Obama’s and Trump’s champions at the United Nations

| April 3, 2020 | 0 Comments

With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace
By Nikki Haley
272 pages
St. Martin’s Press, 2019
Hardcover: $15
Paperback: $18
Kindle: $14.10

Nikki Haley’s book covers some of her time as governor of South Carolina before she became U.S. President Donald Trump’s appointee as ambassador to the United Nations.  (Photo: UN PHOTO)

Nikki Haley’s book covers some of her time as governor of South Carolina before she became U.S. President Donald Trump’s appointee as ambassador to the United Nations. (Photo: UN PHOTO)

Growing up, Nikki Haley and Samantha Power were each the odd girl out. As a child, Haley, the daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants to the United States, was constantly told to “choose sides” between being black or white. Meanwhile, Power, raised in Ireland until age nine, came to the United States with her mother, following her parents’ marital breakdown.
Both Haley and Power went on to become United States ambassadors to the United Nations, serving under presidents whose worldviews could not be more different. Both, in late 2019, published books about their experiences. Their perspectives, unsurprisingly, differ. Yet there are areas of overlapping values.
Haley’s book covers some of her time as governor of South Carolina before her UN experience. As a Republican, Haley explicitly endorses Donald Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. But Trump is, in her eyes, a wholly credible candidate. For instance, her mother, as a legal immigrant, supports Trump’s tough stance against illegal border crossers.
Shortly after his election, Trump asks Haley to serve at the UN. She writes frankly that she had not imagined herself in such a job; she is more of a “disrupter” than a diplomat. In accepting the position, she insists on direct communication with Trump — putting her instantly at odds with secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who thinks he should feed the U.S. ambassador to the UN her lines.
Pundits have already mined this book for the juicy bits about Haley’s rivalry with Tillerson (who was fired in 2018), and her accusation that he and chief of staff John Kelly were plotting, if not to undermine the president, then at least to work around him. So we’ll focus on the UN.
From the start, Haley is ardently “America First,” which she contrasts with the go-along-to-get-along attitude of the Obama administration. The U.S. will back its friends, and expects their support in return, she warns her fellow envoys, adding she’ll be “taking names.” Since the U.S. is a permanent member of the Security Council, she meets first with the ambassadors to France and Britain, also P-5 members, but breaks with diplomatic protocol to meet early with the Israeli ambassador, an act meant to underscore American support for a country that receives a disproportionate share of bashing at the UN. Likewise, she meets with the Ukrainians before she meets with the Russians, and so on.
During the almost two years that Haley is at the UN, the U.S. toughens sanctions against North Korea, withdraws funding from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA), and takes the U.S. out of the U.S.-European-Iran nuclear deal. Additional sanctions are brought against Russia over Ukraine. Haley is an unabashed supporter of each move. The Iran nuclear deal, for instance, had been cast as “too big to fail” and the “only alternative to war.” Nonsense, she says. On North Korea, she insists that Trump’s tough line on sanctions, even as he cosies up to Kim Jong-Un, has “undeniably made North Korea weaker and less able to finance the expansion of its military machine.” She is exasperated, but undaunted, by what she sees as the complacency and hypocrisy of not just the UN, but many of its member states across a spectrum of human rights issues.
But she is not blind to the stumbles of the president. When, in his now-infamous 2018 press conference, he suggests the Russians had no reason to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, she complains to him directly. “The truth was that the Russians did meddle in our elections,” she writes. Later, when he reacts to the violent white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville by saying “I think there’s blame on both sides,” she calls him again to ream him out. Is she punished for this? Not according to her: she writes that he always took her calls, and always treated her with respect.
In this book, Haley proves harder to pigeonhole ideologically than one might expect of a Trump ally. Human rights, for example, concern her deeply; she visits refugee camps, where the stories, of women in particular move her to tears. After one such visit to South Sudan, where four million people have been displaced by war, she returns to the UN determined to pass a weapons embargo on the conflict. It succeeds at the Security Council and is “one of my proudest accomplishments,” she writes.
Haley also attacks some of the core failings of the UN system, such as the Security Council’s habit of ducking human rights because its mandate is “peace and security.” She lacerates the UN Human Rights Council, whose members, in 2017, included some of the world’s worst rights abusers — China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. Under her watch, the U.S. withdraws from the rights council in 2018. “We left the HRC not because we don’t care about human rights for all, but because we do,” she writes.
Haley’s tenure in New York ends in December 2018 when she resigns (ex-ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft now occupies the chair). What a continued America First approach to the world body will look like if Trump wins re-election will be interesting to watch.

The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir
By Samantha Power
580 pages
HarperCollins, 2019
Hardcover: $27.16,
Kindle $18.99
Paperback $25
Audio CD $25

One-time journalist Samantha Power doesn’t bury the lede: her memoir starts and (more or less) ends with president Barack Obama’s flip-flop over military action against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for using sarin gas to kill his own people.
She’s right to focus there — Obama’s ultimate decision not to stop Assad’s barbarism damaged the U.S.’s global credibility, and serves as a stark example of what this book’s title suggests: that there’s idealism, the earnest desire to create a better world, then there’s the complex reality it smacks into.
Power, who served on the National Security Council (NSC) and as Obama’s UN ambassador from 2013 to 2017, is the ultimate idealist — at least, at first. All of this seems improbable, given her early upbringing. Like Nikki Haley, she’s an outsider, with “a thick Dublin accent, long red hair in a pony tail and pale skin” when she arrives in the U.S. at age nine with her mother and brother. Readers learn a great deal about her early relationship with her alcoholic father and her deep, irrational guilt when he dies from illness while she’s a teen, a continent away.
Emotionally defensive about close relationships as a result, Power nonetheless is moved by the photograph of a lone man standing in front of a tank in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. Galvanized by the field of human rights, she goes on to become a war correspondent in Bosnia and, ultimately, an expert on genocide. She studies law at Harvard, makes connections among influential and intelligent foreign policy mandarins and writes the Pulitzer prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell, about how the U.S. administration justified its inaction in the face of slaughters in Srebrenica and Rwanda.
When she meets up-and-coming senator Obama (whom she describes as “at once regal and relaxed”), she joins his team. When he becomes president, the hard part begins.
First is the daunting process of working in the White House, where Power starts at the NSC as senior director for multilateral affairs and senior director for human rights. She’s frequently in the room where it happens, but is amazed at the “number of cooks in the kitchen — and not at all surprised by how blandly the resulting White House statements often read.” She also discovers “how few voices in high-level government discussions highlighted the nexus between human rights and U.S. national security” (an observation Haley makes later about the UN Security Council).

Samantha Power’s memoir starts and ends with president Barack Obama’s flip-flop over military action against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. (Photo: UN PHOTO)

Samantha Power’s memoir starts and ends with president Barack Obama’s flip-flop over military action against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. (Photo: UN PHOTO)

As the title of the book suggests, this idealist soon comes face to face with politics over principle. For example, although Obama had promised during the election campaign that he would officially recognize the Armenian genocide of 1915, once in office he declines, balancing relationships with Turkey and Armenia. When Power chastises him, he snaps, “I am worried about the living Armenians. Not the ones we can’t bring back.” Power must content herself with progress in other areas, such as incorporating anti-atrocity training into planning at the Pentagon, and supporting LGBTQ rights worldwide.
The president does, of course, act decisively in many instances where innocents are threatened, for instance unleashing the U.S. military as part of the 2011 NATO mission in Libya, which makes it that much harder for Power to understand his backpedalling on Syria just a few years later.
In 2013, she is sworn in as U.S. ambassador to the UN, and is barely three weeks into the job when Assad stages a sweeping chemical weapons attack inside his own country that kills 1,400 people, including 400 children. A year before, Obama had delivered his “red line” pledge of dire consequences should Assad use such horrific, illegal weaponry. Obama tells his cabinet to prepare for strikes against military targets in Syria. Power approves.
But it is not to be. In Power’s telling, the first obstacle is the presence of UN investigators on the ground; Obama won’t strike until they leave Syria, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon won’t order them out of Syria until they finish their work. The second obstacle is Obama’s belated decision to seek congressional authorization for his planned military action, something he did not do during the Libyan intervention. Secretary of state John Kerry warns him: “If you lose with Congress, having already told the world that you are going to use military force, people will proclaim the effective end of your second term.” Obama does lose the congressional vote. There is no military strike to stop Syria atrocities.
As the world now knows, Assad has continued his mass slaughter, including the use of gas. And why wouldn’t he? “Assad could reasonably conclude that, going forward, he could starve his people into submission, carpet bomb hospitals and schools and eventually resume chemical weapons attacks, all without the United States doing much to stop it,” writes Power.
Yet she never contemplates quitting in protest at U.S. inaction. Instead, her book goes on to enumerate worthy initiatives the U.S. and its UN ambassador champion: fighting Ebola, for instance; taking in refugees (with a shout-out to Canada’s generous refugee policy); shoring up military support in Iraq; negotiating the Iran nuclear deal with European partners; helping the Yazidis and so on. Still, the Syrian failure looms over them all. “On no other issue did I see Obama so personally torn — convinced that even limited military action would mire the United States in an open-ended conflict, yet wracked by the human toll of the slaughter,” writes Power. “I don’t believe he ever stopped interrogating his choices.”
She adds: “For generations to come, the Syrian people and the wider world will be living with the horrific aftermath of the most diabolical atrocities carried out since the Rwandan genocide.” As a top administration official who started her job in hopes of forging a better world, Power will be living with it too.

Waste
By Kate O’Neill
Publisher: Polity Press, 2019
240 pages
Hardcover $69.28
Paperback $21.00
Kindle: $15.37

Waste not, want not, grandma told us. If only we had listened. Instead, in 2020, we inhabit a world of overflowing landfills, discarded foodstuffs, waves of ocean plastic and discarded materials from the planned obsolescence of consumer products.
How bad are our planetary trash troubles? Consider:
• About one-third of the food produced globally for human consumption is either lost or wasted. In North America and Europe, that’s between 95 and 115 kilograms a year of food waste per person;
• The world produced 44.7 million metric tonnes of electronic waste in 2016, more than six kilograms per person;
• In the United States, only 9.5 per cent of plastic that makes it into the waste stream is recycled.
It’s not yet the dystopian world of Mad Max: Fury Road. But as Kate O’Neill explains in this overview of the tough social, economic and political challenges posed by waste, there are similarities.
Waste, for instance, is not something that we can push “out of sight, out of mind.” It’s also a resource, and it provides a living to hundreds of thousands of people, from waste-pickers in Pakistan to electronic repair workers in India to urban miners in South Korea. Nor does waste that is shipped offshore always flow from the Global North to the South; it often travels between developed countries, depending on who can profit. Regulating this “resource frontier” is difficult; only recently, the Philippines forced Canada to take back 69 container loads of trash that had been shipped there under the false label of plastics for recycling.
O’Neill focuses on several aspects of the waste economy, but we’ll narrow our look to three: electronics, plastics and food.
Apple Inc. recently unveiled a special robot that takes apart old iPhones to retrieve material for re-use. That might seem a positive development: e-devices and appliances can be dismantled and stripped for valuable metals such as copper, silver, gold or palladium. Indeed, in parts of the world — O’Neill cites the Agbogbloshie district of Accra in Ghana — tens of thousands of people make their living “mining” or repairing e-devices. What’s extracted is resold or exported. There is a burgeoning economy around such “waste.”
But extraction is often dangerous work (there are toxins in these products), and much of this market is controlled by organized crime. As well, sensitive personal data can sometimes be harvested from electronic throwaways.
O’Neill explores two potentially better approaches: phasing out the planned obsolescence that companies build into their products (this “made to fail” approach started in 1924 when the lighting industry set a 1,000-hour standard for the lifespan of a light-bulb so we’d keep buying them); and encouraging or supporting the “right to repair” movement which seeks to allow workers worldwide to legitimately patch up and resell products — recycling e-waste while providing a legal spinoff living to many.
Plastics, meanwhile, jolted the public consciousness big-time when, in 2017, the UN termed ocean plastics a “planetary crisis.” The “great garbage patch” in the Pacific Ocean is estimated to be three times the size of France, and it is not the only gargantuan heap of floating junk. Studies say between 4.8 million and 12.7 million metric tonnes of plastics have entered the oceans, with discarded fishing nets making up about 46 per cent of them by weight. (Discarded plastic straws make up only 0.3 per cent of the total, but are a clear symbol of the unnecessary human fouling of our planet.)
Solving the plastics problem is complex, however. Plastics “have made life easier and brighter for a long time,” O’Neill points out: In North America, their biggest use is for packaging, and plastic food packaging can help reduce food waste. Yet only certain types are reasonably easy to recycle.
In 2017, the Chinese government did the world a favour: It abruptly cracked down on its hitherto huge imports of scrap, including plastics. The move shook many nations into realizing they must now take responsibility for their own polymer problem.
In the North, meanwhile, food is plentiful and reasonably cheap. So we waste it in astounding quantities. Think lettuce. U.K.-based Tesco reported that in 2017 consumers threw out 40 per cent of the bagged lettuce they bought each year, or 178 million bags. Further, “52 per cent of fruit and vegetables produced or purchased in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand is discarded.” And food waste happens not just in rich countries, but in poorer ones. Wasted food also carries a giant carbon footprint.
The good news, if there is any, is that everyone understands food waste is bad, O’Neill notes: “People agree on the scope of the problem.” Solutions exist (even if they’re not always used): composting, donation, education about expiry labels, discouraging bulk sales that lead to waste, fixing government policies that cause over-production. In time, we may get a handle on this problem.
O’Neill doesn’t simply provide a glimpse at the main forms of waste, however. She explores the economics and politics of the “zero-waste movement” and the “circular economy,” which are sometimes at philosophical odds with each other. In this book, you’ll find out about “resource frontiers” and the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. You’ll have at your fingertips references to the major studies, websites and a vast body of literature that exists on waste.
Grandma, of course, didn’t have access to any of this, and had surely never heard of the growing academic field of “discard studies.” She just had her good common sense. The world could use more of it.

BOOK BRIEFS

The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience
By Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 2019
464 pages
Hardcover: $17.50
Kindle: $16.95

“Power,” write Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, “has largely been associated with — and defined by — men since the beginning of time … We believe it is past time for that to change.” Hence this mother-daughter book of short chapters about the great women of (mostly Western, mostly American) history.
From Harriet Tubman, former slave and heroine of the underground railroad, to Margaret Bourke-White, the fearless photojournalist, to doctor and educator Maria Montessori, to education rights fighter Malala Yousafzai, the two Clintons cheerfully survey the landscape of female achievement. This book isn’t exhaustive — and it tends to turn the focus too often on the Clinton women themselves — but it is an enjoyable overview, and, just as it was written by a mother and daughter, its chapters can be shared and discussed among mothers and daughters of any age.

Canada on the United Nations Security Council: A Small Power on a Large Stage
By Adam Chapnick
UBC Press, 2020
320 pages
Hardcover $58.47
Kindle $13.16
Paperback: $34.95
The history of the UN Security Council isn’t just about the “Permanent Five” — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France. Non-permanent members matter too, writes Adam Chapnick. But why, exactly? What is it that has attracted Canada to campaign, so often, for non-permanent membership? This tome looks at how we have fared in those post-war campaigns, and what we did once onboard.
At time of writing, Canada was still campaigning to win a seat on the council, with the prime minister travelling to Africa to shore up support for what promised to be a difficult election. He cancelled his planned UN-campaign trip to the Caribbean in mid-February to deal with the crisis of Indigenous protesters and their sympathizers opposed to the proposed B.C. Coastal GasLink pipeline. Domestic issues replaced stumping for international stardom.

Diplomacy and the Arctic Council
By Danita Catherine Burke
216 pages
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019
Hardcover: $108
Kindle: $16.47
Paperback: $29.95

The idea of international co-operation and communication in the Arctic was pretty much a non-starter until the late 1980s, the era of Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev wanted the Arctic to be a “zone of peace,” and since that time much of the diplomacy to this end has played out through the Arctic Council, created in the mid-’90s. The council brings to one table the seven Arctic nations — and equally important, six Indigenous organizations.
That does not mean smooth sailing, however. The environment and development are key questions for the North, and it’s entirely possible Russia’s frosty relations with some of its council counterparts will hurt co-operation. But this exploration of the structures and practices of the council suggest its members want to insulate the Arctic, as much as possible, from larger global tensions.

Christina Spencer is the editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen. She holds a master’s from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, and is a past winner of National Newspaper Awards for international reporting and editorial writing.

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Christina Spencer is the editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen and the inaugural recipient of the Claude Ryan Award for Editorial Writing at the 2017 National Newspaper Awards. She holds a master's in international affairs from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

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