Widgets Magazine

Q&A with Jeremy Weinstein, previous Chief of Staff at the U.S. Mission to the U.N.

(UDIT GOYAL/The Stnford Dily)

(UDIT GOYAL/The Stanford Daily)

This fall, professor of political science Jeremy Weinstein has returned to the Stanford Department of Political Science after a leave for public service from 2013-2015. During his leave Weinstein served as the Chief of Staff at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. from 2013-2014 and as Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, from 2014-2015. Weinstein is also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

The Daily sat down with Weinstein to discuss his work with the U.N. and State Department.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you get involved in this work with the administration?

Jeremy Weinstein (JW): I’ve always, in my career, been looking for ways to bridge social science research and public policy. That is in part about choosing questions that are important questions that policy makers think about, but then also finding ways to be practically engaged in making public policy. So as a graduate student at Harvard, I took time off and worked in the Clinton Administration’s National Security Council on Africa policy [and] worked on the Kerry campaign after I had finished my Ph.D. when I was starting up as an assistant professor.

Then when the Obama campaign was getting organized in 2006, I joined the team as a foreign policy advisor — that ultimately led to the transition team, then the first term at the White House and then my most recent visit. So I’ve always been looking for ways to bridge because I think I do better work as a social scientist when I am shaped by questions that policy makers are thinking about. But I also think, as a social scientist, I bring unique things to the table in the policy conversation.

TSD: Can you describe first what your responsibilities were as Chief of Staff to the U.S. Mission to the U.N. as Deputy to Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations?

JW: When Samantha Power was appointed to the president’s Cabinet to take on the role of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., I joined her from day one in New York. And the U.S. Mission to the U.N. is an organization of 150 people that has primary responsibility for representing the United States on the international stage at the United Nations and thinking about how to use the various aspects and tools of the United Nations to advance U.S. policy. And so that includes the work of the security council. That includes the work of the general assembly but also the broader U.N.  bureaucracy, the work that the U.N. does in deploying peacekeeping missions around the world and responding to  humanitarian crises, in addressing the threat of climate change and promoting global development and poverty reduction. I was her right-hand person, helping them manage a staff of 150; driving her policy agenda; advising her on political strategy, media, public profile — the full range of activities were in my portfolio. And it was a pretty busy period, and we’ll come to all the things that happened in the world I’m sure.

Then after about a year, I moved down to Washington to take on a different role to her, which was as deputy to the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. And that role is focused more internally on our government’s foreign policy making process. Foreign policy is made by a Principles Committee and Deputies Committee. The Principles Committee is the Cabinet members who work on national security issues: the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the national security advisor, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. And they meet about three times a week. The Deputies Committee meets daily. And that includes all of the deputy cabinet secretaries, and literally every foreign policy issue you can imagine goes through the Deputies Committee — whether it is Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea or it is cyber threat from North Korea, Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, Russia’s engagement in Syria. All of these are made by the Deputies Committee — in part to provide guidance to the rest of government and in part to frame a set of decisions for the members of the cabinet and then also for the president.

As the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, we are there in part because of the leadership role that we have in thinking about how to build multilateral coalitions and build international support for our foreign policy aims and objectives, but we also have a voice because of Ambassador Power’s relationship with the president [and] her commitment to human rights.

We get to offer opinions and views on the full range of foreign policy issues — not just those that have to do with the United Nations.

TSD: As Deputy, you were a standing member of the National Security Council Deputies Committee, and in this capacity you had to advise the National Security Council, the Cabinet and the president on foreign policy issues — what was that like?

JW: It is an extraordinarily challenging process. Every day you are confronted with the most difficult and vexing issues that the United States confronts around the globe. And you sit locked in this windowless, airless room in the basement of the West Wing, with incredibly smart and capable people, trying to think through what policy actions serve U.S. national interest and ultimately American national security — but also the wellbeing of people around the globe. And the challenge is that every policy option that we consider is really a hypothesis about the relationship between the policy choice we make and an outcome in the world — where there is tremendous uncertainty about the consequences, both positive and negative, intended and unintended. So you have a bunch of really smart people grappling hard everyday with what is the right thing that we should do.

There are lots of different interests that we are pursuing simultaneously. And so, the national security decision-making process was created to bring together people with different interests — we call them equities in Washington — to the table to hash out the policy options, to think about the pros and cons of pursuing a different policy avenue and then to provide guidance or recommendations that can go to the president.

I can tell you that even if you are unhappy with the outcomes that come out of this process, I am confident that it is a rigorous process. It is a process that thinks through these questions very hard and anticipates a lot of the concerns that you hear people talk about on the outside. Those are being weighed on a daily basis.

TSD: Was there a certain day on the job that for you captures why you chose to pursue this work?

JW: Let me give you an example on the response to the Ebola epidemic. It was really a month that encapsulated why I do this work, rather than a single day. The Ebola epidemic was sort of at a low burn in West Africa through much of last year, until about July and August.

It became increasingly clear that if there was not a massive and coordinated international response to deal with the threat that Ebola posed that the numbers of people who would be affected was massive, and that is because this is an epidemic that had migrated from rural to urban areas — that was spreading in places where you have really weak and financially strapped health systems, and there were also a set of local practices that really facilitated the spread of the disease: body washing and all sorts of other things.

The U.S. government took a look at the epidemiological predictions all the way up to the president and said, the path that we are on, which could lead to hundreds and hundreds of thousands of deaths as a consequence of Ebola, is unacceptable, and we need to figure out what kind of deployment and what kind of mobilization of international activity will actually change the course of this epidemic, and what we used to say is bend the curve — bend the epidemiological curve.

Over the course of about a month there were a set of decisions that were taken. First, a decision taken by the president to deploy the U.S. military to set up field hospitals, laboratory facilities; to organize and assist local organizations in carrying out public education campaigns; to help with the transfer of bodies and the safe burial of bodies. There is no institution like the U.S. military that can deploy that quickly, and that efficiently, and set up these facilities around the world. And that was a sea change in the international response — to recognize that we needed the capabilities of the militaries but also the courage of the U.S. president and the U.S. political leadership to deploy our military to respond to a health emergency.

We then took advantage of the president’s leadership. We brought Tom Frieden, who was the head of the Center for Disease Control to New York, to brief all of the 190-plus countries in the U.N. about the scale of the epidemic and the trajectory it was headed on and to make the point that, in the absence of an international response that complemented the commitments that the U.S. government was willing to make with the commitment of other advanced militaries that could deploy field hospitals and laboratories and health professionals, that we would never turn the tide on this epidemic.

We mobilized a global coalition that included unprecedented commitments from countries around the world to help counter what was the trend that was happening at the time, which was people throwing up blockages to people coming from Ebola-affected countries — preventing their own health professionals from going to be of assistance. Our view was that the only way to address this epidemic was to flood the zone.

That was just an extraordinary example of U.S. leadership, using U.S. government’s unique capabilities, using the U.N. as a platform to mobilize global commitments. So now we think about the Ebola epidemic as a blip. It was something that killed less than 10,000 people or around 10,000 people, but I think that people need to keep in mind that the trajectory it was on, the path that it was on, was an extraordinary path. It was totally unprecedented. And it was largely because of this international response and the president’s leadership that we were able to bring it to an end as quickly as we did.

TSD: Has your time working with Ambassador Power changed your opinion or understanding of the U.N. and how the U.S. works with the international community?

JW: What I like to say about the U.N. is that if we didn’t have the U.N., even with all of its flaws and frustrations, we would want it. We would want to create it. But the challenge is that you would not be able to create the U.N. [we have] now, now. It was something that could only be born out of the ashes of WWII — out of the sense of a massive world war that killed so many people that we needed a different infrastructure for addressing common global challenges and a platform in which countries around the world could come together and talk about their differences and figure out how to navigate them in peaceful or less conflictual ways.

But it is a deeply complicated institution. And I think I am the first one to speak to my frustrations about the failures of the Security Council to address the Syrian Civil War, for example. The greatest number of refugees we have in the world now than in any point since WWII — hundreds of thousands of people killed in Syria. And when you have a great power patron for a dictator who is committing mass murder against his own population, that dictator is protected in the Security Council. And the Russian veto, which we have seen happen multiple times on the Syrian conflict in recent years, is an impediment to mobilizing global action to address the Syrian crisis.

But the flip side of that is that there are lots and lots of things that the Security Council can agree on. Since 1989, the end of the Cold War, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of peacekeeping missions around the world — many of which are in Africa, a region which is my specialty in terms of academic study. And in the absence of these peacekeeping missions that are there enforcing a mandate, protecting civilians, trying to deter spoilers from disrupting peace processes, we would see civil wars going on for a lot longer than they are now. So it is a hugely important and not inconsequential tool on the peacekeeping front that the U.N. is uniquely equipped to provide. It mobilizes troop-contributing countries from around the world and organizes the logistics to deploy these troops to have an impact on the ground. And the U.N. does that in so many different domains.

It is easy to point to the flaws. It is easy to point to where the U.N. falls short, but people often forget the extraordinary role the U.N. plays on the development agenda, on climate agenda, on peacekeeping, on humanitarian response and [on] all the areas where actually great powers agree and where one can use the convening power of the U.N. to mobilize political support… from countries around the world.  

TSD: Likewise, how has your time working with Ambassador Power changed your opinion or understanding of the administration?

JW: Ambassador Power and I go back a long time and worked together in the first term as well at the White House. Ambassador Power is a unique figure to have in our administration’s foreign policy apparatus. She comes to the job not as a foreign policy professional, not as someone who spent her career inside government, but [as someone] who is really a unique voice at the table. She was initially a journalist. She learned how to be a journalist covering the wars in Bosnia. She has been an activist and a scholar, thinking about issues of genocide and the response to mass atrocities, and she very much is an effective and outspoken voice for thinking about people, the consequences of our foreign policy for people, the importance of human and universal rights for our foreign policy — and that makes her a hugely unique voice inside the administration and an important part of this policy conversation that I have described that happens in the Principles Committee, in the Deputies Committee, where lots of different views and perspectives come to the table.

I think that the president values having her there, and what I think is so important and what I think I have learned in working with her is that it is one thing to represent the human rights agenda at the table — to think about the importance of how to use our power and to use our power wisely and to greatest effect for people who are struggling or are oppressed or marginalized around the world. But equally importantly to speaking for them, you need to figure out how to be effective in government. That is one of the things that I think Ambassador Power has taken very seriously as she has made the transition from being an activist and a scholar on the outside to now a member of the Cabinet — to figure out how one generates ideas that can actually be implemented and how one builds coalitions — because it is much easier to just talk about the hard choices that we confront and point to the things we are not getting done, [but] it is much harder to actually make progress on those issues inside government. I think Ambassador Power’s record is one of accomplishment on that front, which reflects her recognition of the need to not only have positions and to push for these aspirational goals for our foreign policy, but also to figure out how to make them real.


Contact Blanca Andrei at bandrei ‘at’ stanford.edu.