DUNDEE, Scotland — While most British people have a generally positive view of the United Nations, public awareness of who their diplomats are and how they carry out their work in New York is minimal to nonexistent. Yet the United States ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has had no trouble attracting headlines in Britain — and elsewhere beyond America — notably related to the tensions with North Korea.
Despite her initial appointment being broadly questioned because of her lack of foreign affairs experience, Haley has been deemed a qualified success at the UN, particularly given the combative attitude that Donald Trump displayed toward the organization before taking office as president. CNN recently labeled Haley as the “breakout star of Trump’s cabinet” while Time magazine featured her on its cover as one of its “women changing the world.”
Her current favorable image in some media and among segments of the public belies underlying problems about the perception of the UN in the US as well: 60 percent of Americans participating in a Feb. 24, 2017 Gallup poll responded that they thought the UN was doing a poor job of dealing with the crises it faces (comparable to annual poll ratings since 2013). Trump’s own approval ratings have hit their lowest ever among the American electorate since he was inaugurated.
Haley originally became prominent in the US as the first female governor of South Carolina and first Indian-American to hold office there. Her seeming popularity at the UN, however, does not reflect deep misgivings by some diplomats, who find her extension of Trump hard to swallow. Nor has her popularity crossed over to Britain beyond her association with Trump and the coverage of North Korea’s nuclear threats.
Paradoxically, her British counterpart at the UN, Ambassador Matthew Rycroft, is not well known in his own country and receives much less attention than Haley.
When he is mentioned in the media, Rycroft is often a footnote in an article on UN business, never the headline in which Haley has often been placed. This might be because UN business is rarely in the spotlight to begin with, even when British disputes are at the heart of a matter.
For instance, the recent embarrassing defeat for Britain in the UN General Assembly on a vote over decolonization of disputed territory in the Indian Ocean, the Chagos Islands, shows how British media covering a vital issue at the UN on Britain do not mention the ambassador himself. (Many members of the European Union abstained on the vote, but the US voted in support of Britain).
Rycroft, representing the stance of the British government, boycotted talks on the new multilateral disarmament treaty banning nuclear weapons as well, but he was not mentioned in coverage of this topic. (The group behind the new treaty, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, just won the Nobel Peace Prize.)
In fact, the British government recently announced that Rycroft would be taking on a new role as permanent secretary to the Department for International Development, less than three years after he was appointed ambassador to the UN.
The other reason Haley might receive more attention in Britain is the political nature of her role, compared with Rycroft’s.
As Fred Carver of UNA-UK, an independent body that promotes the UN, said in an interview with PassBlue, “While British ambassadors are civil servants, American ambassadors are political figures . . . those in the UK who have heard of Ambassador Haley are more likely to have heard of her in the context of her being a potential 2020 presidential candidate than as UN ambassador.”
Carver, who is head of policy, added, “It is true, though, that in the US the UN ambassador is a Cabinet-equivalent rank, whereas the UK-UN ambassador is not accorded the same status.”
In response to questions to the British mission to the UN on this topic, a spokesperson said: “We have different political systems. With the US system, when there is a change in the administration, much of the top level of government officials change as well. The US ambassador holds a Cabinet rank position in the US government and reports to President Trump and is therefore a political voice. Like many other ambassadors to the United Nations, Matthew Rycroft is a career diplomat.”
Yet compared with most other ambassadors to the UN based in New York, Rycroft speaks regularly to media and civil society and is one of the most prominent national envoys at the UN, the British spokeperson added. (The US and Britain are both permanent members of the Security Council.)
As a member of Trump’s Cabinet, Haley’s views may help formulate US policy, and though Rycroft’s may do as well, his views are only advisory to his capital, a former British diplomat who works in New York said.
All of which begs the question why British ambassadors to the UN are not given the same political status as an American ambassador (though not all American ambassadors to the UN have held Cabinet rank). That goal was sought when Lord Caradon was ambassador (1964-1970) to the UN and when Ivor Richard was ambassador (1974-1979).
But Lord Hannay, a co-chair of the UN All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG), a cross‐party entity supporting the aims of the UN, said in an email, “I don’t think it had much effect so far as accountability or visibility were concerned.”
He elaborated: “Comparison with the US is really a case of apples and oranges given that our constitutional practices are so different.”
The practical issues of having a UN ambassador based in New York, who is also a serving Cabinet minister, normally based in London, were also relevant, Lord Hannay noted. “Now that the Security Council meets pretty well every day, it is hard to see how a British politician could manage; we are 7 hours flight away, the Americans just one hour [from Washington, D.C.].”
Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson attended the annual opening debates of the UN General Assembly in New York in September, suggesting that their commitment to the UN is reasonably high on the government’s agenda.
In her speech to the UN, May said: “These values and the rules they imbue are central to our national interest, to our security and prosperity. And the international system with the UN at its heart is the amplifying force that enables countries to cooperate and live up to the standards in word, spirit and deed, to our collective and individual benefit.”
But as Carver of UNA-UK pointed out, while the opening of UN General Assembly attracts a lot of attention, “the real work of the UN happens elsewhere and at other times of year, and it is there that the UK’s presence or absence is more keenly felt. That the UK did not attend recent talks on the [new] Nuclear Ban Treaty was, for example, more telling.”
Part of the problem in raising awareness and visibility of the UN in Britain stems from the lack of infrastructure dedicated to this purpose. “UNA-UK are the only UK charity devoted to making the case for an effective UN, and the UN has no UK office, and so a large part of public engagement with the UN in the UK happens through us,” Carver said.
He added that “20,000 individuals have engaged in actions we have run in recent years, either in person or online, 2,000 students participated in our Stand For Freshers fair campaign last year, and a further 2,000 people packed out Central Hall Westminster in May when we hosted the S-G” — UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
Another issue behind the lack of interest is the reliance of volunteers to carry out UN-related work in relevant organizations. An all-volunteer national committee that runs the UN Women UK office, for example, was unable to provide a comment on the Haley phenomenon because of a lack of resources to carry out their work.
This deficit on UN visibility in Britain was evident at the government level. Ben Donaldson, the coordinator of the All-Party Parliamentary Group, said in an email: “The UN APPG has voluntary members of around 70 all of whom have an interest in some aspect of the UN. . . . The strategy for the Group is to get MPs and Lords talking and thinking about the UN and give parliamentarians an opportunity to learn from high level UN officials who pass through London.”
The group, Donaldson added, “has 0 budget so we have to be fairly opportunistic — we will organise a meeting when we hear that an inspiring UN speaker (for instance) is in town.”
Even organizations engaged in topics pertinent to the UN have little understanding of its role. At several nonpartisan women’s centers here in Scotland as well as in Nottingham and London in England, most people had not heard of either Rycroft or Haley and had not interacted with the British ambassador in any way. They also did not engage with the UN on any practical level and did not express full understanding of how the UN functioned.
When asked if they thought there should be more engagement with the UN, a representative for the Dundee International Women’s Center, said it wasn’t “in a position to answer that question.”
Vivienne Hayes, the chief executive of the Women’s Resource Center in London, the leading national umbrella organization for women’s charities, with a network of 500-plus organizations, admitted to a “very low level of understanding” among women’s groups about the UN treaties that the British government has signed, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw).
Hayes suggested simple things that Rycroft — or the British ambassador in general — could do to improve awareness of the UN, such as writing a letter of introduction for the Women’s Resource Center’s monthly newsletter.
Equally, a spokesperson for Disability UK, a leading charity, said: “Our focus is on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities and the responsible committee. We don’t liaise with ambassadors.”
Now that Rycroft is moving to a new government post, perhaps the new ambassador — to be named — will address the dearth of interest in the UN in Britain. After all, Britain is the sixth-largest financial donor, at 4.5 percent, to the UN’s regular budget, as of 2016 (a tad less than France, at 4.8 percent).
Meanwhile, Haley’s political ambitions and place within the Trump administration remain a constant source of speculation in media, and even when it comes to UN matters the British press seem more inclined to report on her than on Rycroft. Will that change with a new ambassador?
Rhona Scullion is a Scottish writer and reporter who works as a prison law advocate in Nottingham, England. She writes on a variety of human rights and British political topics, often on women’s issues. Having previously worked in Hong Kong and Peru, she has written for the Women News Network and UNA-UK, among others. Scullion has a joint honors bachelor’s degree in English literature and modern history from the University of St. Andrews and a postgraduate law degree from Nottingham Law School. She passed the English bar exam in 2017.