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North Korea and the UN: Agony and Ecstasy


Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the United Nations, addressing reporters on Aug. 5, 2017, right after the Security Council approved more sanctions against North Korea. The author argues that Haley’s triumph on the vote was soon tarnished by Trump’s words. KIM HAUGHTON/UN PHOTO

If you are reading this, it must mean we have not been annihilated by a nuclear war between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Not that Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, will be able to take much credit — not because she didn’t try but because she was undermined by her boss, Donald Trump.

The job of Washington’s chief UN envoy is intended to be high profile, to offer a significant role in promoting international peace and security. But ambassador to the UN is just one of several such top officials and can only be as effective as the overall team. For better, or in this case worse, that would include the commander in chief.

Ambassador Haley won international admiration with a big win in the UN Security Council on Aug. 5, securing unanimous approval of a resolution imposing tough new economic sanctions on North Korea. The breakthrough on the resolution, the latest in an escalating series of such measures over decades, came after Pyongyang’s recent test of two intercontinental ballistic missiles, which was considered a violation of the Council’s earlier restrictions.

Haley described the vote to Council members as “a strong, united step toward holding North Korea accountable for its behavior,” after telling reporters, “All this ICBM and nuclear irresponsibility has to stop.”

Paradoxically, only days earlier, Haley had appeared to write off efforts to achieve Security Council action, dismissing reports that Washington was working on an emergency draft resolution and surprising some of her fellow powerful ambassadors in the Council. “North Korea is already subject to numerous Security Council resolutions that they violate with impunity,” she tweeted. “The time for talk is over.”

That’s a mind-boggling statement for a US ambassador to say. Luckily for her, she was saved by a dubious move by North Korea.

A bit of background: A day earlier, Trump had scolded China, which has veto power in the Council, for not doing enough to pressure North Korea to end its decades-long initiative to develop nuclear weapons and the missiles required to deliver them. So Haley was apparently reinforcing Trump’s message by letting it be known that Beijing was unwilling to back her draft resolution, dooming it. And perhaps her tactic helped to make a difference: China reversed course and voted for the draft days later, after the second missile test.

Score one for Haley. Nonetheless, as a newcomer to the foreign policy world, she has regularly been violating a fundamental rule of diplomacy with which she appears unfamiliar, along with Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Here it is: One of the most important things a government can do to succeed on the international stage is to clearly set out its goals and regularly repeat them, never veering from the script and never moving the goal post, whether the lowest-level official or the head of state is doing the talking. In that way, a single message becomes well known to all parties rather than a mystery or a moving target; a clear strategy becomes credible; and the team becomes trustworthy. No room is left for misunderstanding or miscalculation.

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So while Haley was rightly bragging about the united front she had knit together in the Security Council, the rest of the gang had apparently not gotten the message. Trump, after praising the Security Council vote, was soon broadly hinting at a nuclear attack against North Korea, warning that threats against the US would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” and boasting that the American nuclear arsenal was “far stronger and more powerful than ever before.”

Apparently alarmed by Trump’s harsh remarks, Tillerson called on Pyongyang to begin a new round of negotiations intended to put its nuclear program on ice while Mattis urged it to “take heed of the United Nations Security Council’s unified voice, and . . . cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”

Given that Trump and Kim Jong Un are a close match for bluster, this scattershot approach rapidly led not to solidifying trust and credibility between the parties but to an escalating war of words. North Korea was soon threatening to hurl missiles at Guam, a US territory in the western Pacific that holds a hive of American military bases.

Trump stepped up his bragging about the power of his nuclear arsenal, adding provocatively that it was now “locked and loaded.” And China, tired of hearing Trump endlessly ordering it to do more to end the nuclear standoff, found a juicy target for some payback, branding the US leader’s remarks as counterproductive.

“China calls on all parties to avoid any words or actions that might escalate the situation and make even greater efforts to resolve the issue via talks,” a Foreign Ministry statement said. And The Global Times, a state-run Chinese newspaper, took a harder line, stating that Beijing should let the world know that it would “stay neutral” rather than restrain its ally if North Korea attacked US soil. Further, the newspaper warned, if the US and South Korea pre-emptively try to overthrow the North Korean regime, “China will prevent them from doing so.”

So Haley’s Security Council breakthrough had soon been transformed by her own boss into a peacemaker’s nightmare.

Bottom line: Whatever questions linger over Ambassador Haley’s skills, much bigger doubts center on Trump, his bombast, his lack of diplomatic skills and his unfamiliarity with the world he must deal with, day by day.

One crucial question: Is it not part of the UN ambassador’s job to convey to the president the concerns of the international community that her boss is unfit to lead? Haley met with Trump in Bridgewater, N. J., on Aug. 11 to discuss the Korea crisis with Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. That would have been an opportune time to update Trump and party, but perhaps Haley is not listening closely to what diplomats at the UN have to say.

And another: How can she sustain her reviews as an effective diplomat when she is just one player in a cast of amateurs whose leader is the biggest amateur on the team?

Tell us what you think of this op-ed, part of our series covering Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN:

Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.

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