The UN from Inside: Perspectives from a U.S. Public Delegate to the United Nations

Emerging Voices Staff Writer Dan Kent had the chance to sit down with S. Douglas Bunch, a Public Delegate at the United States Mission to the United Nations. Below is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us! First, can you give me an overview of your career thus far, and what brought you to the United Nations?

Certainly. I am a partner at a law firm in Washington DC called Cohen Milstein, where I litigate securities class actions on the plaintiffs’ side. I also sit on my university’s board of trustees at William & Mary in Virginia. I’m also cofounder of a nonprofit called Global Playground that builds schools in developing countries and then connects those schools with each other. Then, as of last September, I was fortunate to be appointed by President Biden to serve as part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. 

What is the position that you hold and what are your day-to-day responsibilities? Are there other public delegates and how do you collaborate with them, if at all?

I am a U.S. Public Delegate, and in that capacity, I represent the American public broadly at the United Nations. I essentially serve as an ambassador for purposes of the UN General Assembly session, which runs from September to September. Some of my responsibilities include visits to foreign missions alongside ambassadors at the U.S. Mission, delivering the position of the United States, negotiating the language of resolutions, and speaking on the floor of the General Assembly, both in committee and in the full body. 

Are there other public delegates to the U.S. Mission to the UN? Do you collaborate with them at all? 

Yes, there are two other public delegates. Generally the White House appoints two or three public delegates every year. We work together on a regular basis, sometimes on projects in common, and sometimes independently. I can give you one example of collaboration: right now, I’m spearheading a consortium of colleges and universities with which the U.S. Mission to the UN can regularly engage. We have briefings on topics of mutual interest to both the U.S. Mission and these institutions. And one of our upcoming briefings will be on food security, which another public delegate has a significant interest in. So we’re thinking about ways to collaborate on that particular briefing. 

But across all the public delegates, we are different people from different walks of life. We carry with us different skill sets and interests to leverage for the purposes of the diplomatic work that we do at the U.S. Mission.

On that note, how has your career thus far prepared you for your position in the UN?

I think the common thread across all my different roles has been building relationships. 

As a lawyer, I build relationships. As the founder and chair of a nonprofit, I build relationships. And certainly as a diplomat, cultivating relationships globally is what enables us to advance US foreign policy interests. Our ambassador at the US Mission, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has coined the idea of “gumbo diplomacy” — the idea being when you bring different people from diverse backgrounds together around a table and share a meal, you can connect meaningfully with them, and advance what is in their common interests. The careful attention paid to cultivating relationships has always been core to my career and continues to be today.

How have you applied this for yourself?

To me, any time you can connect with people on their own level and meet them where they are is an opening for dialogue. Something like 75% to 85% of leadership is listening. Even in my work abroad in international development, imposing an outsider’s view on a particular problem or an outside solution on a particular issue without listening to the people on the ground is a mistake. The valuable part in connecting with people is that you can genuinely listen to them and solve the problem from the grassroots. That ability to connect and understand people genuinely is core to success as a diplomat. 

Like many institutions, the UN gets frequently criticized for a lack of effectiveness in preventing and dealing with crises. What is your perspective on this issue and has serving at the UN itself changed your perspective in any way?

Well, certainly the present is an example of a time when the UN’s credibility is on the line. Certain countries, in particular Russia, violate the core precepts of what the institution stands for. But even if there is a problem that the UN can’t solve in a permanent way, the platform of giving voice to member states that might not normally have a voice, or shedding light on a problem that might not normally get attention, has its own value. Opening the conversation is one thing the UN does really powerfully. Setting standards is something that the UN does really powerfully. The very fact that we are engaged in dialogue and having the conversation is of tremendous value.  Even if we can’t solve the problem in a day, it’s important that we engage in dialogue with each other. The UN provides that platform.

Putting aside the war in Ukraine, for now, what do you think the greatest challenge facing the UN is today? 

Representation. The U.S. has been a strong advocate for representation of the Global South in the Security Council in particular. Representation across the board, though, is critical. 

Take climate change for example. In the U.S. domestic context, we might think of it as one of a number of political issues that doesn’t always get the prioritization that it should. But for island nations in the Pacific, or countries like Bangladesh, in South and Central Asia, climate change is existential. It really does mean the difference between survival and severe detriment. 

Listening to opening statements made by heads of state at the General Assembly session, I was struck by the constant refrain of  issues of climate change and issues of food insecurity. Listening to their perspectives reframes the way I think about international priorities and certainly the role of the U.S. in addressing those challenges.

How about the greatest opportunity for the UN? 

Maybe I’m biased in taking a particular interest in this topic, but the UN has a huge opportunity to embrace the importance of diversity and inclusion. On this issue, sometimes just having the conversation is half the battle. 

Last Monday, for example, I was part of an effort to host an informal meeting of the Security Council (what we call an Arria-formula meeting), on the lives of LGBTI people in armed conflict. The chance to hear voices of people, for example from Afghanistan, who had lived through the Taliban’s attack on their identities, was really powerful. To give voice to that in the Security Council set an example of the types of dialogue we should be having on equity and inclusion globally. It was inspiring to hear every country commit to the idea of equality for LGBTI people. And especially, it was inspiring to hear confirmation of that in such a prominent place. I think that the UN can do more of that. Sometimes it is the only common voice of member states—in terms of embracing equity and inclusion, through independent experts and rapporteurs. The fact that we had that conversation at the UN was a huge step forward. 

Especially in an era where presidents (who have wide discretion over foreign policy) differ markedly in their perspective on world affairs and the US role in them, what is, and should be, the United States’ role at the UN?

We certainly have always functioned as one of the leaders of the institution as a permanent member of the Security Council. But I think one of our important roles is also to turn to the side and invite other countries that might not normally get a voice into the conversation. It was the U.S. who hosted the Arria on LGBTI rights in times of conflict, but we intentionally put a spotlight on the plight of people in Afghanistan, and the experiences of people in Colombia. 

Certainly the United States will remain a leader. Being a leader at the UN as we are gives us an opportunity to bring other members into the spotlight on particular issues. I think that can help advance our common interest globally. 

Having seen one of the most important multilateral institutions in the world up close, what advice would you give to young foreign policy professionals just starting their careers?

Look for opportunities even as an undergraduate to serve as an intern at the UN or the U.S. Department of State. There are really robust opportunities to do that. A lot of the foreign service officers we see make diplomacy their career begin in those roles. It’s an incredible opportunity to take a step into the world of diplomacy. I would also say to be curious and don’t be shy about speaking to those who are in the roles that you envision yourself in one day. Reach out and ask to talk, ask how they got to where they are, ask for advice on academic programs to attend, or internships that might be a good fit. As in any field, there’s a lot of networking that occurs in the diplomatic sphere. I think that young professionals can benefit from that. 

As an LGBT person in foreign policy, do you think the foreign policy world is becoming more open to LGBT people?

I think diplomacy is absolutely becoming more open, not only to LGBTI people but to people of marginalized populations generally. I think that there’s a real emphasis at the State Department on making sure that LGBTI people have a seat at the table and that their concerns are heard. We have a Special Envoy, Jessica Stern, whose job it is to advance the rights of LGBTI people abroad as a tool of advancing US foreign policy. The best foreign policy is policy that takes those perspectives into account. So it’s important to have their perspectives and voices at the table to think through the implications of different policies on the lives of members of our community. And the diplomatic community broadly outside of the United States has certainly embraced the idea that the perspectives of LGBTI people are critical, are valued, and inform policy and in fact make better policy.

Wrapping up, could you share a particularly fond memory from your time at the UN so far? 

Sure! One of my fondest memories has been learning from the ambassadors who serve at the U.S. Mission, in particular our Area Advisors. These individuals are (for the most part) retired ambassadors who come back for the UN General Assembly session to cultivate relationships with member states of different regions of the world. To work alongside them has meant learning their diplomatic styles, which vary from person to person, and are all effective in their own ways. It’s been eye-opening for me as someone to whom the world of diplomacy is relatively new to learn from such seasoned career professionals and to hear their perspectives.

I think more broadly, we are extraordinarily lucky both at the State Department and at the U.S. Mission in particular to have such brilliant and passionate career and civil service staff working every day to advance U.S. foreign policy. In my career I have worked with some pretty hard-working people, including at my law firm, but some of the hardest working people I’ve met have been right here at the U.S. Mission. It’s inspiring to have the privilege of working alongside them every day. 

Thanks again for having this conversation! Anything you want to mention before we close out? 

I would encourage young professionals who aspire to a career in foreign policy to explore opportunities to make that happen. It may begin with an internship, it may begin with a conversation. But, it’s a rewarding field where you can do a lot of good. The world is in need of people who are bright, passionate, committed individuals who care about the welfare of people globally. It’s a privilege and an honor to work on the issues that I have at the U.S. Mission. They’re issues we need good people working on to make progress. 

Photo by Jonathan Ansel Moy de Vitry on Unsplash