On a recent day at the United Nations, the Security Council debated the impact of organized crime at sea and aired international steps to reduce pirating in the world’s maritime trade corridors.
Secretary-General António Guterres announced his agenda for last weekend’s Africa Union summit in Ethiopia, laying out his priorities for helping leaders meet Africa’s challenges and stoke the continent’s remarkable economic and development progress.
And the UN Population Fund, better known as UNFPA, together with the European Union and other European countries, launched a new campaign to end female genital mutilation, a scourge that is still inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of girls annually.
In other words, it was a typical day at the UN.
Except that it all took place without the presence and participation of an ambassador from the United States.
President Trump announced in early December that he would be nominating State Department spokesperson and former Fox News program host Heather Nauert to replace Nikki Haley as the permanent US representative to the world body.
But two months later, Ms. Nauert is nowhere in sight. And no Senate confirmation hearing has been set, perhaps because the White House has yet to formally submit the president’s nomination to Congress.
In the meantime, the US mission to the UN is being run quietly by acting permanent representative Jonathan Cohen. That’s in contrast to Ambassador Haley, who arrived at the UN early in Mr. Trump’s term with guns blazing, saying the US would be “taking names” and making a list of who was on America’s side at the UN and who was not.
The “no rush” approach to replacing Haley reflects the disregard and even disdain of the White House for the world’s preeminent multilateral institution, some foreign-policy experts say. They point in particular to national security adviser John Bolton, a former UN ambassador himself who once famously quipped that the UN’s iconic East River headquarters high-rise could lose 10 floors and no one would know the difference.
LESS ATTENTION TO US ISSUES
UN officials profess to be unfazed by the absence of an ambassador from the organization’s host country, and one of just five permanent members of the Security Council. The UN’s work does not hinge on the level of representation from just one member state, they say, no matter how powerful that country might be.
“Different countries sometimes take a while to fill a vacancy at the top of their delegation, but from our standpoint, as long as the work’s being done, that’s what matters,” says Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for the secretary-general’s office. “The activities of the Security Council have not been disrupted, the UN is conducting its affairs as usual.”
If anyone is affected by the lack of an ambassador at the head of the sizable US mission to the UN, Mr. Haq says, it’s probably the US itself. “If the question is how it affects the US and its dealings with other countries, then yes,” he adds, “that can have an impact.”
Indeed, others with long experience at the UN say leaving the ambassador’s chair vacant for so long really hurts the US – by lowering the US voice, for example, and diminishing international attention to the kinds of issues the US traditionally has cared about – more than it throws sticks into the UN’s turning wheels.
“It’s more about what doesn’t happen when the US lowers its profile, how it matters is in the issues that aren’t presented for public airing and international pressure,” says Michael Doyle, director of Columbia University’s Global Policy Initiative and a past special adviser to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
As examples, he points to a lack of attention to the treatment of China’s Uyghur Muslim minority – an absence Dr. Doyle says China is all too happy to see – or the scant advocacy around humanitarian crises such as those in Yemen and Syria.
“The question is more how the agenda is shaped rather than how the agenda is managed,” Doyle says. Citing Syria, he says that without a skilled and imposing figure at the head of the US delegation to the UN, “the chances increase that the Syrian people will be left out of the equation as the Russians are pretty much free to work things out with [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad.”
POMPEO ATTENDED VENEZUELA SESSION
Officials in Washington say the US is not disregarding the important role the UN can play in putting critical issues on the international stage. They note that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently attended a Security Council session on Venezuela to underscore the international community’s role in helping to end that crisis.
Moreover, they point to the administration’s close work with the UN on priorities from aiding refugees near their home countries so they are not driven to migrate farther afield, to addressing HIV/AIDS, primarily in Africa.
Still, for some experts the clearest signal sent by the lack of a rush to get a US ambassador to the UN is a broad disregard for international institutions and working with large groups of countries on global issues.
“Leaving the chair vacant for what’s now months really signifies how little a priority the UN and multilateral cooperation are to this administration,” Doyle says. “You’d nominate and get somebody of stature up here pretty quickly if having a person to pursue US interests at the UN were important to you.”
Doyle notes that the George W. Bush administration neglected to name a permanent representative to the UN for about nine months after entering office. Then 9/11 happened, and very quickly the Bush White House got John Negroponte confirmed and up to New York.
What that signified, he adds, is that the Bush administration suddenly got the value to the US, superpower though it may be, of having the international community on its side. And indeed the UN, from the Security Council on down through many of its agencies, stepped up as a partner as the US went to war in Afghanistan to root out the perpetrators of the attacks.
WILL WORLD BE THERE FOR US?
For some, that raises the question: If the US shows a lack of interest in and even disdain for the UN and multilateral diplomacy more broadly, will the international community be there if the US needs its cooperation?
That seems to remain an open question in the hallways of the UN.
But in the meantime, Haq says that at any rate relations between the secretary-general’s office and the US mission across First Avenue from the UN remain strong. And he says Mr. Guterres, who has met several times with Trump, senses he has a good relationship with the administration.
And as for the absent ambassador, Haq says UN officials are well aware that Trump has left other key agency positions unfilled or has taken more than the usual time to name replacements and get them confirmed when officials, up to and including cabinet members, have stepped down.
“So really, Haq says, “we don’t feel singled out.”
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