This Ambassadorship is Not for Sale

August 9, 2019

 

With the exception of the Secretary of State, there is no more prestigious or important diplomatic posting in the United States government than the permanent representative to the United Nations. Traditionally, this office has been filled by individuals with sterling political and diplomatic resumes, from esteemed career foreign service officers (Richard Holbrooke and Thomas Pickering), well-regarded scholars (Madeleine Albright and Samantha Power), and political rising stars (George H.W. Bush). Even Nikki Haley, who was relatively inexperienced in diplomatic affairs, was a former governor and regarded as the future of the Republican Party. President Trump's new UN ambassador, Kelly Craft, is many things, but qualified is not one of them and her appointment represents a departure from the norm and risks further undermining America's multilateral leadership.

 

Craft was not Trump's first choice for the posting. Heather Nauert, a former co-host of Fox & Friends and briefly the spokesperson for the State Department, was. To put it politely, her qualifications were dubious. Her sole experience even remotely concerning foreign policy was her year and a half as State's spokesperson and the most newsworthy event of her tenure was one she would probably prefer to forget (citing the anniversary of D-Day to "reaffirm the strength of our relationship with Germany"). Her clear lack of experience, as well as controversies both personal and regarding her tenure at Fox News, ultimately defeated her nomination and forced her to withdraw from consideration. Yet her successor is somehow even less fit to serve as America's envoy in Turtle Bay, especially at a time when America's commitment to international institutions faces doubt around the world.

 

Kelly Craft was nominated by the president to serve as UN ambassador after less than two years of formal diplomatic service as U.S. Ambassador to Canada. Prior to her service in Ottawa, she served as a delegate of her local chamber of commerce to request thoroughbred horses from overseas for Kentucky breeders. How fitting for someone about to become a co-conductor in the figurative dog and pony show that is the Trump Administration's foreign policy! Yet the most troublesome concern about her appointment is not her inexperience. Craft was nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Canada and then the UN because she and her third husband, billionaire coal tycoon Joe Craft, are mega GOP and Trump donors. In 2016 alone, they gave over $1.5 million to GOP candidates, including more than $270,000 to the Trump campaign. They also donated to at least half of the Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee responsible for vetting her and voting on whether her nomination would go before the full Senate. Finally, the Kentuckians have been max donors to Sen. Mitch McConnell in the past, who was responsible for determining whether there would be a floor vote on her nomination. This is yet another example of the Trump White House valuing campaign contributions and personal loyalty to the president over the needs of executive agencies or embassies. 

 

To be clear, it has not been unusual in recent American history for presidents of either party to reward campaign donors and supporters with ambassadorships. George W. Bush appointed a family friend and campaign donor as U.S. Ambassador to Canada. Among Barack Obama's nominees were Robert Barber, who donated millions to the Obama campaign but had never been to Iceland before being picked for the ambassadorship to the Nordic nation, donor and soap opera producer Colleen Bell, who lacked basic knowledge about Hungary, and donor Noah Mamet, who was not fluent in Spanish and had never visited Argentina beforehand. The practice is neither new nor unexpected. Presidents usually abide by the 70-30 rule, agreeing to appoint career foreign service officers to 70 percent of missions and political appointees to the other 30 percent, and usually a few donors find themselves in that 30 percent. 

 

Yet Trump has shown disregard for both the 30 percent rule and his campaign promise to "drain the swamp," which is no more evident than in his ambassadorial appointments. According to Ryan Scoville of the Marquette University School of Law, political appointees have accounted for almost half of all ambassadorial appointments in the Trump Administration and only about one out of every ten Trump political appointees has any prior experience in or involving the region to which they were appointed (compared to almost one in four Obama political appointees). The inexperience is not just regional, as just 30 percent of Trump political appointees have prior experience in U.S. foreign policy compared to 40-plus percent during the Clinton and Obama administrations. To this transactional and impulsive president, loyalty and financial support are more important indicators of a candidate's eligibility to serve in America's diplomatic corps than their actual foreign policy record. That should sound alarm bells in the American foreign policy community.

 

Craft's case is especially troubling. Never before has such a high ranking diplomatic post as a UN ambassador been treated as a thank you gift to a mega donor and a "repeat, high paying customer" at the president's hotels rather than as a serious diplomatic assignment. The UN Ambassador must be a coalition-builder, a leader, and an expert on any number of geopolitical issues. The appointment of a prominent campaign fundraiser with next to no diplomatic experience to this position is illustrative of the disdain that the Trump Administration has for international institutions, as is the position's recent downgrading from cabinet-level rank to sub-cabinet level. When the ambassador position is devalued to the point where any donor can buy it, the perception of America's loyalty to the UN is negatively impacted as well. The president and his advisers can diss the UN all it wants, but when they treat the position of ambassador like a joke, they should not be surprised when world leaders do not take them seriously as a credible ally and partner.

 

Craft's tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Canada was also not particularly stellar. In her 20 months in her posting in Ottawa, she spent 536 days partially or wholly out of Canada, with more than a third of her time spent on trips to her family home or her husband's family's home. This led Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to remark, “I think it is very fair to say that if an international crisis erupts, we might more likely find her in Kentucky than in New York City.” Craft also caught flak for her rejection of established climate science when she told the CBC that she "believe[s] there are scientists on both sides that are accurate." This was ridiculed by Americans and Canadians alike because while there is a legitimate debate on how to best confront the challenge of climate change, its very existence is not up for debate. There is a scientific consensus on the subject, and Craft's ignorance or denial of it will undermine UN climate talks and policy at a crucial juncture. That is even before one analyzes how much of a conflict-of-interest it would be for a coal baron to dictate global climate policy. The UN is no cocktail party. Nor is it a part-time job. Yet the confirmation of Craft treats the institution like it is a social gathering for billionaires to build business connections that the appointee can BS her way through.

 

What is there to be said in Craft's defense? Well, she was an alternate delegate to the UN General Assembly during the George W. Bush administration, where she worked on Africa policy. But even that was a purely ceremonial role that (shocker) she was awarded as a thank you for her campaign donations to Bush. She played a role in renegotiating NAFTA in Ottawa, a nice feather in her negotiating cap. And of course, no war with Canada broke out during her tenure. But none of these are very persuasive arguments for her to be America's envoy to the world. None of them excuse or alleviate fears about her inexperience (in fact, her confirmation hearing may be even more of a cause for worry, as she downplayed the U.S. decision to leave the UN Human Rights Council, arguing that the U.S. could be more effective working on human rights concerns in the Security Council, which usually deals with very different priorities). Most importantly, none of them provide a reason for why she got the job more compelling than because of outright plutocratic corruption.

 

It is difficult to escape the suspicion that Trump appointed Craft because of her lack of qualifications to show his contempt for the UN. The point of Trump's national security appointments has been to install his business allies and yes men who will not dare to stand up to him and speak truth to power. From Jared Kushner running Middle East policy to the appointments of John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and now Craft, Trump has filled his Situation Room with folks whose sole qualification is their personal loyalty to the president. He has filled American embassies abroad with such laughable non-diplomatic backgrounds as the owner of the New York Jets and a real estate developer, even in countries as vital to American foreign policy as the UK and the UAE, respectively (the UAE ambassadorship had always gone to a career diplomat). That is not even to note the donors he nominated to lead the embassies in Romania (the ambassador is a real estate lawyer who has been accused of sexual harassment) and South Africa (luxury handbag designer Lana Marks). Or his nominee to be U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas, a donor businessman who believed that the Bahamas was a United States protectorate (it is not, and never has been).

 

This president believes that a big campaign check is a substitute for knowledge about foreign affairs and language skills, and Kelly Craft is the latest beneficiary of such a broken system. That is dead wrong and this tradition of auctioning off American foreign policy to the highest bidder needs to go back to the plutocratic hellhole from which it came. American foreign policy should work for the American people, not billionaire donors serving as ambassadors to the islands they use to evade paying their taxes. Kelly Craft's appointment to lead the U.S. delegation to the UN is a statement of contempt for international institutions and an invitation for the richest Americans to open up their pocketbooks to buy an appointment that should be going to a qualified political appointee or career diplomat. American foreign policy, the UN, and Americans deserve better.

 

Image via Wikimedia Commons, by US Embassy Canada

 

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