Written by Rick Gladstone
When Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman and former “Fox & Friends” host, withdrew from consideration for United Nations ambassador, President Donald Trump averted a potentially difficult Senate confirmation struggle over what some critics have called her insufficient experience. But Nauert’s withdrawal also underscored his challenges in filling the job.
A terse announcement Saturday night that Nauert no longer wished to be considered because of family considerations appeared to put Trump back where he started when his first ambassador, Nikki Haley, announced in October that she was leaving at the end of 2018.
Haley’s departure, with no word on a successor, has left the Trump administration devoid of a high-profile presence at the United Nations, the world’s most prominent diplomatic stage, for nearly two months. Here is a look at the role of the ambassador and whether a prolonged vacancy poses problems for the United States:
A UN ambassador is in many ways America’s face to the world.
Over the 73 years since the United Nations was founded, successive White House administrations have attached enormous weight to the Americans chosen to represent the host nation. They have included former governors and future presidents (Adlai Stevenson II, George H.W. Bush), prominent jurists (Arthur Goldberg), and a range of politicians and experienced diplomats from both major political parties (Jeane Kirkpatrick, Andrew Young, Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, John Negroponte).
“The United Nations ambassador is a premier diplomatic role, one of the top foreign policy jobs that anyone can have,” said Victoria Holt, a former State Department diplomat and fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington-based policy research center. The role is especially important at the United Nations, Holt said, “a place of persuasion and relationships.”
The ambassador is seen as having a direct line to the White House.
Formally known as the permanent representative, the ambassador is the leader of the US Mission, and represents the country on the Security Council, the most powerful body of the 193-member United Nations.
The ambassador is nominated by the president and must be confirmed by the Senate. Although not a member of the Cabinet, the ambassador often has been given Cabinet-level rank, putting the ambassador in the same room as the world’s most powerful leader. That connection alone is taken seriously by other UN diplomats, particularly if they want the views of their governments conveyed to the White House.
“I think it’s important that there be a perception at the United Nations that the ambassador has access to the president,” said Bill Richardson, who represented the United States at the UN during the Clinton administration. “It needs a certain stature and political background.”
Richardson also said the ambassador can provide an additional perspective to the president that the secretary of state and national security adviser cannot. “A president should have more than two foreign policy advisers,” he said, and it is “important to have someone strong at the UN”
Leaving the post vacant can send a potentially damaging signal.
While a few months is not necessarily a long time to leave any ambassador post empty, the gap comes against a backdrop of Trump’s avowed suspicion of multilateral institutions like the United Nations and his repudiation of some its major achievements and programs.
Over the past two years his administration has renounced pacts on climate change and migration. It has stopped contributions to the UN Population Fund and the agency that aids Palestinians who are classified as refugees. It has withdrawn the United States from UNESCO and the Human Rights Council, diminishing American influence in those agencies.
“Of course it’s sad and should be regretted if the voice of the United States at a high level is not heard at the United Nations,” said Jan Eliasson, a former deputy secretary-general and Sweden’s former ambassador to Washington.
While the support staff of diplomats at the U.S. Mission has always been strong and professional, Eliasson said, “not to have a permanent representative for a long time limits the dialogue and sends a negative signal.”
A strong-willed ambassador can get things done.
Even though Haley sharply differed with Trump on some important issues, like Russia’s behavior, she played a critical role on pushing through policy on North Korea at the United Nations, which underscores the importance of the position.
In 2017, she was central to persuading the 14 other members of the Security Council to approve three rounds of tough sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear and missile activities. Most important, she persuaded the Chinese and Russian ambassadors, who historically have been most averse to the use of sanctions.
Haley’s successor may show less independence.
Some UN diplomats have speculated that Trump administration officials have faced difficulties finding a successor to Haley partly because they may want a candidate who will never deviate from the president’s views.
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, who served as President George W. Bush’s UN ambassador from 2005 to 2006 under a recess appointment, and was never confirmed by the Senate, has made clear his disdain for the United Nations. His view has raised the possibility that the next ambassador might be a like-minded ideologue.
“If they send a hard-liner, a Bolton character, they would simply use the United Nations as a forum for confrontation,” said Michael Doyle, a Columbia Law School professor who specializes in international affairs and from 2001 to 2003 served as a special adviser to then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Theodore Piccone, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he expected a new appointee would have a profile similar to Nauert’s, a “messenger of America First policies, or someone already actively aligned with Bolton’s anti-UN views — or both.”