When the current Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was the United Nations ambassador, he “never suffered fools,” said Edie Lederer, the Associated Press chief correspondent at the United Nations. Ms. Lederer said, “you could often find him standing at the bar chatting on his cellphone and talking to people, ordinary people. But when it came to business, Sergei Lavrov was all business.”
In this interview with the Global Observatory, Ms. Lederer recalled stories of diplomats who have come through the UN and insights about the institution formed over her 15 years (and counting) on the job.
Ms. Lederer remembered France’s Jean-David Levitte as “a masterful diplomat” when France took on the fight against the United States and its allies during the run-up to the Iraq war; and Danilo Turk, who was the first ambassador to the United Nations from Slovenia after it broke away from former Yugoslavia.
Of John Bolton, the controversial US ambassador who served for 16 months in 2005-6, she said, “He was a fierce conservative, very outspoken, and, while I would say that many of his fellow diplomats were not big fans, the media loved him because he loved to talk to us and he always made news.”
Ms. Lederer has seen many changes in the UN over the years, including the growing economic power of countries such as China, and their corresponding rise in political influence. “When I first arrived, the Chinese ambassadors would almost never talk to journalists,” she said. “Now they do, and we get invited to many events they have. In this new century, they have also become much more outspoken diplomatically, and certainly behind the scenes, they have been key players in areas where they have major interests or investments, including North Korea and many parts of Africa, like Sudan.”
Of Ban Ki-moon, she said, “I think, especially since his re-election to a second five-year term, the secretary-general has been more outspoken, especially on Syria and human rights issues, and less concerned about the views of the five permanent Security Council members—the US, Russia, China, Britain and France—who could have blocked a second term.”
Ms. Lederer also discussed Security Council reform, which everyone wants but has seen little progress, and the challenges facing the UN today. “In my lifetime, the world has become increasingly globalized and interconnected, not just by communications and transport, but culturally, and in so many other ways. And the United Nations remains the only global institution that can deal with an incredibly wide range of issues, from refugees and food shortages to human rights and war and peace, though, I must say, it doesn’t always succeed.
The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations at the International Peace Institute and former United Nations correspondent for The New York Times.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Warren Hoge: I’m here in the Global Observatory with an old friend and a legend in the field of journalism, where I spent four decades. She is Edie Lederer, the longtime chief correspondent of the Associated Press at the United Nations.
Legend did I say? Edie joined the AP in 1966. She was the first woman assigned full-time to the AP staff reporting the Vietnam War, and she went on to cover wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, and the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda.
From her base in London, she also tracked the larger matters of the downfall of communism and the end of the Cold War, and international security issues ranging from population growth to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Since 1998, she has been based at the UN, and I can testify personally to the depth of her knowledge of global diplomacy and the skill and authority of her reporting, because from 2004 to 2008, I was the United Nations correspondent of The New York Times, and saw her in action close up.
Edie, it gives me enormous pleasure to have you here, and I want to chat with you about the United Nations, that iconic building just out the window, just across the street from where we are sitting. First of all, what would you say are the major changes in the UN and in the UN’s place in the world since you arrived here to cover it full time 15 years ago?
Edie Lederer: Warren, first I want to say thank you for that lovely introduction. I’m going to go back a little further. During the Cold War, the UN couldn’t do much because of the polarization between the former Soviet Union and the United States, the two global superpowers. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, suddenly the United Nations became a place where East and West business could come together, and sometimes they did. This has led, for instance, to a dramatic increase in UN peacekeeping operations, where today, over one hundred thousand UN peacekeepers are deployed in sixteen missions across the globe from Haiti to Congo to the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1973 Mideast war. So, since I arrived in 1998, the action at the UN has been a lot busier.
WH: A couple of weeks ago, everyone was saying the UN was excluded, and therefore irrelevant, in the biggest current international crisis. I’m speaking, of course, of Syria. And now, just weeks later, Syria is the central concern of the Security Council, and all eyes are once again on the UN. Is that a pattern you’ve seen over the years, the UN being counted out, sidelined, and then suddenly coming back to remind people of the importance of its role?
EL: When I arrived at the UN, it was the middle of the crisis over UN weapons inspections in Iraq. And I was also here on 9/11 when, I must say, I recognized the minute the second plane hit the World Trade Center that it was a terrorist attack, and I started calling terrorism experts for comment.
But the biggest and most intense story during my time at the UN was the run-up to the Iraq war, when the British were seeking a UN Security Council resolution to authorize military action, and the French and Russians and many others on the Council were opposed. The British were forced to withdraw their resolution because there was so much opposition.
The US, backed by Britain and a few other countries, then attacked Iraq, claiming justification in previous Council resolutions. But this actually was an example of the United Nations really being totally sidelined. In the case of Syria, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been very outspoken in calling for an end to the fighting from the very beginning and demanding Security Council action. But the UN has been totally sidelined for the two and half years of the conflict because of deep divisions between Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and the United States and its western and Muslim allies who support the opposition.
Now, however, suddenly, following the allegations of chemical weapons use in the August 21 attack which killed hundreds of civilians, the UN investigation team and the United Nations are back in the spotlight, and Ban Ki-moon has again been demanding Security Council action—which actually may happen in the coming days. It is not authorizing any kind of military action because the Russians are vehemently opposed, but it will make the US-Russian agreement to put serious chemical weapons stockpile under international control for eventual destruction legally binding, and it will, almost certainly say something about consequences if the Syrians don’t comply.
WH: Also, while we’re on Syria, you covered Sergei Lavrov, now the Russian foreign minister, when he was the Russian ambassador here, and I’m told he was a great character in the corridors of the UN. I can remember from my own time here some of the characters that I covered, and that lightens up the tone a bit of the United Nations. Tell us about Sergei Lavrov, what made him so distinct, and are there others who stand out in your recollection as particularly memorable people?
EL: Sergei Lavrov is brilliant. And on a personal level, he is very friendly, he is a big smoker—you could find him standing outside the Security Council having a smoke, and I am told that before I got there, there used to be a little bar outside, and he would be there, sometimes at a late meeting, with a glass of his favorite, Johnny Walker Black Label. When I was there, he would’ve had to, and he often did, walk down to the delegates’ lounge where there is a bar, and you could often find him standing at the bar chatting on his cellphone and talking to people, ordinary people. But when it came to business, Sergei Lavrov was all business.
He never suffered fools. And all my colleagues and I remember having questions that we did not ask quite perfectly thrown back in our face with a very dismissive shrug and a hand.
There are quite a number of other fascinating diplomats who have come through the UN since I’ve been there, and I’ll name just a few. During the run-up to the Iraq war, it was really France that took on the big fight against the United States and everyone else. And their ambassador, Jean-David Levitte, was a masterful diplomat. He went on to be the French ambassador to the United States then had very high positions in the foreign ministry.
I also remember, especially, John Bolton when he was the US ambassador to the UN. He was a fierce conservative, very outspoken, and while I would say that many of his fellow diplomats were not big fans, the media loved him because he loved to talk to us and he always made news.
Another person that I certainly would pay tribute to was Danilo Turk, who was the first ambassador to the United Nations from Slovenia after it broke away from former Yugoslavia. Slovenia was also the first country of the former Yugoslavia to get a seat on the Security Council. And Danilo Turk went on to become an assistant Secretary-General for political affairs before returning to Slovenia and becoming the president of the country.
WH: Edie, next week this community will be the setting, as it is every September, of what amounts to the largest annual gathering of world leaders for the opening of the General Assembly. A UN ambassador of a country that doesn’t much like the UN once told me that participating in that meeting was reason alone all by itself for countries to become member states of the UN. What goes on beyond the speechmaking, and why is it so important?
EL: The annual ministerial session of the UN General Assembly is the only gathering of world leaders from the 193 UN member states, and that’s why it’s so important. It isn’t the fifteen-minute speeches that they’re supposed to deliver—although many often don’t. That’s not what they come for. It’s the chance to get together and do business, whether it’s one-on-one issues or regional problems or global challenges ranging from reducing poverty and tackling climate change to seeing if there really is a chance to end the war in Syria.
This is a very exclusive club, and the club only gathers once a year. The secretary-general said he expects 131 presidents, prime ministers, and rulers to attend this year, one of the highest numbers in many years, and a real sign of the importance of the United Nations as a forum for global dialogue and decision making.
WH: The UN is a place where the tensions between the global North and the global South are constantly in play. Is the growing power of the emerging states reflected in the conduct of the member states of the UN?
EL: Since I arrived at the UN, there have always been tensions between the developing countries of the South, who comprise the majority of UN member states, and the more powerful but less numerous countries of the developed and richer North. What has certainly changed has been the growing economic power of a number of the developing countries, and that in some ways has corresponded to an increase in their political power. I’m thinking of Brazil, South Africa, India, the Asian Tigers—but especially China and its growing influence in global affairs.
When I first arrived, the Chinese ambassadors would almost never talk to journalists. Now they do and we get invited to many events they have. In this new century, they have also become much more outspoken diplomatically, and certainly behind the scenes they have been key players in areas where they have major interests or investments, including North Korea and many parts of Africa, like Sudan.
WH: So that’s a good segue to Security Council reform. You and I both covered the last concerted attempt, six, seven years ago, to change the composition of the Council, which everyone agrees reflects the world of 1945, and not the world of 2013. But the UN can’t seem to agree on how to reform it. Do you think reform will ever happen?
EL: I would like to think that, in my lifetime, I will see reform of the Security Council, but I must admit it’s a really tough nut to crack. Since 1979, the UN has been talking about expanding the Council to reflect the world in the 21st century, not the global power structure after World War II, when the United Nations was founded. But every proposal has been rejected, not because countries don’t want reform–everybody wants reform—but because of the rivalries between countries and regions more concerned about their own self interests, and whether they’re going to be one of the big power players than whether the functioning of the United Nations is going to be improved and it can become a really more effective institution.
WH: On that point, Edie, I always remind people that the name of the committee which is charged with taking up Security Council reform is called the open ended committee, and I fear it always will be. Now, do you think the UN can maintain its importance in the world at a time when groups like the G20 and regional groups like the EU and the AU and ASEAN vie with the UN for influence?
EL: I think the UN, if it can really reflect the realities of the 21st century, can maintain its importance because of its universality. It doesn’t exclude anyone because of size or income, and it forces all countries to look at issues that otherwise they might ignore. For instance, developing countries have to look at the global financial problems and what caused the huge crisis. And on the other side, rich countries have to really look at how to end global poverty and provide clean water and sanitation to millions and millions of people.
In my lifetime, the world has become increasingly globalized and interconnected, not just by communications and transport, but culturally, and in so many other ways. And the United Nations remains the only global institution that can deal with an incredibly wide range of issues, from refugees and food shortages to human rights and war and peace, though, I must say, it doesn’t always succeed.
WH: And finally, Edie, share with us your impressions of secretaries-general you have covered: Kofi Annan, of course, and then Ban Ki-moon, and by that I mean both the Ban Ki-moon who took office in 2007, and the Ban Ki-moon who is now in his second term. I remember—because I was there—he had a rocky time at the start, but my impression is that he is much more surefooted now. Do you agree?
EL: I absolutely agree. I believe that the Ban Ki-moon of today is a very different global statesman than the Ban Ki-moon who took office in 2007. I think especially since his re-election to a second five-year term, the secretary-general has been more outspoken, especially on Syria and human rights issues, and less concerned about the views of the five permanent Security Council members—the US, Russia, China, Britain and France—who could have blocked a second term. And I know for a fact that in this last whole negotiations over Syria and the use of force, basically Ban Ki-moon rejected demands by the United States to change the UN’s position. Outright rejected them.
The late US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke once described Kofi Annan as the rock star of diplomacy. And he was viewed by many as the world’s chief diplomat, and won the Nobel Peace Prize. But his star dimmed in his second term over the UN oil-for-food program to help Iraqi civilians deal with UN sanctions.
Ban Ki-moon doesn’t have the charisma of Kofi Annan, but he is a workaholic, and is up day and night behind the scenes working on many fronts to try and push for action on a whole host of issues—and sometimes succeeding, including getting the UN chemical weapons inspectors into Syria, and then getting them to the site of the August 21st alleged chemical weapons attack, which was not part of their mandate.
WH: Edie, I could talk to you a lot longer because you know so much and you talk about it in such an interesting fashion. But I’m really pleased you came here to talk to us today in the Global Observatory. Thank you.
EL: Thanks so much. It was a pleasure, Warren.
About the photo: Edie Lederer asks a question at an IPI event. Credit: Elliot Moscowitz