More than six months ago, the American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, announced that she was leaving her post. Following her decision, President Trump nominated Heather Nauert to be her successor. Then the administration tarried, never submitted Nauert’s name for Senate approval — and in February abruptly withdrew her nomination. It put forward a replacement nominee, the current United States envoy to Canada, Kelly Knight Craft.
In the meantime, Kelley Currie, the deputy to Nikki Haley, departed to take on a new assignment at the State Department. In the interim, this has left an acting permanent representative, Jonathan Cohen, to conduct UN business for the Trump administration. Until a Senate confirmation vote happens on Craft, the US remains without an official ambassador to the UN. With Washington facing multiple crises abroad, what is going on?
The stop-and-go nature of the Trump government’s approach to the UN appointment is obviously unsettling. Remember, the UN post is the second-most important foreign policy office in our government. It is here where a president makes some of his most important international pronouncements, adopts or vetoes Security Council resolutions and sanctions and attempts to influence world opinion.
Notable figures like Adlai Stevenson, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President George H. W. Bush have held the job in the past. Even lesser appointees in the post have gone on to to be, among other things, a senator, a national security advisor to the president and a secretary of state. Without an authoritative figure in place, the US inevitably loses influence in crucial UN deliberations.
The administration’s odd moves regarding the UN job, in many ways, may be partly explained by sheer incompetence — a failure to do proper background checks — but they also may be seen as part of its thumb-your-nose, semi-isolationist approach to international affairs.
Since adopting his America First doctrine on foreign policy, President Trump has, as is well known, ended US involvement in the Paris accord on global warming. He abrogated the deal with Iran over nuclear weapons. He announced his termination of President Reagan’s agreement with Russia, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, (INF) barring land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles in Europe.
His sole foray into the UN since his address to the General Assembly in September came three months ago, when he sent his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to attend a Security Council meeting, on Jan. 26, to denounce the authoritarian Venezuelan regime for its human-rights abuses and electoral fraud. Then Pompeo quickly departed, within an hour.
Even Trump’s original choice of Nauert represents a sort of indifference to, if not conscious downgrading of the UN’s importance. After all, Nauert, as the spokesperson for the State Department, had had no deep foreign policy experience, outside of reading pre-written statements and talking points at departmental briefings. Trump apparently chose Nauert because she was once a broadcaster at the right-wing Fox TV network, from whence he has drawn a large number of his team, and has the attributes of looking good on camera, at least by his lights.
His new nominee, Kelly Knight Craft, appears to suffer from similar lightweight baggage. She won the Canadian post, not because of any notable global policy experience, but because her husband, a coal magnate, was a large donor to Trump’s campaign. In fact, shortly after her arrival in Ottawa, she exposed her inexperience to the Canadian TV network, CBC, by saying that when it comes to climate change — a major issue in the UN — she believes in “both sides of the science.”
Nonetheless, one cannot be surprised by Trump’s cavalier attitude toward the UN. From the start of his administration, he has been dismissive of the organization. At first, he sought enormous cutbacks in US aid to the UN, up to 30 percent (so far, Congress limited those reductions). He successfully reduced US contributions to peacekeeping operations by an eye-opening $500,000,000. He quit Unesco and the UN Human Rights Council. He publicly admonished the UN for criticizing the extent of poverty in the US.
Still, on the other hand, he has repeatedly used the Security Council to impose severe sanctions on countries like North Korea and Sudan, among others.
What fundamentally most concerns Trump about the body, though, seems to be its impact on his domestic standing — especially regarding those issues where he has planted a visible public flag, as in countries like Israel or Venezuela. For Trump, the UN remains a tool of convenience — to convey his astringent feelings toward the world. His view boils down to: we don’t really need the UN except when we need it. Take it or leave it.
This op-ed originally appeared in USA Today. It has been updated.
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Stephen Schlesinger is the author of three books, including “Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations,” which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997-2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal. In the 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; was a speechwriter for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern; and later was the weekly columnist for The Boston Globe’s “The L’t’ry Life.” He wrote, with Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit,” a book about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
Thereafter, he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For 12 years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid 1990s, Schlesinger worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities.
Schlesinger received his B.A. from Harvard University, a certificate of study from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in New York City.