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Will Biden tap a U.N. ambassador to "reclaim America's leading position"?

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United Nations — Three crises — the global pandemic and its economic consequences, climate change, and the nuclear standoff with Iran — await President-elect Joe Biden at the United Nations. The diplomat he selects to fill the U.S. ambassador's seat at the world body will play a huge role in determining the success of his soon-to-be restored multilateral approach to these thorny issues, and many others.

Conversations with former U.N. ambassadors, outside observers, and members of the Biden transition team reveal different views on the importance of the post. 

"Everyone is looking for an 'Adlai Stevenson moment' to define values, grit, and purpose," former U.N. Ambassador and intelligence chief John Negroponte tells CBS News. "He played it so well."  

Negroponte was referring to President John F. Kennedy's ambassador to the U.N., former Illinois Governor and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II's tense confrontation with then-Soviet Ambassador Valerian A. Zorin during the 1962 Cuban (Nuclear) Missile Crisis. That verbal showdown still echoes in the halls of U.N. Headquarters.

Asking "one simple question" about whether the U.S.S.R. had placed missiles in Cuba, the normally mild-mannered ambassador demanded of his Russian counterpart: "Yes or no — don't wait for the translation — yes or no? You are in the court of world opinion right now… I am prepared to wait for an answer until Hell freezes over."  

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While the U.N. has provided many dramatic moments like that over the years, U.S. presidents have always differed on the importance of the world body to promoting peace and progress — and U.S. interests — and that's reflected in who they appoint as ambassador and, more importantly, whether the role is made a Cabinet-level position within the administration.

President Trump has berated the U.N. with negative tweets, but he nonetheless made the charismatic former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley a Cabinet member as his U.N. Ambassador. He did not do the same for her replacement, Kelly Craft.  

UN Security Council Debates Additional Sanctions Against North Korea
Nikki Haley, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, pours a glass of water after a United Nations Security Council vote to impose new sanctions on North Korea on December 22, 2017 in New York City.  Spencer Platt/Getty

President Biden could choose a seasoned diplomat, a former presidential candidate, or political loyalist. There's a long list of contenders, some putting their own names into circulation, others cited by transition team members. The eventual choice will depend on Mr. Biden's pick for Secretary of State. CBS News has reported that Democratic primary rival Pete Buttigieg is among those being closely considered. Former Senator Hillary Clinton, academic and former Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and career foreign service officer Nicholas Burns have also been mentioned. 

Negroponte says the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. is one of the most globally visible roles in any administration.  

If a high visibility U.S. Ambassador with Cabinet rank is appointed by Biden and approved by the Senate, "American leadership will be evident from the start," says U.N. historian Stephen Schlesinger, author of the book, "Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations," and a fellow at the Century Foundation.

Cabinet ranking

Of the 30 ambassadors who have represented the U.S. at the United Nations, approximately two-thirds have been Cabinet members.

Party affiliation hasn't been an indicator of whether a U.S. president will opt for a Cabinet-level U.N. representative. Neither George H.W. nor George W. Bush gave their ambassadors a Cabinet seat, but Ronald Reagan did.  

The rank gives the diplomat easier access to higher-ups at the White House; empowers them in the eyes of fellow diplomats at U.N. headquarters, strengthening their hand in negotiations; and sends a clear signal to the world that global engagement is an administration priority.    

"A person who is appointed by the president, with a Cabinet rank, has the opportunity to get advice and work things through much more smoothly," former U.N. Ambassador and civil rights leader Andrew Young, appointed by President Jimmy Carter with Cabinet rank, tells CBS News.

But Negroponte, George W. Bush's first U.N. Ambassador, says a seat at the White House can cause "a little bit of confusion as to where the Secretary of State's responsibilities leave off" and the ambassador's begin.

"It may be more desirable that the individual not be a member of the Cabinet," he says, suggesting that Cabinet-level ambassadors could be distracted from negotiations in New York by having to attend meetings in Washington. 

Reclaiming the lead

A report published this week by the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs says the U.S. Foreign Service, which often presses hard to have a new administration appoint from among its ranks, is confronting "one of the most profound crises" ever, lacking "support, funding, training, and leadership."

In the report, A U.S. Diplomatic Service for the 21st Century, the school argues that the Biden administration should, "restore the State Department's lead role in executing the nation's foreign policy."  

Negroponte agrees, calling the current lack of career Assistant Secretaries of State "truly preposterous."  

"It's shameful," he says, adding that the most important thing the next president can do is appoint a high-level envoy, and quickly.

Then-U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, right, speaks as Secretary General Kofi Annan looks on after the Security Council unanimously approved a U.S.-backed resolution for help in post-war Iraq, at United Nations headquarters, October 16, 2003. AP

Schlesinger, the U.N. historian, says the most important trait of that appointee will be that they "share Biden's ambitious embrace of multilateralism and cooperation." 

Mr. Biden will need "to reclaim America's leading position in the organization," he says.  

Another former U.N. Ambassador, John Bolton, appointed by George W. Bush, told CBS News what he would say to Mr. Biden's incoming ambassador: "You are the American ambassador to the U.N., not the other way around. Your job is to advance American interests, not to defend what U.N. bureaucrats and members do."

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"The best possible outcome for the U.N. is a strong America representing its interests and values vigorously," Bolton said. 

Former Ambassador Young believes that with Mr. Biden's projected election victory, "the U.S. has gotten its reputation back… that's the signal that the world needed to see about the future of the United States, that it is in good hands." 

"We tend to think that our power rests in our military, and much of it does, but it's even more so in our economy, but also in our vision, and our care for the world," Young said.

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