The United States finally has a United Nations ambassador.
The Senate has officially confirmed Kelly Knight Craft, the former US ambassador to Canada, to the high-profile diplomatic post that has been vacant since Nikki Haley stepped down at the end of 2018.
Craft’s confirmation was all but certain, thanks to a Republican Senate majority and her family’s close ties to fellow Kentuckian Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who recommended her for the ambassadorship.
That doesn’t mean her nomination was without controversy.
Craft came under scrutiny during her confirmation hearing in June over a slew of absences from Ottawa, where she was posted as US ambassador to Canada. Democrats pressed Craft on her attendance record, with Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) saying State Department records showed that Craft had been absent for more than 300 days between October 23, 2017, and June 19, 2019.
Craft defended her days away, stating that she was traveling to negotiate and promote the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the updated version of NAFTA that was negotiated during her tenure.
Democrats didn’t really accept that answer and had largely continued to resist her nomination. Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee published a lengthy minority report on Wednesday that outlined her poor qualifications for the UN ambassadorship, including her lack of relevant experience for such an important job and her excessive number of absences in Ottawa, which diminished her service as US ambassador to Canada. Democrats also cited potential conflicts of interest, specifically her family’s ties to the coal industry.
“Ambassador Craft has neither the experience nor the skillset to represent U.S. interests or challenge the world’s most seasoned diplomats on the global stage,” the report said.
But that opposition did little to change the final result. Craft’s confirmation passed, 56 to 34, with five moderate Democrats voting in favor.
Now Craft has an enormous challenge ahead of her as UN ambassador. Her diplomatic experience is still pretty thin, and she revealed at her hearing that she doesn’t have a great grasp on some of the workings of the United Nations.
She will also represent the United States as part of an administration that sometimes doesn’t have its messaging straight, including on foreign policy. And she’ll have to deal with UN-skeptical officials like National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And, unlike Haley, Craft likely won’t have the benefit of serving in a Cabinet-level post.
Craft will need to balance the president’s agenda while collaborating and finding compromises with partners at the United Nations — something Haley was largely able to achieve. She will also need to move quickly to rebuild the US leadership at the United Nations, which has eroded in the more than half a year without a confirmed ambassador in the office.
And her biggest test is coming soon, when the UN General Assembly kicks off toward the end of September.
Craft’s foreign policy credentials are thin. But her confirmation offered a few glimmers of hope.
Craft was unanimously confirmed by voice vote to be the US ambassador to Canada in August 2017. She’ll now step into her second, and most significant, foreign policy role yet: United Nations ambassador.
Craft, who hails from Kentucky, is married to wealthy coal magnate Joe Craft. Her Kentucky connections garnered her a huge endorsement: McConnell vouched for her and introduced her at her confirmation hearing in June.
The Crafts also happen to be major GOP donors — including to President Trump. In 2016, Craft donated more than $260,000 to Trump’s campaign; her husband donated about $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. Both Kelly and Joe were Kentucky state finance chairs for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.
Presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, often appoint big donors and other supporters to cushy ambassador jobs. But the high-profile UN ambassador role tends to be a job for people with deep foreign policy or diplomatic credentials.
Craft did serve as part of the US delegation to the UN under President George W. Bush in 2007. And she has gained experience during her tenure as ambassador to Canada, where she played a role in renegotiating NAFTA, now known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.
She got herself into a bit of trouble early in her tenure as ambassador to Canada over comments she made about climate change, in which she said there were “good scientists on both sides” of the climate debate during an interview with a Canadian news outlet in 2017.
But during her confirmation hearing in June, Craft walked back these comments by telling the committee she believes human behavior and fossil fuels have contributed to climate change. “Let there be no doubt: I take this matter seriously, and if confirmed, I will be an advocate for all countries to do their part in addressing climate change,” Craft said. It was a pretty clear statement on climate change — and one that is a bit at odds with the rest of the Trump administration.
Craft also agreed to recuse herself from any UN discussions involving climate change and coal, given her family’s connections to the industry. Richard Gowen, a UN expert, told the Global Dispatches podcast in June that this wasn’t “substantively significant” — this issue isn’t going to come up all that often — but it was, at least, a good gesture.
Another reassuring sign from Craft’s hearing was her praise of the UN and her commitment to make American values, including human rights, a priority during her tenure. In her opening statement, Craft said she would prioritize reform and “bolstering humanitarian efforts” at the UN.
She championed the role of the UN — which she called a “vital institution” — in providing humanitarian aid, and said she would focus on expanding resources for aid as the world deals with crises in Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. She also promised to stand up to malign actors in the international body, most notably Russia and China, and suggested that America’s promotion of human rights separates the US from those bad actors. She said she’d work to “tackle human rights abuses every day.”
This praise wouldn’t normally be all that remarkable, but given the Trump administration’s disdain for the UN and other multilateral institutions, Craft’s more traditional embrace of the organization is a positive sign.
And given that Trump doesn’t like the UN all that much (unless he’s getting all the attention there), Craft could carve out a niche for herself as promoting those issues of human rights that often get lost in the rest of the president’s agenda.
Then again, the more disconnect between Washington and New York, the harder it will likely be for the US’s influence to be taken seriously on critical discussions at the UN, from Yemen to Libya to Venezuela.
Craft’s confirmation hearing made clear that even if she’s pro-UN, she’ll largely be learning on the job. For example, during her confirmation hearing, she downplayed the US’s decision to leave the UN Human Rights Council last year, saying she could advocate for human rights through the UN Security Council, though that body often deals with different priorities.
It’s one of the reasons the question of her absences from Ottawa was so important — because there’s a lot Craft has to do, and it’s going to be much harder given that the UN post has been vacant for so long.
The UN has been without a permanent head for nearly eight months, and that has likely diminished the US’s role in the multilateral organization. Jonathan Cohen, who served as acting ambassador, is a career diplomat who by all accounts was a capable stand-in. But he was just that — a temporary replacement who wasn’t perceived as having all that much influence within the Trump administration.
Craft’s job, then, will be to rebuild on some of Haley’s successes and make the case to partners at the UN that’s she got some clout. And she’ll be doing it all for the first time on the world stage.
Update: This post has been updated with the Senate vote tally.