Ambassador brings US back into international Geneva fold

Sheba Crocker was appointed US permanent representative to the UN in Geneva in 2021. (©Eddy Mottaz/Le Temps)

Sheba Crocker, who arrived at the UN in January 2022, embodies Washington's renewed commitment to multilateralism. She considers the contribution of Geneva to be crucial to solving global problems.

For Chester and (Bath)Sheba Crocker, a father and daughter, diplomacy is a family gene. Both served as deputy secretaries of state under United States presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Chester was responsible for African affairs, while Sheba focused on international organisations. Both were part of a unique phase in American diplomatic history.

Never before had a father and daughter held such a position. Today, Sheba Crocker, 54, is the ambassador and head of the US mission to the United Nations in Geneva.

After the tumultuous years of the Trump administration, which slammed the door on the Human Rights Council (HRC) and threatened to do the same at the WHO, this Washington native  –  whose mother grew up in Zimbabwe – embodies the return of the US to multilateralism. She fleshes out President Joe Biden's slogan, “America is back”.

For the ambassador, whose optimism and enthusiasm are infectious, “the idea of working on really complicated problems, solving them or helping to find a solution has always appealed to me”, she says.

Warm welcome

When she arrived in Geneva a year ago, she was surprised by the “extremely warm” welcome from diplomats and senior UN officials at the heart of international Geneva, who had bristled at Trump's arrogant and unilateral vision.

Born and raised in Washington, she remains very attached to the city. But as a Washingtonian, she is not affected by criticism Americans may have towards what happens “inside the Beltway”, describing what is sometimes an exclusive mentality of the US capital. As someone dedicated to multilateralism, she is familiar with the public perceptions towards the rest of the world. Within Geneva’s vast international ecosystem that comprises more than 30 international organisations and nearly 400 NGOs, she does not feel out of place.

“We acknowledge more and more,” she says, “that international Geneva is helping us to try to solve the major global challenges that lie ahead. I'm 100 per cent convinced that the work done in Geneva is absolutely crucial in dealing with the geopolitical problems of today and tomorrow. For the US, as the largest contributor to the UN system, it is essential to be here.”

Having already visited Geneva several times previously on behalf of the State Department, she says she nonetheless needed time to adapt when she moved into her residence in the Vaud countryside, amid large agricultural fields. But she quickly appreciated the easy access to nature.

She enjoys hiking, cycling, going to the lake or to the mountains with her family. When it comes to skiing, she admits, tongue-in-cheek, that the family is going to take it seriously, but that there is still plenty of room for improvement. Like many other US citizens who move to Switzerland, the diplomat is still having trouble getting used to the fact that the shops close on Sundays.

Meanwhile, at the UN in Geneva, the return of the US to full engagement is not easy. At the UNHRC, the confrontation between China, Russia, some African states and the West is sometimes heated. Sheba Crocker embodies a Biden administration that is determined and competent, but also maintains a certain humility.

Like secretary of state Antony Blinken, who emphasised to the UNHRC the need to work on resolving the issue of race relations in the US following the death of George Floyd, who was asphyxiated by a white police officer, Crocker is convinced of the need to work with all the actors shaping the multilateral system.

Double the effort

Although US democracy faced a serious crisis in January 2021 with the mob assault on Congress, Crocker believes profoundly in democratic values: “To be a democracy is to be willing to self-reflect, to be open about one's shortcomings and towards how far one has to go to further improve.”

In Geneva, she is not fooled by the challenges of her role. The international system that was largely set up by the US in the aftermath of the Second World War is being strongly tested by other powers. Democratic principles, she says, “are under serious threat”.

After Trump's empty-chair policy at multilateral organisations, which Beijing took advantage of, the Biden administration realised that it had to pull out all the stops. The US  was thus heavily involved in enabling Doreen Bogdan-Martin, a career US diplomat,  to be elected in 2022 as secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a strategic position at a time when the battle of standards is raging.

Crocker notes that Bogdan-Martin is “the first woman in the ITU's almost 158-year history”. After twelve months in Geneva, she is aware that work has only just begun.

This article originally appeared in French in Le Temps. Articles translated from third party websites are not licensed under Creative Commons and cannot be republished without the media’s consent.