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Today Barack Obama described the United Nations as both indispensable and imperfect. And he said that he's asking Susan Rice as U.N. ambassador to push for reforms there. Rice has been a close adviser of Mr. Obama since he launched his presidential campaign. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on her background and the challenges that she'll face at the U.N.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Susan Rice has just the sort of impressive resume you'd expect for a U.N. ambassador. She's a graduate of Stanford University and a Rhodes Scholar who earned her doctorate degree at Oxford University. She often talks about the need for multilateral diplomacy to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Ms. SUSAN RICE (Foreign Policy Adviser; United States Ambassador to the United Nations-Elect): While, of course, elements of these challenges and elements of the counterterrorism challenge require the use of force, you can't shoot a pandemic disease, and you can't shoot climate change, and in fact, you can't deal with these challenges effectively unless you have collaborative solutions that involve states and peoples all over the world.

KELEMEN: Rice, who's in her mid 40s, was assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the Clinton administration and was a witness to the genocide in Rwanda. In her years out of government at the Brookings Institution, she was a sharp critic of the Bush administration's handling of the conflict in Darfur, Sudan. Rice told NPR earlier this year that Darfur has been a frustrating and tragic case of U.S. rhetoric not matching reality.

Ms. RICE: Obviously, it's not a place where you want to resort to force, but you want to protect those innocent civilians who have no protection right now. We haven't taken steps to ensure that the U.N.-African Union force, which was authorized, comes up to strength, has the helicopters and equipment that it needs to be effective. How is it that the international community and the United States can't muster 12, 24, 36 helicopters to support a crucial mission to prevent what we call genocide?

KELEMEN: If confirmed as ambassador to the U.N., Rice will likely be asking that same question of the Security Council. She's known to be fairly tough and has the stamina for the long meetings that take place at the United Nations. That's according to Nancy Soderberg, who was one of the top U.S. diplomats at the U.N. during the Clinton administration.

Ms. NANCY SODERBERG (Foreign Policy Strategist; Author; Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations): She actually worked initially on peacekeeping issues, which will serve her well at the U.N., quickly rose up the ranks and was made assistant secretary in the second term. She's brilliant, she's nice, she's just a wonderful person, and the U.N. community will just fall in love with her.

KELEMEN: The U.N. Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group, released a statement today praising Susan Rice and praising Mr. Obama's decision to make the U.N. ambassador's job a Cabinet-level position once again, as it was during the Clinton administration. Ambassador Soderberg says that's important because it would give Rice and her team a seat at the table at the White House, though usually by video conference.

Ms. SODERBERG: You are part of the team that sets the policy. And if you don't have a seat at the table, the policy doesn't reflect the priorities of the U.N. And Obama understands that it was a mistake for Bush to degrade it. Towards the second term, they began to swing back around and show the U.N. some respect because you have to. It's a frustrating organization. You've got 192 countries who don't all share our priorities, but you ignore them at our peril.

KELEMEN: Rice, if confirmed, would take on the job at a time when the global financial crisis is fueling resentment toward the United States and threatening to undermine much of the work the U.N. does to fight poverty around the globe. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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