Will the next American ambassador to the United Nations know anything about Africa?
The U.N. is embroiled in crises from the Middle East to North Korea. But roughly half of the Security Council’s resolutions and statements focus on African issues, and 80 percent of U.N. peacekeepers are deployed on the continent. Any ambassador to the U.N. should, therefore, have at least a passing interest in Africa.
Both of the Obama administration’s representatives in New York, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, were established authorities on African affairs. Rice devoted a good part of her time at the U.N. to facilitating South Sudan’s independence. Power prioritized halting bloodshed in the Central African Republic, or CAR, and Burundi. It was a bit of a shock to the U.N. system when President Donald Trump appointed a U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, who knew next to nothing about Africa.
Haley, who recently announced that she will stand down, initially seemed unwilling to engage in debates on Africa. In her first months in office, she focused on problems like Russia and Syria. She attended Security Council discussions of African situations sparingly and persistently criticized U.N. peace operations in unstable states like Congo for costing too much.
Haley also got into unnecessary fights over these issues. She spent much of 2017 bickering with French diplomats over financing for a regional counterterrorism force in the Sahel. While Haley developed a reputation for smart diplomacy on top-priority crises such as the North Korean nuclear program, diplomats felt that she was less strategic on African issues.
This began to change when she visited Congo and South Sudan in October 2017. Haley was reportedly moved by the plight of victims of the South Sudanese civil war. U.N. officials were impressed by her firm approach to both countries’ leaders. This summer, Haley persuaded the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan over Chinese objections. Even if she never became engrossed by African questions, she grasped that the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. has significant leverage over—and responsibility for—African security.
This is a lesson Haley’s successor should take to heart, as there is a high chance that African crises will dominate the U.N. agenda in the next couple of years. Presidential elections in Congo, scheduled for this December, could easily spark renewed violence. The U.N. is winding down its long-running peace operation in the Darfur region of Sudan, but this could open the door to a return to conflict.
As Haley found, it is almost impossible for America to ignore African affairs at the U.N. completely.
Mali, CAR and South Sudan could also all face new bloodshed with little warning. These are far from being the Trump administration’s main priorities in New York. But a major outburst of violence in Africa could rapidly upset the U.N. agenda. Other important members of the Security Council are alert to this risk. France continues to emphasize stability in former colonies such as CAR. Germany, which will take up a temporary seat on the council in January, is keen to boost stability in Mali and the wider Sahel to help secure Europe’s southern flank against outflows of refugees and migrants. South Africa, which also joins the council in 2019, has troops and attack helicopters serving with U.N. forces in Congo and will be anxious to contain any threats to them.
Perhaps most importantly from a U.S. perspective, both Russia and China have growing influence in Africa. China’s investments on the continent now dwarf Western aid, and President Xi Jinping has promised to deploy thousands of troops in U.N. peace operations. Russian mercenaries caught the U.S. and France off-guard this summer by deploying to CAR, and regional security analysts think that this signals Moscow’s desire to assert itself as a player in African affairs after a long post-Cold War absence. These trends potentially affect U.N. diplomacy on non-African issues as well. Chinese and Russian diplomats persuaded their African counterparts to stop the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights from briefing the Security Council on abuses in Syria earlier this year.
If the U.S. wants to keep a grip on crisis management and political developments in Africa, it would therefore be well-advised to appoint a new U.N. ambassador who knows the continent well. Yet none of the rumored candidates to replace Haley are African experts in the mold of Rice and Power. One possible contender, World Food Program director David Beasley, has had to grapple with the continent’s humanitarian crises, but he is a long shot for the post. There is a risk that whoever Trump selects to replace Haley will prioritize forcing further budget cuts on U.N. operations in Africa over influencing the course of politics in Congo or Sudan and South Sudan.
Would this necessarily be a bad thing? African officials have long argued that the U.N. spends too much time interfering in their countries’ affairs. Rice and Power were both frustrated by some of the region’s rulers, like South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, who ignored their advice on human rights and peacemaking. It is arguable that the U.S. should stop trying to shape African affairs through the U.N. and leave regional powers to sort out problems in their own backyard.
And yet as Haley found, it is almost impossible for America to ignore African affairs at the U.N. completely. Given the likely human costs of a new breakdown in Congo or South Sudan, the next U.S. ambassador should engross himself or herself in understanding what U.N. peacekeepers, mediators and aid officials can achieve on the continent. It may not seem as urgent as stemming North Korea’s nuclear schemes or as politically resonant as standing up for Israel against its critics. But if the U.N. has a chance of making a difference anywhere, it is Africa.