president's policies? It's not like she's going to be running for higher office — and she was well-known as a team player during her time in President Barack Obama's Cabinet.

As a former secretary of state, she's respected in world capitals, and unlike the role's current occupant, she would be clearly empowered by her boss. When it comes to contentious negotiations, she wouldn't be one to challenge frivolously. She spent the latter half of her time as secretary going toe to toe with Sergei Lavrov, Russia's longtime foreign minister, over Syria and other sticky issues.

She could also bring heft to the topic areas ignored during the Trump years, like climate change initiatives, women's rights and LGBTQ issues. All well worth her time, if you ask me.

That still raises the question: Would Clinton actually want to do it? Would it be a demotion for a former senior Cabinet member who came within a few thousand votes of becoming president? Former national security adviser Susan Rice seems to think so:

Ouch.

Rice served as U.N. ambassador under Clinton during Obama's first term. (She's in the running to become Biden's secretary of state herself, according to some media speculation.) But I think she's looking at this opportunity too narrowly for someone like Clinton, who has so many ideas and no way to implement them right now. I also think it discounts the symbolism that would surround Clinton's acceptance of the job, highlighting her dedication to government service in the name of rebuilding the country post-Trump.

Then there's the question of legacy. Clinton didn't carve out much for herself the way other historic secretaries have. (Some of Obama's bigger foreign policy wins, including the Iran nuclear deal and thawing diplomatic relations with Cuba, happened in his second term, under John Kerry.) The New Yorker's John Cassidy went as far as to suggest that Clinton was a better ambassador than a secretary — so why not give it another go as one of the highest-placed ambassadors in the U.S. government?

She would certainly have clout under Biden. Under both Bill Clinton and Obama, the ambassadorship was a full-ranking Cabinet position. George W. Bush and Donald Trump both downgraded it to be more subservient to the secretary of state, but it's likely that Biden will bump the job back up again.

Then there's the question of legacy. Clinton didn't carve out much for herself the way other historic secretaries have.

No matter where it falls in the chain of command, though, the job has certain political quirks. The ambassador is isolated from the day-to-day jockeying for position of Washington, which means he or she is both held at arm's length from the inner circle surrounding the president and free to build up their own power bases in New York City. Nikki Haley, Trump's first U.N. ambassador, managed to do just that — to the apparent chagrin of then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

But even here, Clinton would seem to be an ideal candidate. The current front-runner for secretary of state is Anthony Blinken. Blinken is one of Biden's closest allies, but he and Clinton also go way back. He helped write foreign policy speeches for President Bill Clinton, and his wife, Evan Ryan, worked on Hillary Clinton's East Wing staff and later as a scheduler during her run for the Senate in 2000. (Hillary even attended their wedding.) It just seems like the kind of relationship that brings a lot of trust along with it.

Rather than just go with my gut, though, I reached out to a few U.N. hands to make sure I wasn't totally misreading the situation. Akshaya Kumar, the director of crisis advocacy at Human Rights Watch, told me that she could see Clinton as an effective counter to Chinese influence at the U.N.

In the last four years, China has burrowed deep into the infrastructure of various multilateral agencies, taking advantage of the vacuum that America's domestic distractions have created. The next U.S. ambassador will need to convince countries that the U.S., not China, is the ally they want in their corner. "That requires someone really savvy about the geopolitics, but someone also able to punch above the weight of that position," Kumar, who was formerly Human Right Watch's deputy U.N. director, told me. "It might take unprecedented muscle to heal" the Trump administration's stance toward the U.N., she added.

Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group, isn't so sure that someone at Clinton's level is necessary to repair the Trumpian damage, though. "Does she really want to spend her days involved with the grind of very difficult Security Council diplomacy with the Chinese or Russians over Syria?" Gowan wondered.

"The real problem with USUN is getting the basics of diplomacy in New York back on track," he said, noting the poor coordination between Washington and New York under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump's current U.N. ambassador, Kelly Craft. "It's really nice to speculate on Clinton restoring U.S. credibility of the U.N., but restoring credibility is going to be much more about backroom, grinding work, on Security Council affairs, human rights and other things Trump has completely ignored."

So let's say Clinton isn't actually into the gig. Whom does that leave? Politico kicked out a few names, including those of Wendy Sherman, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Sherman, who led the negotiations with Iran and other world powers that would become the 2015 nuclear deal, would be a particularly strong choice. Mayor Pete, whose name has also been floated to lead Veteran's Affairs, would be a very different choice, skewing more toward the Haley model of a younger politician on the ascendancy.

Two other names I've heard floated that make some sense: those of Rep. Karen Bass of California and Susan Rice herself. Personally, I see Rice as even more of a long shot than Clinton, having done the job once before. And after having lost out on being Biden's secretary of state in this scenario, serving under Blinken might feel like a poor consolation prize.

Bass is interesting, though, as she has plenty of experience dealing with the U.N.. She's currently chair of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, which has jurisdiction in Congress over U.N. issues. Bass is also chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; last year, she joined a CBC delegation to the U.N. for meetings around World AIDS Day and the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. But Bass is also reported to be in the mix to serve the rest of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' term in the Senate.

All that having been said, I get that I may be in the minority here. Lord knows Clinton doesn't need to spend more time explaining herself to Republican senators. But honestly, I'm just glad to have the brain space to think about the U.N. again. And if Clinton can get other people to start thinking about global policy and priorities while pushing the U.S. back into the mix with other great powers, she should absolutely take the opportunity. You know, if she's even asked.