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Former President Bill Clinton played an important role in the aftermath of the recent earthquake disaster in Haiti as a United Nations special envoy.

But it’s probably fair to say that not many people understand exactly what envoys are, and more importantly, that they have a critical diplomatic function — and have since the country’s founding.

UNC’s Great Decisions program has dedicated itself to answering these questions by including the topic of special envoys in its series of lectures on global issues and foreign policy this spring.

Tuesday evening, Great Decisions will host a lecture on special envoys by Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Israel and Egypt. Kurtzer has firsthand experience from 29 years in the Foreign Service, as well as an academic and analytical perspective.

He is S. Daniel Abraham Chair in Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. While having never held the position of special envoy himself, his experience in and commitment to the Middle East will provide an unmatched perspective on the utility of envoys in that part of the world as well as a clear-eyed analysis of recent policy in that region.

A special envoy is a specialized presidential appointee charged with providing individual attention and political muscle to our most pressing global issues. Because they don’t need Senate confirmation, envoys provide a means for sidestepping bureaucracy.

These people can positively influence any foreign policy situation. But their appointments can also lead to confusion and turf wars, hindering the efficacy of Foreign Service by sidelining the State Department.

The use of envoys as a foreign policy tool has fluctuated widely, especially in recent years. Former President Clinton appointed a total of 50. Former President George W. Bush, reflecting a general lack of interest in diplomacy as much as a preference for clean administration, went to the other extreme by abolishing 23 of Clinton’s envoy positions.

In the first year of his administration, Obama made it clear that envoys would be central to his administration’s approach to global issues. He appointed a score of special envoys to deal with issues from the genocide in Sudan and Middle East conflict resolution to climate change.

As the political climate surrounding these issues continues to heat up, the question persists: Will Obama’s reliance on special envoys be effective, or will it simply muddy our diplomatic waters?

Obama has appointed several high profile people to envoy positions. Richard Holbrooke, a major player in negotiating the Dayton Accords in 1995, has taken the helm as envoy to Afghanistan. Of equal strength, former Senator George Mitchell, the engineer of the 1998 Irish Peace accord while special envoy during the Clinton administration, has been named envoy to the Middle East.

These issues of conflict resolution in the Middle East and elsewhere are of serious importance at this juncture in the Obama administration. Through the Great Decisions speaker series, the Chapel Hill community will have the unique opportunity to engage in this discussion over the influence and effectiveness of special envoys within the sphere of international conflict resolution.

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