The U.S. takes over the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council this week with plans to promote one of President Donald Trump’s favorite themes — reducing the world’s reliance on American taxpayers — while facing pressure to raise the contentious issue of China’s human rights record.
The council’s president for a month gets to choose topics for debate, and Kelly Craft, a wealthy Trump backer who became United Nations ambassador in September, has opted for “Peacekeeping Performance” and “The Role of Philanthropy in Post-Conflict situations.” Diplomats read those themes as code words for more belt-tightening at the U.N., which has grown increasingly cash-strapped since Trump has been in the White House.
The stakes are high for the world body. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the U.N. is facing its worst cash crisis in about a decade and runs the risk of defaulting on payments to its staff and vendors. The funding shortfall isn’t solely America’s doing — about 60 nations are still in arrears — but any delays or cuts from Washington are felt more acutely because the U.S. is the largest contributor.
Trump has used the funding shortfall to make a demand familiar to NATO allies: make other countries pay more.
Eschewing Security Council tradition, Craft didn’t hold a news conference on the first day of the month as ambassadors holding the presidency typically do. She instead made a short statement pledging to boost the council’s accountability. A formal press conference will be held instead on Friday, she added. That would come a day after she takes Security Council members to Washington for a luncheon with Trump.
Craft may have no choice but to take on some delicate issues at the U.N. — starting with China. Pressure is growing in Washington for her to help hold Beijing accountable for its actions in Hong Kong and in its western Xinjiang province. Trump last week signed legislation expressing support for Hong Kong protesters, prompting China to threaten retaliation.
In a reference to Hong Kong in November, Craft said she is “committed to supporting human dignity and advancing the cause of human rights at every available opportunity.” In October, the U.S. and 22 allies sharply criticized China’s treatment of its ethnic Uighurs during a U.N. General Assembly human rights committee session.
“The United States condemns the detainment of over one million Uighurs and will continue to work closely with our partners to condemn the violations of human rights no matter where they occur,” Craft said after the joint statement was made.
China shot back with a statement signed by 54 countries including Russia, Egypt, Bolivia and Pakistan commending “China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” The statement added that China’s actions in Xinjiang have been a justifiable response to the “challenge of terrorism and extremism.”
The U.S. and allies are also expected to push for a meeting on North Korea’s human rights record on Dec. 10 even though China will likely try to block it on the grounds that the Security Council is not the venue for human rights debates. If the North Korea meeting happens, it would also come just three weeks before Kim Jong Un’s self-declared “deadline” on the U.S. to show progress in stalled denuclearization talks.
Discussions on U.N. peacekeeping, to be held at the U.S. mission in New York, will be watched closely as negotiations begin this month over a peacekeeping budget that was about $6.5 billion in 2019. Last December, the U.S. tried to push allies including India, Brazil, and Turkey to increase their financial support but failed, leaving the forces known as “blue helmets” with a $220 million shortfall. The U.S. has refused to pay more than a quarter of the budget even though it’s assessed at a higher rate.
Craft will also be on point to defend Trump’s decisions to soften the U.S. stance on Israeli settlements in Yehudah and Shomron and escalate sanctions on Iran after quitting the multinational nuclear deal.
The Security Council has scheduled a Dec. 19 debate on Iran and nonproliferation as President Hassan Rouhani’s government ramps up uranium enrichment following Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord. The meeting will also likely touch on street protests in Iraq that have centered partly on Iran’s influence in the country.
On the Thursday visit to Washington, Trump “will urge Permanent Representatives to work together to address challenges to international peace and security,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. A successful meeting with the president could burnish Kraft’s image as someone who has sway at the White House, a diplomat said.
Besides the Washington visit, Craft will help break the ice with her U.N. counterparts by inviting them to join her in her home state of Kentucky on Dec. 13.
Several diplomats said that while Craft is more attentive to their concerns than her predecessor, Nikki Haley, it’s unclear just how much leverage she has to help shape policy. Unlike Haley, Craft doesn’t hold Cabinet status or have weekly visits with Trump.
Craft, 57, has largely avoided the limelight sought by Haley, the former South Carolina governor who vowed on her first day at the U.N. that the U.S. would be “taking names” of those who dared to oppose the Trump administration. Craft, who doesn’t appear to share Haley’s ambition for higher office, is working on the assumption that she has more to gain by focusing her time where she can make a difference.
While no U.N. ambassador can single-handedly resolve differences like those between the U.S. and Iran, attention from the American envoy can go a long way in places like South Sudan, diplomats say. Since visiting the African nation in October, Craft has been running a countdown on her Twitter account, citing South Sudan’s 100-day deadline to form a unity government.