Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani remains one of the leading contenders for secretary of state in the Trump administration. Foreign policy is not an official part of the mayor’s job. But there were a few times when Mayor Giuliani clashed with visiting diplomats and foreign heads of state.
Before Rudy Giuliani was America’s Mayor, he was the mayor of New York. Part of the job is to make sure parking tickets get paid, and some of the biggest parking scofflaws in town were the visiting diplomats at the United Nations — some of whom owed tens of thousands of dollars.
Things got so heated that, in 1997, Giuliani actually invited the U.N. to leave town.
“I would like the United Nations to stay, but I also would like the United Nations and their diplomats to respect — and I underline the word respect — the laws of the city of New York,” the mayor said.
Diplomats said they were entitled to immunity, and the State Department had to step in to broker a deal. Nicholas Burns was a department spokesman at the time.
“Where I thought Mayor Giuliani was correct was in sending a very stiff message: You’re living in a city of laws,” says Burns, who now teaches diplomacy at Harvard University.
But there was another incident where Burns thinks Giuliani went too far. In 1995 Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, was in town to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the U.N. He was attending a special concert by the New York Philharmonic for world leaders at the Lincoln Center — until the middle of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, when Mayor Giuliani had him tossed out.
“There’s a difference between the diplomacy conducted at the United Nations, and then parties that are given to celebrate,” Giuliani told NPR at the time. “It would be enormously offensive to the members of my host committee to have either Fidel Castro or Yasser Arafat because of the murder they’ve engaged in over a period of time.”
Pro-Israel hard-liners applauded the move, but at a time when the Clinton administration was pushing hard for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, it was a big embarrassment for the White House.
“Mayor Giuliani was so brusque, so in-your-face in his treatment of Arafat and others, that it really, I thought, crossed the line of where a mayor of New York should be,” Burns says.
The event that defined Giuliani’s time as mayor — and put him on the international stage — was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. Afterward he gave a speech at the United Nations on his city’s tolerance and diversity.
Since leaving office at the end of that year, Giuliani has run a consulting business, working for clients all over the world, including foreign governments and corporations. He ran for president himself in 2008 but dropped out just before Super Tuesday after disappointing results in New Hampshire and Florida, the only earlier states his campaign heavily invested in.
This election cycle, he was an early supporter of Donald Trump, and he gave a fiery, prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention about the threat of terrorism.
“You know who we are!” Giuliani said, shouting over loud cheers. “And we’re coming to get you!”
Critics wonder if Giuliani’s approach is too aggressive for the nation’s top diplomat — but Ruth Wedgwood, a professor of international law at Johns Hopkins University, says “a certain degree of menace can at times by a useful deterrent.”
Wedgwood, who worked for Giuliani in the U.S. attorney’s office in New York in the 1980s and advised his 2008 presidential campaign, describes him as bright and pugilistic.
“There are many areas of the world in which being a little bit of a macho man doesn’t hurt you,” Wedgwood says.
Still, Nicholas Burns at Harvard would rather see a secretary of state with more foreign policy experience.
“This is the big leagues,” he says. “It requires a person steeped in history, in economics, in negotiations, with an intimate knowledge of how the world works.”
But Rudy Giuliani seems to have Donald Trump’s ear, and his back, and those may turn out to be the most important qualifications of all.
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