You served as Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations for External Relations from 1997 to 2007. During your tenure many milestones were achieved, including the UN’s 2001 Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS and the creation of the UN Human Rights Commission. Could you describe what role you had in the larger work of the UN?
I worked for an extraordinary leader, Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He was committed to opening and extending the reach of the United Nations to a larger public, not only accredited non-governmental organizations (of which there were 4,000) but also global business, labor and civil society leaders. I shared his belief that for the UN to succeed it needed not only the support of governments but of citizens. Before then, the UN functioned in a sort of diplomatic bubble. I became a “go-between” and frequent speaker to organizations like Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce, women’s organizations and faith groups, journalists and congressional staff, Model UNs on every continent, and even the military — speaking at both West Point and the Air Force Academy. I spoke about the history of the UN, what was at stake and why it mattered, the US-UN relationship, and about human rights and humanitarian relief. I tried to put a human face on those who work there and those who desperately needed help due to poverty, illness or conflict. I described the Millennium Development Goals and how that focused nations on what needed to be done. And I took questions from both supporters and fierce critics. I assisted the Secretary-General on some travels and explained to public groups the reforms taking place and the controversies of the moment. I tried to be an informed, persuasive and inspiring voice, open to debate and dissent. I addressed more than 1,000 audiences over time.
Prior to your time as Assistant Secretary-General, you worked as a Special Adviser to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and planned the conferences, events, and exhibits related to the UN 50th Anniversary. Could you speak a bit about that experience? Do you think the UN has made progress since that anniversary?
As Special Adviser to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali my first assignment was to lead the coordination of the UN’s 50th Anniversary commemoration in 1995. This involved the largest General Assembly gathering to date (more than 180 world leaders and their entourages) and a global agenda of conferences, exhibits, gatherings of diplomats, students and dedicated citizens. It was a complex operation with a large international committee within the UN. Many universities and most national capitals had their own special occasions. The actual event in New York in September included a memorial concert by the New York Philharmonic. Now at 70, the United Nations still strives to achieve its goals as the only universal organization dedicated to peace and a better world.
At what point were you drawn to international relations? Was there any specific event or moment that pushed you to enter this field?
I was drawn early to work in international relations. Though I grew up in the mid-west (Michigan) I had an opportunity at age 14 to travel to Latin America and at 16 to the South Pacific. Travel has always been, for me, the best opportunity to learn and grow and explore different cultures.
I majored in French in college and lived a full year in France at 20, traveling throughout Europe. Soon after, I moved to New York and had my first tour of the UN which was captivating. My first serious job was working for the New York City mayoral campaign of Edward I Koch. He won the election and gave me a chance to lead an office called the NYC Commission for the United Nations and Consular Corps. We were the city’s liaison office to the diplomatic community and addressed the needs of security, education and problem solving of some 30,000 diplomats. We were able to build bridges between the New York City government and the diplomatic world that would forever improve the relationship between the two. After 12 years leading that office, I was recruited into the UN Secretariat and my UN career continued from there.
What advice do you have for those entering a career in international relations and diplomacy?
If you wish to enter a career in diplomacy today, I would seek an advanced degree in International Relations; develop one area of expertise; master at least one foreign language; look for an opportunity to study abroad for a year or more; travel whenever you can; and take debate or theater in high school and college. Your voice, your choice of words, tone, pacing, posture, eye contact and, of course, your subject matter are critical in diplomatic life. Language is your most important tool. Try to get a video of you speaking so that you can study and critique it. Consider working for an NGO overseas to get some experience on the front line. And when you are ready, take the Foreign Service exam.
When did you first feel like a leader in your field?
I have never had formal leadership training — I wish I had. But I really began to feel like a leader as I deepened my knowledge, realized I had to speak up and discovered I could make my case and that people were looking to me to set the course. Even at a young age, I sought leadership roles, whether it President of the French club or Director of the junior play, I enjoyed stretching my wings. I’ve been blessed to have great examples of leaders in my life – I watched my father in his political life, my mother as a teacher and journalist, as well as my husband who was a speechwriter and Special Counsel to President John F. Kennedy. Bottom-line, I was a late bloomer but I studied those in the diplomatic world who were exceptionally gifted leaders and tried to learn from those examples. In retrospect, I only wish I had been bolder and more daring.
What do you hope to achieve next?
I am working as an active Board member with the International Rescue Committee on refugee issues – a daunting challenge that will be with us for a long time. If we can resolve the conflicts that are the source of refugee flows and resettle as many people as possible either abroad or at home, that will be deeply gratifying. I am an active member of the Council on Foreign Relations and other non-profit organizations – The Women’s Forum of New York included. I don’t believe that learning ever stops and new experiences come my way each day.