Mitch McConnell, the United States Senate Majority Leader, is known for his obstructionist role as Donald Trump’s enforcer and enabler of domestic policies and executive orders. Lately, the senator from Kentucky has also begun maneuvering in foreign policy and diplomacy, notably involving United Nations appointments.
Last year, he lobbied Trump for months to get Kelly Knight Craft, the wife of a Kentucky coal billionaire and generous donor to Trump campaigns, appointed America’s ambassador to the UN. Although she served as the (often-absentee) ambassador to Canada for 22 months in 2017-2019, she had scant global experience. But she did have good political connections. Knight Craft calls McConnell a “dear family friend.”
In December, Trump announced his intention to nominate Jennifer Yue Barber, another Kentuckian with no foreign service experience, as US envoy to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. It is an important diplomatic position that carries ambassadorial rank. She would also be accredited as a stand-in for Knight Craft in the General Assembly, ranking second in command at the US mission to the UN.
“Strange that Mitch has taken such a fond interest in the UN over the past year or so,” William Miller, the producer and moderator of Global Connections Television, based in Frankfort, Ky., said in an email to PassBlue. His videocasts of interviews with people in and around the UN in New York and elsewhere are viewed worldwide.
The nomination of Barber, whose name has not yet been transmitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for confirmation hearings, is an extraordinary global assignment for a neophyte. She has built a career as a specialist in Kentucky tax law at the Louisville office of the Frost Brown Todd law firm. Barber and the firm told PassBlue that they were not commenting on the nomination until she is in the confirmation process.
Barber’s inexperience didn’t seem to give McConnell pause. “Jennifer’s record of encouraging economic opportunity in Kentucky will serve her well as she works to help advance cooperation, development and prosperity throughout the international community,” McConnell said in a statement, adding that she won’t forget her home state.
“I’m grateful Jennifer has chosen to serve our country, and I’m especially glad to know she’ll join our fellow Kentuckian, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft, in advancing our strategic interests and values on the world stage.”
At the UN, Barber would be primarily responsible for policy work on behalf of the US in the Economic and Social Council, known as Ecosoc. It is a pivotal body in the UN system — on par in the UN Charter with the Security Council, which handles issues of war and peace. Ecosoc’s areas of responsibility include oversight and coordination on all economic, social and environmental issues.
There are no big-power vetoes in Ecosoc but many contentious issues to handle that require negotiating skills, particularly in relations with developing nations and the more than 5,400 accredited nongovernment organizations with consultative status. Ecosoc’s reach is wide. Dozens of bodies fall under its purview, from the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, Unesco, Unicef and the High Commissioner for Refugees to such global financial institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Barber, whose family has owned the popular China Wok restaurant in Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, for more than 39 years, does have one international skill: she is fluent in Cantonese, a language indigenous to southeastern China and spoken by many Chinese immigrants in America. Barber’s paternal grandparents arrived in the US not speaking English and found a footing in the restaurant business.
As a young lawyer, Barber, a graduate of the University of Kentucky law school, collected awards for her work in the legal profession and business circles in her home state, where promoting local enterprises has also played a role in McConnell’s life.
But she has apparently never been active in any organization in Kentucky dealing with international affairs, in particular the UN, according to Miller of Global Connections Television, and Teena Halbig, vice president and former president for six years of the Kentucky division of the United Nations Association (UNA-USA).
McConnell is seeking re-election in 2020. He is married to Elaine Chao, who is transportation secretary in the Trump cabinet — one of a few officials not to run afoul of the president. She has been under Congressional investigation, however, on reports that she was steering business contracts to Kentucky and that while in office as transportation secretary she had been promoting her family’s international shipping company, the Foremost Group, which does a large business in China. (A nongovernmental organization has published updates of the investigation.)
Chao no longer has a role in the company, which was founded in the US in 1964 by her father, James S C Chao, a well-connected former school classmate of Jiang Zemin, a later president of China. Foremost, with offices in the US and Asia, has a fleet of dry-bulk carriers that ships commodities such as grains, soybeans, iron ore and coal, according to the company website.
For McConnell, who has promoted his candidates from Kentucky for the two most-important US diplomatic positions at the UN — and succeeded easily in winning the first appointment — his area of influence in US diplomacy may soon widen. He is widely acknowledged among Washington politicians to be engaged in persuading Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to resign and seek election to the US Senate from Kansas. The political calculation is that Pompeo could win the seat handily, helping to prop up the small Republican majority in the upper house of the US Congress.
Maybe that’s just the beginning. With Pompeo gone as the head of an already demoralized American foreign service, demeaned and sidelined by Trump, McConnell would have two possible opportunities. He may have a candidate or two in mind to fill Pompeo’s place and he could be heard more clearly above the disarray and dysfunction in the White House as a Senate trial proceeds on whether to remove an impeached president from office.
In the final round of the confirmation process, whoever the State Department candidate may be, McConnell will be in ultimate control of a confirmation vote for Barber.
His opinions, which he reflects in numerous speeches and statements, sometimes differ from Trump’s. An experienced Congressional leader who knows much more about foreign affairs than the president, he is supportive of NATO and deeply suspicious and critical of Russia. In March 2019, McConnell, with bipartisan support, invited the secretary-general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, to address the US Congress for the first time.
When political opponents branded him “Moscow Mitch” for his seeming unwillingness to challenge Trump’s approval of Vladimir Putin (and T-shirts were being produced bearing the epithet), McConnell reacted in a lengthy, angry statement, which read in small part:
“Regardless of who was in the White House, regardless of which way the political winds were blowing, I’ve consistently treated Russia like the threat it is,” he said. “Even under a Republican administration, I spoke out when I was afraid the US wasn’t doing enough to stop the erosion of democracy and the rule of law in Russia. . . .
“Now here we are in 2019. Again, Putin and the Russians seek to provoke fear and division in our country. To undermine faith in our institutions. To exacerbate our political differences until we tear ourselves apart. And, once again, it seems there are some who blindly take the bait. American pundits calling an American official treasonous because of a policy disagreement. If anything is an asset to the Russians, it is disgusting behavior like that.”
Nothing that strong has been said lately by McConnell about China, which has been steadily ratcheting up its influence in the UN.
Update: This article was corrected to reflect that Mitch McConnell is the Senate Majority Leader, not the Speaker.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.