Kelly Knight Craft Is Quickly – and Smartly – Making Africa a Priority
Kelly Knight Craft Is Quickly – and Smartly – Making Africa a Priority
Pelosi’s visit makes clear the dangers of an incoherent US policy on Taiwan
Pelosi’s visit makes clear the dangers of an incoherent US policy on Taiwan
Op-Ed / United States

Kelly Knight Craft Is Quickly – and Smartly – Making Africa a Priority

How is Kelly Knight Craft doing as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations?

It is almost exactly one month since Craft presented her credentials to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Sept. 12. It has been an eventful period, including the annual General Assembly jamboree and Security Council crisis talks on North Korea and Syria. To top it off, Guterres warned this week that the U.N. is about to run out of operating funds because over 60 members have not paid their annual dues. The U.S. has accumulated over $1 billion in arrears, equivalent to a third of the U.N.’s regular budget, putting Craft in a tricky spot.

Burdened with a long to-do list when she hit the ground in New York, Craft has had little time to set out her agenda. But she has dropped hints about her priorities, with a focus on Africa. Foreign diplomats will watch her position on the cash crunch closely.

The new ambassador’s immediate priority was to steer President Donald Trump through the General Assembly during the week of Sept. 23. This was a moment for self-effacement. All ambassadors recede into the background during the high-level gatherings of assembly week, letting their heads of state dominate proceedings. Trump gave a lackluster performance at the U.N., distracted by the threat of impeachment, but Craft got through the week with no big hiccups.

The General Assembly week aside, Craft has made an effort to engage earnestly in routine Security Council diplomacy. Her predecessor, Nikki Haley, largely avoided debates on African issues in her first months in New York in 2017, though she eventually gave them more weight as her term continued. By contrast, Craft has already attended council sessions on Mali and the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. She and her South African counterpart, Jerry Matjila, are also set to be co- leaders of a Security Council visiting mission to South Sudan later this month.

This early focus on Africa, and South Sudan in particular, is smart for several reasons.

Most immediately, South Sudan faces serious political risks in the coming weeks, as President Salva Kiir and his long-time rival Riek Machar are supposed to agree on a new government. If they fail to do so, there is a risk of new violence, leaving the already overstretched U.N. peacekeeping force in the country hard-pressed to protect civilians. The Security Council visit, and the clear demonstration of American interest in the process, may help prod the politicians toward a bargain, although Kiir has had fraught relations with the U.S. in the past.

In picking up the South Sudan issue, Craft has shown an instinct for focusing some American attention on crises that would otherwise stay below the radar.

Second, the decision to link up with South Africa is a clever way to strengthen ties with the strongest African state currently on the council. When the South Africans took their seat at the start of 2019, their initial instinct was to side with the Chinese and Russians on controversial topics like the Venezuelan crisis. But they were disappointed when Beijing and Moscow blocked the Security Council from

supporting the African Union’s efforts to mediate a transition to civilian rule in Sudan after the fall of former President Omar al-Bashir. Since then, the South Africans have been more open to working with the U.S. and Europeans in New York. Craft’s cooperation with Matjila on the South Sudan trip is a good way to cement that relationship.

It is also an opportunity for the U.S. ambassador to define some political space of her own on a topic that more-powerful players in the Trump administration, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, do not prioritize. As I argued earlier this year, Craft is unlikely to be a crucial figure in U.S. diplomacy over first-order national security concerns such as the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East, although she did use a Security Council session on the latter to affirm, as all U.S. ambassadors must, that she is a strong supporter of Israel. She can have a real impact in other parts of the world, though, and as I suggested when Haley announced she would be stepping down last October, Africa is one of them.

The Trump administration’s continuing lack of interest in using the U.N. as a platform to address higher-level national security concerns was made very clear this month, as North Korea conducted new missile tests and Turkey launched its latest incursion in Syria. In both cases, European members of the Security Council—led by France, Germany and the U.K.—insisted on holding emergency sessions after the U.S. failed to call for them. In the case of North Korea, the U.S. presumably did not want to harm its already strained diplomatic contacts with Pyongyang or create a sense of urgency about an issue Trump claims to have in hand. In the case of Syria, U.S. policy toward the Turkish operation has been so confused throughout the past week, it is not surprising that others took the lead in New York.

In such situations, the U.S. has little interest in promoting multilateral debates, and Craft and her team have little room for maneuver or creativity. This is not the ambassador’s fault, but it underlines the need for Craft to identify her own priorities on files where she can have an impact.

That said, it may be difficult for Craft to focus on many foreign crises while the U.N. goes through a financial crisis of its own in New York. Guterres has been warning for much of this year of shortfalls in the organization’s regular budget—which covers basic headquarters costs, like hosting meetings, but also its political missions in places like Libya—due to member states’ failure to pay their annual contributions.

This week, he declared that the U.N. may not be able to pay its staff in November, and Security Council members have been told to end their daily meetings at 6 p.m. sharp as there is no money to pay extra translators for the additional hours.

This is partly a bit of theater to put delinquent states on the spot—experts on U.N. financing think Guterres could get around the problem through ruses such as borrowing money from the separate peacekeeping budget. But it is a headache for Craft. The U.S. owes over $600 million in regular budget dues to the U.N. for this year, and almost $400 million for past years. (It also owes $2 billion to the peacekeeping budget Guterres could end up borrowing from.)

Washington normally doesn’t pay its full U.N. obligations until late October or November anyway, so this is not necessarily part of some grand U.S. plot against the U.N. But it is a distraction for Craft just as she is trying to establish her broader diplomatic agenda. She should do what she can to ensure that the U.S. fulfills its obligations to the U.N. regular budget as fast as it can. In picking up the South Sudan issue, the new ambassador has shown an instinct for focusing some American attention on crises that would otherwise stay below the radar. It will be harder to do that if she is bickering with other ambassadors over cash.

Op-Ed / Asia

Pelosi’s visit makes clear the dangers of an incoherent US policy on Taiwan

No matter what immediate tit-for-tat reactions there are to the visit, the troubling long-term implication points to the urgent need for the Biden administration and Congress to better coordinate their handling of the Taiwan issue.

The risk of a crisis emerging from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan this week is uncomfortably high. A crisis is not inevitable if Washington and Beijing engage in deft diplomacy, but the visit will probably lock in place an even more confrontational dynamic, increasing the chances of US-China conflict over Taiwan in the future.

No matter what immediate tit-for-tat reactions there are to the visit, the troubling long-term implication points to the urgent need for the Biden administration and Congress to better coordinate their handling of the Taiwan issue.

On Tuesday Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, the first time since 1997 that a US official of her seniority — second in the line of presidential succession — has visited the island. The visit is meant to be a significant show of political support for the island. China sees the visit as an outsized break from Washington’s assurances that it does not support Taiwanese formal independence and may respond with large-scale displays of military force.

Beijing claims Taiwan — an island 100 miles off its coast — as part of China and has long expressed a goal of unification. It sees achieving this end as essential to its rise to major power status and holds out the possibility of using military force. Washington, under its “One China” policy” dating back to the Nixon administration, does not support Taiwan’s independence, but at the same time regards Taiwan’s status as unsettled and requiring peaceful resolution. Washington maintains unofficial ties with Taipei and provides Taiwan defensive arms.

These overlapping but not convergent understandings of Taiwan’s status have preserved a fragile peace in the Taiwan Strait for decades. However, both sides are beginning to believe that the other is changing this status quo in dangerous ways.

The Biden administration has deepened unofficial ties with Taipei and is more proactively preparing Taiwan’s defense to deter a military move by Beijing.

Washington is concerned that a shifting military balance of power in China’s favor will make a military invasion of Taiwan tempting for an increasingly assertive Beijing. In what it sees as catching up to events, the Biden administration has deepened unofficial ties with Taipei and is more proactively preparing Taiwan’s defense to deter a military move by Beijing. For China, these actions challenge its goal of eventual unification and officials accuse Washington of backsliding from its promises made under the One China Policy.

Pelosi’s trip therefore comes at a moment when US-China tensions are at an historic high, and when the two governments are primed for escalating their actions and reactions over Taiwan issues. To make matters worse, it also comes on the eve of China’s 20th Party Congress — a major political event that will likely seal President Xi Jinping’s stay in power — and the US midterm elections. For Beijing, this means added pressures to exhibit strength and deter more high-level visits.

The Biden administration appears to have opposed Pelosi’s visit. Biden publicly noted the US military thinks a Pelosi visit “is not a good idea” and additional leaks highlighted the administration’s concerns. However, the proximity of the midterms raised the perceived political costs of Pelosi canceling the trip.

China has already begun to respond to the visit. On Tuesday, it banned more than 100 Taiwanese food products and launched a cyberattack on the website of the president’s office. Immediately following Pelosi’s landing, it announced the staging of multiple military exercises in six areas surrounding Taiwan. In recent days, both Chinese and American military ships and planes have been observed moving closer to the Taiwan Strait.

It is critical that the two militaries communicate directly and make clear that neither side desires a conflict.

In order to prevent an unintended collision or escalation, it is critical that the two militaries communicate directly and make clear that neither side desires a conflict. The optics of Pelosi’s visit — how the speaker travels, whom she speaks with, and what she says — are also all details that Beijing and others will read carefully to see whether the unofficial status of the visit is emphasized, in accord with the United States’ “One China” policy.

Beyond immediate risks, the most consequential impact of this visit will be how it entrenches attitudes that make finding a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question more difficult. It might confirm suspicions in Beijing that the United States is intent on ensuring Taiwan’s continued de facto independence in perpetuity, and make the option of unification through military force appear more necessary. In Washington, Chinese reactions to the visit might confirm views that a military invasion of Taiwan is around the corner, and make additional shows of support for Taiwan appear even more necessary.

The apparent lack of policy coherence between the Biden administration and Congress complicates the long-term management of an already complex issue. US objectives with regard to Taiwan need to be clarified across these branches of government, and agreement reached on actions that should be taken in support of those objectives. The consequences of not pursuing a more coordinated US response to the Taiwan question — a spiraling escalation of tit-for-tat actions that draw Washington and Beijing closer to direct conflict — are simply too great.