End Times Diplomacy at the UN?

In her last days at the UN, Samantha Power practiced "end times diplomacy" in anticipation of President Trump but Nikki Haley has followed Power's diplomatic playbook.

Editor's note:

This piece appears in The End of International Cooperation? from Summer 2017.

Richard Gowan
July 11, 2017

It is hard to write analytically or even clearly about diplomacy at the United Nations over the last six months. Donald Trump’s triumph in the U.S. elections plunged the UN, like most of the rest of the world, into a state of fractious chaos. For eight years, the Obama administration had invested in the institution as a mechanism for both solving immediate crises like the war in South Sudan and long-term threats like climate change. Now all that grinding work appeared vulnerable to Trump’s whims. He was dismissive of the UN on the campaign trail and few diplomats and international officials doubted that he would escalate his attacks once in office.

But Trump was not the only problem facing the UN in late 2016. As of November, it was plain that the institution was about to undergo a profound trauma over Syria. Russian and Syrian government forces were pressing in on the long-besieged city of Aleppo, the rebels’ last major urban redoubt. Meanwhile, the Obama administration seemed intent on using the UN to make a parting political statement over Israel and Palestine. Had Hillary Clinton won, Obama’s team might have floated a Security Council resolution setting out parameters for a future Israeli-Palestinian deal. As it was, Washington gave tacit support to a resolution tabled by other Security Council members condemning Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories.

That maneuver threw Trump into a rage. It remains unclear how bad exactly U.S.–UN relations will be during his tenure. The president has called for huge UN budget cuts, yet sometimes claims that he wants to help the organization succeed. While we try to grasp what his multilateral policies add up to, it is worth considering the lessons coming out of the strange, yet brutal, period of diplomacy at the UN between his election and his inauguration.

This was a moment of intense uncertainty when many of the normal rules of the multilateral game were temporarily suspended. The U.S. permanent representative to the UN, Samantha Power, and her allies suddenly found themselves on an unexpected precipice. The Russian-Syrian drive for Aleppo threatened to undo years of painstaking, albeit futile, efforts to end the Syrian war on the West’s terms. Russian diplomats could not conceal their delight. Power and her Western counterparts must have asked themselves if this represented the shape of things to come at the UN if Trump adopted a sweeping pro-Russia foreign policy.

If the post-electoral moment was terrifying for Power and other Western ambassadors, it was also curiously liberating. In most crises, diplomats at the UN have to balance attacks on other powers with the need to maintain decent working relations to handle the next crisis together. Power and other U.S. officials frequently criticized Russia over Syria, for example, but were usually quick to look for ways to rebuild dialogue afterward. Their European allies on the Security Council had sometimes argued for a harder line, but had little choice but to follow Washington’s lead.

At least in the first weeks after Trump’s election, these constraints no longer seemed relevant. Power and her British and French counterparts lined up to attack the siege of Aleppo in passionate terms in the Security Council. The United States backed proposals for UN investigators to gather evidence of war crimes in Syria that could potentially implicate Russian personnel, and Power emerged as one of the strongest anti-Russian voices in the Obama administration, devoting her final address as ambassador to an attack on Moscow.

As the clock ran down on the Obama administration, however, some U.S. partners had second thoughts, with the UK notably tacking toward Trump over Israel. Nonetheless, Power and her counterparts’ outpouring of outrage at the UN in late 2016 remains a striking case study of what we could call “end times diplomacy”: diplomatic engagement at a moment when the rules of the international game are suddenly and fundamentally in question.

There have been even more dramatic examples of this sort of diplomacy in the past. In 1939, for example, the League of Nations met to expel the Soviet Union in response to its invasion of Finland, even though the outbreak of World War II had consigned the organization to irrelevance. The election of Donald Trump did not present quite such a cataclysmic situation, but it nonetheless upended many officials’ established assumptions about the rules of international cooperation.

Yet, rather curiously, Trump’s ascension to the White House did not have the deadening effect on U.S. diplomacy that many commentators and officials expected. Samantha Power’s successor Nikki Haley has pursued an approach to Moscow that is often indistinguishable from the former administration’s. She has persistently challenged Russia over its support for Assad in starkly moral terms and avoided the language of compromise, not least in a series of Council debates when she justified unilateral U.S. missile strikes in response to Syrian forces’ use of chemical weapons against the town of Khan Sheikhoun in early April.

In retrospect, therefore, Power’s highly charged speeches over Syria in the last months of the Obama presidency seem less like the end of an era than a prelude to Haley’s own diplomatic offensive. I began work on this narrative in February 2017, expecting to focus on the radical discontinuities between the approaches of the Obama and Trump administrations to the UN. Yet it ends up being a story about the surprising continuities between them. The heightened anti-Russian rhetoric Samantha Power adopted as U.S. foreign policy hung in the balance has become the new normal with Haley—raising questions about whether Russia and the United States will ever be able to return to a more constructive mode of communication in the Security Council.

Arguing Over Aleppo

It was clear well before President Trump’s victory that the last months of Obama’s presidency would see a visceral challenge to U.S. leadership at the UN, and that this would play out in Aleppo. Throughout 2016, Russian and Syrian forces had been putting the rebel-held city under mounting pressure. It was also plain that there would be fury in the Security Council when the besiegers administered the coup de grace.

As I noted in February 2016, Russia used the pretense of diplomatic cooperation with the United States over Syria as cover for steps to intensify the siege in late 2015 and 2016. “If the West and Russia can no longer bargain over Syria through the Security Council,” I noted then, “it’s equally hard to believe that they can or will try to resolve any other major crises in New York any time soon.”

As the siege dragged on, it became clear that Moscow was willing to sustain severe reputational damage at the UN to demonstrate its power in Syria. America’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, negotiated a new cessation of hostilities last September, but Syrian and Russian forces relaunched operations during the annual high-level UN General Assembly late that month, destroying an aid convoy near Aleppo.

This was a serious blow for Kerry, who had invested heavily in working with Lavrov. It was not necessarily a surprise for Power and her team at the U.S. mission to the UN, who had become deeply skeptical of Russian intentions in the course of multiple negotiations. Power walked out of one Security Council discussion on Aleppo with her British and French counterparts to demonstrate her impatience. It was a move that some considered passionate and others petulant.

In the weeks before the U.S. election, Moscow and Damascus limbered up for one last push on Aleppo. In October, Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution tabled by France and Spain demanding an end to the siege (the Council also failed to support a Russian alternative text perceived to favor Damascus). The Atlantic Council itemized the brutality of the battle: “The targeting of hospitals, rescue workers, bakeries, schools and humanitarian workers increased; so, too, did the incidence of chemical, incendiary and cluster munitions being used against the city…. Frequently, the limited hospital facilities were overloaded, trauma patients littered the floors and hallways, and the few remaining doctors worked around the clock with dwindling supplies.”

One person who seemed to take a fatalistic view of the battle was Donald Trump, who argued in an October debate with Clinton that Aleppo had “fallen from any standpoint.” Russian officials, who expected Trump to lose, were probably more concerned with thinking about how to exploit the capture of Aleppo to dissuade an incoming Clinton administration from taking a hawkish line on Syria. After Trump won, seizing the city was still an opportunity to demonstrate how Russia had outmaneuvered the Obama administration militarily and diplomatically.

Syrian government forces began their final offensive operations in the last week of November. This presented the Western powers in the Security Council with a triple dilemma. First, the Council was clearly failing to act in the face of a humanitarian disaster that diplomats compared to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Second, the Russia–Syrian advance was obliterating any chance of a political solution to the conflict involving President Bashar al-Assad surrendering office, a condition the United States and its allies insisted on since 2011.

Third, the catastrophe appeared to confirm Trump’s view that Aleppo, and with it the contest with Russia over Syria, was a lost cause. Samantha Power and her colleagues knew that they had no real chance of stopping the siege. Obama was not going to launch a last-minute war against Russia in Syria and Russia was not going to relent. All that was left was to shame Moscow.

In early December, a group of elected members of the Security Council (Egypt, New Zealand, and Spain) tabled a resolution calling for a week-long ceasefire in Aleppo. Russia and China vetoed this on procedural grounds and argued that they feared that the rebels could use the pause to bring in arms and troops. While Power was not present at this meeting, her British counterpart, Matthew Rycroft, forcefully accused Russia and China of “long-standing, misplaced faith in a despot who has killed half a million of his own people.” Chinese Ambassador Liu Jieyi reacted unusually angrily to this “abuse,” accusing Rycroft of indulging in “groundless attacks.”

After this setback, the United States, Britain, and France decided to launch a new moral offensive against the Russians and Syrians in the Security Council in mid-December. The British and French called a Council meeting to address, in the French ambassador’s words, “the worst humanitarian tragedy of the twenty-first century unfolding before our eyes.”

This set the tone with New Zealand’s ambassador calling the debate his “Rwanda moment” and Samantha Power securing the most attention with a speech accusing Syria, Russia and Iran of creating a “tightening noose” around the civilians in Aleppo, continuing: “It should shame them. Instead, by all appearances, it is emboldening them. They are plotting their next assault. Are they truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame them? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that does not get under their skin a little bit or just creeps them out a little bit?”

Russia’s notoriously robust representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, shrugged off the attack, accusing Power of peddling “fake news” and moral supremacy. After this showdown, the West relented a little in the Security Council: French diplomats struck a deal with Russia to allow UN monitors to observe the evacuation of rebel forces from Aleppo. Power and other Western diplomats had, unsurprisingly, failed to save the city.

Nonetheless, they continued to look for ways to place moral pressure on the Russians. This included supporting a measure – originally floated formally by Liechtenstein – for the UN General Assembly to set up a new “international, impartial and independent mechanism” to gather evidence of war crimes and human rights violations in Syria and preserve for future prosecutions, with the potential to probe Russian actions. The United States, Britain, and France had been wary of letting the General Assembly take a strong role on Syria as they had wished to keep serious discussions of the war inside the Security Council. But facing defeat over Aleppo, and the prospect of a Trump administration fundamentally altering U.S. policy in the council, they were willing to leave such details aside.

Forgetting Aleppo?

In “normal” international conditions, the fall of Aleppo would have been the center of debate about the United Nations for months or even years. In reality, the siege was supplanted as the main topic of conversation almost immediately. On 23 December, the Security Council passed Resolution 2334, condemning the Israel settlement program in the occupied territories.

The diplomatic background to this vote is contentious: Trump and his team reportedly worked hard to stop the resolution coming to a vote at all. The Obama administration nonetheless decided to abstain rather than veto the resolution. Trump exploded on Twitter, accusing the UN of being a talking shop and implying that his administration would take a far harder line in support of Israel. Congressional Republicans were even more vituperative, and began work on a series of measures aimed at defunding the UN until the offending text was “repealed” (which is almost politically impossible). A document leaked shortly after Trump took office showed that the incoming president’s advisors considered demanding 40 percent cuts on UN budgets.

The settlements imbroglio shifted diplomatic attention sharply away from Aleppo. A majority of UN members had more or less openly agreed with the Obama administration’s attacks on Russia’s behavior in Syria as a threat to the UN Charter. But now the United States itself appeared to be about to become the organization’s most serious enemy. As Obama’s team entered its last weeks, even its closest allies became skittish of championing any further high-profile initiatives in New York.

There were rumors that members of Trump’s inner circle had been especially harsh with the UK, which played an instrumental role in preparing the settlement resolution text. Having lined up with Washington over Aleppo, London and Paris seemed to conclude that they did not want trouble with the next president over Syria.

Their doubts appear to have derailed U.S. plans for one last showdown with Moscow over Syria in January 2017. As Colum Lynch and John Hudson of Foreign Policy reported in mid-January, Power was keen to table a farewell resolution placing sanctions on the Syrian regime for its continued use of chemical weapons (this would also have targeted the Islamic State).

British and French officials argued that Russia would inevitably veto this, and that it would undermine the limited sense of progress created by the last-minute deal on the evacuation of Aleppo. But: “[Looming] large over the proceedings is the fear that picking a fresh fight with Russia right as Trump steps into power could provoke a backlash against the UN by the incoming U.S. administration. Such a fight could undercut the UN’s efforts to stop chemical weapons proliferation, especially because Trump, his team, and many in Congress are already angry with the UN for recently adopting a resolution denouncing Israeli settlements.”

While Power remained wedded to the logic of confrontation with Russia, U.S. allies were starting to look for ways back to more regular diplomacy with Moscow – although more out of uncertainty over American than Russian intentions. Power spent her last days at the UN voicing deeper and deeper concerns about Russia, highlighting not only its behavior at the UN but also its interference in the U.S. polls. Her last speech as ambassador hammered this home: “Russia’s actions are not standing up a new world order, they are tearing down the one that exists, and this is what we are fighting against. Having defeated the forces of fascism and communism, we now confront the forces of authoritarianism and nihilism.”

In Power’s vision, and that of many other observers, Trump’s victory and Russia’s assault on Aleppo were no longer distinct, parallel events. They were rather two sides of one strategy: a push by Moscow to weaken the United States at home and abroad.

Conclusions and Continuities

Did any of this intense political rhetoric and moral shaming of Russia mean anything of consequence? When I first wrote this commentary, I presumed the answer would be no. The original draft concluded with a call to recall the siege of Aleppo for the following reasons: “Since Trump beat Clinton, there has been a lot of talk about a global shift to transactional diplomacy, in which the big powers (and above all the United States and Russia) will strike bargains without honoring international law, multilateral organizations, or liberal norms. It may be appropriate to memorialize Aleppo as a funeral for the old order, when Western diplomats spoke out one last time for a more moral approach to crisis management and then gave it a decent burial.”

Yet this judgment now looks profoundly flawed. President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have talked about the need to downgrade human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Yet Trump’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has continued to attack Russia in terms very similar to her predecessor. Within a week of starting work in New York, Haley criticized the Russian occupation of Crimea.

In February, she convened precisely the Council discussion on sanctioning Syria over its use of chemical weapons that the British and French had postponed in January out of concern over offending the Trump administration. China and Russia duly blocked the Western resolution on the topic, and Haley responded much as Power would have: “It is a sad day on the Security Council. When members start making excuses for other member states killing their own people, the world is definitely a more dangerous place.”

Then, in the first days of April, evidence emerged that Syrian jets had dropped poison gas on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing civilians and children. Haley responded with a statement to the Council that dwelt on images of “children foaming at the mouth and suffering convulsions being carried in the arms of desperate parents.” Her speech culminated in a phrase that clearly echoed Samantha Power’s words to the council over Aleppo: “If Russia has the influence in Syria that it claims to have, we need to see it use it. We need to see it put an end to these horrific acts. How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”

Haley also flagged the possibility of unilateral U.S. military action in response to the crisis, and President Trump authorized Tomahawk strikes on a Syrian airbase without looking for any authorization from the UN. Since then, Haley and her Russian counterparts have continued to trade rhetorical blows over Syria – although Power’s old sparring partner, Vitaly Churkin, died suddenly in February, leaving lesser-known diplomats to present Moscow’s positions.

While there may have been some changes to the diplomatic cast in the Security Council, the most striking feature of their exchanges is how little has changed since the end of the Obama presidency. At least at the UN, the United States has maintained its morally combative tone toward Moscow over Syria, potentially limiting all parties’ room for diplomatic compromise.


There are four possible answers. The first is that, very simply, Syria and Russia’s appalling military actions – whether in Aleppo or Khan Sheikhoun – require such a forceful response. A more cynical alternative is that Nikki Haley, an ambitious politician who is clearly keen to boost her national reputation while at the UN, sees attacking Russia as a good way to raise her profile and score points with the Republican foreign policy establishment. A third (and speculative) option is that Haley’s strong moral line may ultimately provide cover for lower-profile efforts by Secretary of State Tillerson and other U.S. officials to find a compromise to end the Syrian war.

The final possibility is that Samantha Power’s warnings of Russian “authoritarianism and nihilism” have decisively entered the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy thinking about relations with Moscow. Power saw the election of Donald Trump and the fall of Aleppo as twin aspects of a single Russian push to undermine the American-led world order. Nikki Haley may have decided to serve under President Trump, yet her rhetoric at the UN suggests that she perceives the Russian challenge in very similar terms.

In the months and years to come, as the Syrian war unfolds and more evidence of Moscow’s efforts to interfere in American politics leaks out, we are very likely to hear more such rhetoric from U.S. officials in the UN and beyond. It may be symptomatic of an era in which great power diplomacy – and multilateral engagement more generally – is prone to be defined by public confrontations and a general loss of trust.

The UN has not yet reached the end times, but it certainly faces very hard times ahead.

Richard Gowan teaches at Columbia SIPA and has worked with the European Council on Foreign Relations, International Crisis Group, and NYU’s Center on International Cooperation. Follow him on Twitter @RichardGowan1.