Pulling Back the Curtain on the US Mission to the UN

Vice President Pence at the United Nations Security Council on April 10, 2019
Vice President Pence suddenly showed up at the UN on April 10, 2019, to demand that the Security Council strip the current Venezuelan ambassador’s UN credentials. That has not happened. The US mission to the UN lacks a permanent representative amid an outflow of a range of personnel. Some UN diplomats say, “There is no one left.” MANUEL ELIAS/UN PHOTO

The next United States ambassador to the United Nations, which could be Kelly Knight Craft, will arrive at a US mission to the UN that is far diminished in size and stature than the one her immediate predecessor, Nikki Haley, inherited.

In the last month, numerous former staff members and high-level personnel from the US mission spoke to PassBlue, on the condition that they not be named, about the state of affairs in the mission, a fortress built across the street from UN headquarters in New York eight years ago.

In the mission’s lobby, a trio of photos visible through the huge windows from the street conveys the situation: the spot for an image of a US ambassador sits blank next to photos of President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

During the Trump administration, for many reasons, the US mission has witnessed an exodus of career officers as well as political appointees from Haley’s short tenure, from February 2017 to December 2018, and from before that time.

Should Knight Craft, the current US ambassador to Canada, be confirmed by the Senate as the next permanent representative to the UN, the vacancy she fills will mark the longest transition for the US mission since 2005. That is when John Bolton, now the US national security adviser, assumed the ambassadorship as an interim post through a recess appointment, after a six-month gap without anyone in that position.

Knight Craft is expected to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for her confirmation hearing on June 19, interviewed with other nominees in a panel format meant to speed up the process for many people at once but also to shield Knight Craft from too many questions by committee members, said a New York expert on UN-Washington dynamics. The Senate would not confirm the hearing date.

The Senate is apparently keen to have a permanent representative at the UN installed as soon as possible, but Democrats will undoubtedly question Knight Craft vigorously on her stance on women’s rights as well as her climate change views and business interests, since she is a big investor in the coal industry. That could present a conflict of interest for her at the UN regarding Security Council decisions on climate change and its links to conflicts.

It also appears certain that Knight Craft’s potential job will not be cabinet level, significantly reducing her status and placing Bolton more firmly in the driver’s seat on US decisions and agendas regarding the UN.

Given his publicly expressed disdain for the institution, this situation does not bode well for productive relationships between the US mission and other member states, some UN observers say, especially if such hot topics like the White House peace plan on Israel and Palestine is unveiled and its aspects play out in the Security Council.

Haley and many ambassadors since the Eisenhower administration have held Cabinet status, which has helped attract media spotlight on the UN. But Republican administrations have generally appointed ambassadors to the UN who weren’t in the Cabinet, while Democratic appointments were usually Cabinet members.


 

 

The record of recent ambassador transitions, though, remains James Cunningham’s nine-month tenure as acting representative in 2001, after which President George W. Bush finally appointed John Negroponte to the post.

The US mission has experienced a major delay in leadership since Haley’s resignation in December. Heather Nauert, the State Department’s spokesperson then, was picked by Trump to succeed Haley but she withdrew her nomination from consideration in February. It remains unclear exactly why Nauert dropped her candidacy, but some media reports that suggested she had had a legal problem with a nanny are inaccurate, according to a source knowledgeable about the matter.

The US mission also experienced the sudden departure this year of Kelley Currie, the deputy ambassador, who has not been replaced. The current acting permanent representative, Jonathan Cohen, has been nominated as ambassador to Egypt and could be leaving the mission soon as well.

Right after PassBlue sent questions about current staffing levels to the press offices and other departments in the US mission and the State Department, Austin Smith, a holdover appointee in the mission’s political affairs office from Haley’s era and a fellow South Carolinian, was designated acting representative to the UN Economic and Social Council on May 14, skirting a nomination hearing. Trump nominated Smith to be alternate representative of the US to the General Assembly last fall but that request was dropped.

Danny Danon, left, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, and Jonathan Cohen, acting permanent representative of the US to the UN, before the Security Council meeting on Palestine and Israel, Jan. 22, 2019. LOEY FELIPE/UN PHOTO

Yet having no permanent representative, said one diplomat on the Security Council, who did not want to be named or his country mentioned, made diplomacy “more professional,” since interactions with fellow delegates at the US were not as politically charged as they had been, for example, with Haley. A former top diplomat at the US mission scoffed at that notion, saying that negotiations were always tense with certain countries on many subjects.

When there is no permanent representative, no new policies or major initiatives are put forth. Some diplomats at the UN find it frustrating to have to negotiate with an acting permanent representative, who cannot make decisions without consulting Washington, which can be problematic if he receives no advice or it is delayed.

The symbolic message of an empty permanent representative’s seat suggests, as a former top American diplomat said, that the Trump administration doesn’t “really care about the UN,” that it is not important and even a waste of time.

As this diplomat noted, the US delegation generally pushes “things in a better direction” in its work at the UN. That missing focus can provide opportunity for other countries to do damage at the UN — not just China and Russia but the Saudis, too. With US leadership missing, there is “drift and backsliding” on crucial matters like human rights, although the Trump administration is trying to roll back the sexual and reproductive health rights of women through UN forums. It is also in arrears in paying its annual peacekeeping dues.

Moreover, institutional memory and the experience of talented civil servants is mostly gone at the US mission, say many people who were interviewed. That missing resource can hurt general operations and leave the US exposed in negotiations over draft Security Council resolutions.

“Good people have walked out the door,” the former diplomat said.


 

 

Who’s in charge

Ambassador Cohen is holding down the fort, reading speeches in the Security Council and other UN settings, but he is only supposed to keep the mission running until a new ambassador with specific policy priorities comes in. The mission, said one pundit of the UN, has no leverage to push back now on the many topics debated in the Security Council because of fragmented instructions emanating from Washington.

Moreover, Cohen has little interaction with media, although Haley reserved her involvement with reporters to primarily Fox News. The US mission (@USUN) continues to tweet, mainly by retweeting the posts of others, including Pompeo’s congratulations on May 1 for the mission’s “work in negotiating JEM’s Masood Azhar’s #UN designation as a terrorist,” referring to the Pakistani terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed.

The US mission also reposted a New York Post op-ed claiming that it gave a “more accurate” account as to why the US government threatened to veto a German-led resolution in April that aimed to further spotlight ways to end sexual violence in war.

The threat hung over the very heated negotiations and put Germany in the awkward position of having to agree to delete the language of “sexual and reproductive health” from the resolution for the US to approve it. Apparently, that demand and others were made by Pence, as the Trump administration claims such wording signifies abortion.

The whole episode sparked strong, vocal reactions from a wide range of Council members, such as Belgium, Britain, France and South Africa, who all voiced their objections frankly (see the video below). Rights groups around the world also protested the move by the US.

 

The core people running the US mission

Political appointees come and go with ambassadors, and without a permanent one, the mission is generally kept going by career foreign service officers and civil servants. According to a 2011 report by the US Office of the Inspector General, the ratio at the UN mission then was about 20 percent political appointees, foreign service officers on three-year tours and a variety of unpaid and paid nonpermanent staff, including interns, fellows, retirees and other temporary personnel. The other 80 percent were civil servants and support staff who may remain for decades.

According to the US mission website, there are 150 “staff” at the mission, and more than 100 are foreign and civil service personnel. It is unclear when the website was last updated. When asked for the current numbers, a US mission spokesperson said information on personnel records was “confidential.” According to the UN blue book of diplomats, updated in February, there were approximately 117 ambassadors, advisers, counselors and other staff listed at the mission.


 

 

Everyone who is not ambassador, minister-counselor or counselor rank is given the term “adviser,” including both substantive and administrative staff. This covers not only civil service but also foreign service officers.

By contrast, the Chinese mission to the UN has about 88 people, and Russia, 87, listed in the blue book.

The political appointees who were still there when Haley came onboard in 2017, including ambassadors, were told their contracts would not be extended beyond Inauguration Day, when Trump became president on Jan. 20. At least one ambassador was asked to stay on by Haley, but this exception was scotched by the White House.

It is customary for political appointees to leave when a new ambassador steps in, but to have everyone go at once is unusual.

“On occasion, the new ambassador may stick with a past political appointee of the opposite party if he or she has special knowledge of an issue, country or region,” said Stephen Schlesinger, a longtime observer of the UN and the author of “Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations.”

“But since the post is so sensitive politically, I think most administrations want to have their own people in place, primarily to assure that their policies are faithfully presented in the body.”

Despite the continuity that mission staff members can offer, transitions between presidential administrations and ambassadors always present challenges. Incoming ambassadors have handled the changes differently. Susan Rice, an Obama-era ambassador, for example, had her new team speak with staff members under the Bush-appointed ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, to get a feel for what worked and what didn’t.

Usually some political appointees, such as schedulers and the deputy chief of staff, remain between administrations to help the new political appointees get their bearings.

Through the plate-glass window at the US mission to the UN on First Avenue, Manhattan: images of Trump, Pence and Pompeo but no US envoy to the  UN.

Ambassadors must also manage the relationship between the incoming political staff –who have flexible job descriptions — and the career foreign and civil service officers, an arrangement the inspector general report found could lead to a lack of coordination. In the past, some ambassadors have tried to bring political and career staff together as much as possible, but one source said those relationships deteriorated under Haley.

Bill Richardson, the US ambassador from 1997 to 1998 at the UN, held weekly meetings that included both groups, as well as all-mission meetings that involved support staff.


 

 

“We felt that these meetings were important to build a sense of community and cooperation between the political appointees and career folks,” Richardson told PassBlue.

Rice and her successor, Samantha Power, continued these mixed meetings during the Obama administration. Rice held evening “vespers” every two days to discuss policy. Power preferred morning meetings.

PassBlue sources were mixed on Haley’s approach. Some said she insulated herself with her political team, mostly people who had worked with her as governor of South Carolina, such as Austin Smith, who was her former chief of staff. These sources said that Haley held few meetings with career foreign service staff, who felt that their views were not being heard.

Others, however, described her as interested in learning and getting briefs from every part of the mission and “well respected” among career staff.

Haley also held social events for the mission to foster a sense of community, such as impromptu happy hours marking successful Security Council resolutions, celebrations for staff promotions and even movie nights in Bryant Park, in Manhattan.

Haley must have presided over many departure parties, because sources describe a large outflow of career officers during her tenure, partly due to early retirement buyouts offered by the State Department when Rex Tillerson was secretary of state. In addition, Tillerson’s hiring freeze meant that an increasingly overworked mission, depleted of staff with decades of expertise, was unable to replace them.

One former staff member described the “surprise” retirement of a civil servant with 30 years’ experience at the mission in 2018, just before the beginning of the annual large gathering of the UN General Assembly in September, where government leaders converge from across the globe to meet and deliberate. The departure was considered a “huge loss of knowledge” with no replacement in sight.

Even under the Obama administration, the mission’s resources had been stretched thin. The government report found weaknesses in the mission’s management and strategic approach to public diplomacy. It described the mission as “adapt[ing] its finite resources almost day by day to the growing demands of the UN agenda.”

Even during this time of renewed interest in multilateral diplomacy, mission staff numbers remained nearly constant from 2001 to 2011, and the “stagnant” budget declined over that period.

Until Pompeo arrived as secretary of state in spring of 2018 and lifted the hiring freeze at the State Department, the US mission used workarounds to acquire personnel.


 

 

One way was to transfer foreign and civil service officers from Washington to New York on temporary assignments. This had been customary to acquire negotiators with specialties, especially during the General Assembly’s opening megasession, when the US works on at least 75 negotiations with other country delegations over a few short weeks. Under the Trump administration, this practice was expanded to help the mission function.

The mission has also relied more on interns to attend meetings in lieu of dwindling numbers of senior officials to act as warm bodies in the chair, particularly during the General Assembly’s most-important meetings. The interns mostly wrote notes for the senior officials: “I was told I was representing the US, but I wasn’t allowed to speak on US policy,” said a former intern.

The Trump administration has also left the mission’s small Washington office in the State Department vacant since Haley left. Most of the personnel had been Haley appointees, who are now gone, except for Austin Smith.

The office’s main role is to coordinate interagency business with the ambassador’s office in New York. With Knight Craft’s possible ambassadorship lacking Cabinet status, this office will be moot. Rice had expanded it to five staff members, a number maintained by Power.

Where’s the US?

Back in New York, other missions have noticed the difference in the US presence at the UN, especially since Haley’s departure.

“There is no one left,” said a diplomat from Europe, a comment repeated anecdotally by other diplomats when referring to UN committee meetings and other formal discussions. Another diplomat noted there have been more empty seats than usual at the US’s spot at the horseshoe table in the Security Council, providing unfavorable optics for a permanent member.

In some pivotal Council meetings, like a recent one on the rising terrorism attacks in the Sahel region of Africa, only one US delegate was present at one point.

A European ambassador described the logistical problems in negotiating with the US delegation on the Council as two-pronged: running an obstacle course in a disorganized State Department or facing a near death knell in Bolton’s office.

The chaos in Washington was apparent during the annual women’s conference held at the UN in March, when the US mission changed its top delegate to the event three times. At first, Cohen said he was heading it, then the White House announced that Kelly Currie, the deputy ambassador, was the lead. Finally, the night before the conference, Cherith Norman Chalet, an ambassador at the mission, was handed the task.


 

 

Richardson, the former ambassador, considers the absence of top diplomats as a loss, saying: “The US suffers by not having a presence, especially in the Security Council. I think it has hurt our interests very much.”

Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this article.

This article was updated to better reflect which US ambassadors to the UN have been Cabinet members.

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