United Nations ambassador nominee Kelly Knight Craft is smart, capable, and knowledgeable about the foreign policy challenges facing our country. Her partisan critics are unfairly attacking her lack of a traditional diplomatic background. Such a background is vastly overrated as a qualification for success at the U.N. The international body functions largely as a parliamentary system in which negotiation and communication skills predominate. Craft has what it takes to be very successful.
Perhaps the largest impediment to her success has nothing to do with her abilities or experience. It has to do with the impending removal of the U.N. ambassador position from membership in the president’s Cabinet and the National Security Council.
This is no mere tweak to the bureaucratic organizational chart. It sends a significant signal to the U.N. leadership and ambassadors from other countries about how much the American ambassador speaks with the authority of the White House. Cabinet rank promotes easy communication with foreign heads of government and their ministers and ambassadors.
Democratic presidents have always had their U.N. ambassadors in the Cabinet and the NSC. This befits the higher priority Democrats put on multilateral institutions and the generally positive feeling they have for the U.N.
Republicans have gone back and forth.
Up through President Ronald Reagan and his widely acclaimed U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Republican administrations gave their U.N. ambassadors Cabinet rank. President George H.W. Bush discontinued the practice, and President George W. Bush followed that direction. President Trump revived the Reagan approach by elevating Ambassador Nikki Haley to the higher level.
For conservatives, the U.N. has long earned its reputation as a waste of money that poorly reflects American values and interests. Some argue that since the U.N. should not play a critical role in U.S. foreign policy, the American representative there should not have a status at the highest level of our government’s national security structure.
And yet, despite these legitimate criticisms, one might consider why two of the biggest conservative heroes at the U.N., Kirkpatrick and Haley, stood out above many others in that role. Their success is attributable to their own talents, of course, but the strength of their position within their respective administrations also played a significant part.
Haley, for example, was instrumental in obtaining passage of three U.N. Security Council sanctions packages against North Korea. Those crippling sanctions helped change the North Korean regime’s calculus about the value of their nuclear program. She almost certainly would have been less effective with her reluctant Chinese and Russian counterparts at the UN had they not believed she was speaking directly on behalf of the president.
From her NSC position and proximity to the president, Haley also played a critical role in advancing the president’s goal of withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal — a position that was opposed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
While there are significant policy implications to the Cabinet rank of the U.N. Ambassador, much of the status dispute tends to revolve around personalities. Jeane Kirkpatrick was famously at odds with Reagan’s first secretary of state, Alexander Haig, who referred to her only as “that woman.” She didn’t fare much better with Haig’s successor George Schultz. Haley and Tillerson clashed frequently, although Haley worked well with Tillerson’s successor, current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
It is perhaps understandable that the secretary of state might prefer to control as many diplomatic lanes as possible. But that doesn’t make it better for America’s national security interests to have a United Nations ambassador who is viewed as holding a junior standing inside the administration.
When Trump offered Haley the U.N. position, she accepted it on the condition that she would be a member of the Cabinet and the National Security Council. Trump agreed and always respected those terms. By every account, he was pleased with Haley’s performance.
Nothing in Kelly Knight Craft’s background suggests she would be any less successful. But she will face a structural disadvantage not of her making that will make her job more difficult.
Conservatives face a dilemma when dealing with an objectionable government institution like the United Nations. We can send a strong and empowered representative there to take on the beast, as Kirkpatrick and Haley did. Or we can downgrade our efforts because we dislike the institution.
History suggests that ignoring or neglecting the United Nations does not improve the place. Without a strong traffic cop on the beat, it only gets worse.