At the United Nations, a Sigh of Relief Over U.S. Envoy

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The United Nations headquarters in New York

Monday, after an extensive search, President Bush named career diplomat John Negroponte as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. If, as expected, he passes normal vetting procedures and wins confirmation from the Senate, Negroponte will replace Clinton appointee Richard Holbrooke as one of the country's most visible emissaries. William Dowell, TIME's U.N. correspondent, explains why Negroponte's selection elicited sighs of relief from U.S. allies everywhere.

What's your take on the Negroponte appointment?

Dowell: I think it looks like a very good thing. There was, for a time, some question about Liddy Dole being selected — which would have been a purely political appointment, because she simply doesn't have the diplomatic experience required for this post. Negroponte's experience, on the other hand, goes back to Vietnam, and he also dealt with a very difficult situation in Mexico, where he helped pave the road for NAFTA. He's a great choice because he's got vast practical experience in very tough situations. He's also fluent in about five languages.

Negroponte will be working very closely with Secretary of State Colin Powell. Did Powell have anything to do with the appointment?

Dowell: Negroponte has worked with Powell before on the National Security Council, and he'll undoubtedly benefit from that working relationship and from Powell's support.

Are there plans to alter the ambassadorship from its Clinton-era manifestation?

Dowell: Yes — Powell plans to downgrade the U.N. ambassadorship from its current rank as a Cabinet-level position. And that could be a good thing, because it brings brings the ambassadorship directly under secretary of state, and makes the ambassador accountable to the State Department.

Does the Negroponte appointment send any messages to the world outside Washington?

Dowell: Absolutely. When Bush won the election, there was considerable fear, particularly in Europe, that the new administration would simply cut the U.N. out of the loop, or ignore it. Negroponte's selection sends the signal that the U.S. intends to take its involvement in the U.N. seriously, and intends to conduct diplomatic work through it. This is an enormous relief to Europe — officials in Russia and France in particular were very nervous that they were seeing the U.N. fade from the radar screen during last days of the Clinton administration.

So Negroponte's selection isn't expected to raise any hackles?

Dowell: Probably not — everyone, up to and including Holbrooke himself, seems very pleased with the appointment. There was a time, before Negroponte became ambassador to Mexico, that he might have faced more resistance in Washington; as ambassador to Honduras he was heavily involved in Reagan-sponsored activities supporting the Nicaraguan contras. But in the years since, he's won broad-based support, in large part because of his unflagging enthusiasm for NAFTA, and his dedication to careful but productive behind-the-scenes negotiations.