OPINION — It was Eleanor Roosevelt, an icon of my Democratic Party, who summoned the energy and conscience that inspired a young United Nations to produce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights out of the rubble of World War II. The declaration built on the U.N.’s founding promise to promote and encourage “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms,” ideals that sadly, 70 years on, are being casually violated, from the reeducation camps of Xinjiang to the gulag-like jails of Moscow and Cairo.
So at a time when leaders who should be Roosevelt’s spiritual heirs are mostly missing in action, it was heartening to hear a member of the Trump administration publicly pledge to “reinforce the values, our values, that were central to the U.N.’s founding.” That’s what Kelly Craft told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month during her confirmation hearing to become the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She promised to do the job with “an unwavering commitment to universal human rights and freedom” and vowed to “tackle human rights abuses every day.”
But that apparently wasn’t laudable enough for the committee’s ranking Democrat. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez pocketed Craft’s promises on human rights with dismissive formality before demanding to know how she would handle the geopolitical challenges of North Korea, a destabilized Libya, an aggressive China and a threatening Iran. “Those are minimally some of the hot spots in the world right now,” he chided her. “These are the types of issues you’ll be called upon as the United States ambassador at the U.N. to be doing.”
It’s surprising to hear Menendez loftily making distinctions between the goals of global security and the health of human rights around the world. The New Jersey Democrat is currently leading a bipartisan Senate assault on President Donald Trump’s handling of the entire U.S.-Saudi security relationship — arms sales and more — precisely because of the kingdom’s atrocious human rights record that includes the state-sanctioned murder of dissident Saudi journalist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi.
Craft clearly sees the connection between defending human rights globally and American security. Indifference to human rights is why Russia, Iran and China are malign actors in exporting values that run counter to U.S. interests. North Korea becomes an even greater threat with nuclear weapons because Kim Jong Un runs an opaque totalitarian state that imprisons and has starved its own people.
In that context, Craft’s insistence on putting human rights at the forefront of America’s U.N. diplomacy is no suggestion of softness. She told her Senate hearing she would call out Russia and China by name at any sign of “corrosive, underhanded conduct.” And she declared unequivocally that if she becomes the U.N. ambassador, “I am not going there to be Russia’s friend.”
But she also emphasized her readiness to build relationships at the U.N., the same personable approach she’s developed in her almost two years as U.S. ambassador to Canada, where she has steered what is traditionally one of the world’s smoothest friendships through unusually fraught times. Craft has had to deal with the wounds in Canada from President Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum, and alarm in Ottawa over his threats to tear up the prized North American Free Trade Agreement unless he got a new deal.
“Being President Trump’s ambassador to Canada has been no walk in the park,” says Gordon Giffin, who knows what the post entails, having held it under President Bill Clinton. “We should take note of the critical role Ambassador Craft played in delivering the updated and improved [NAFTA] agreement. We know Kelly can represent our country well because we have watched her do it.”
In Ottawa, Craft was a bridge-builder between two governments unexpectedly — and awkwardly — at odds. “Ambassador Craft was confronted with the most difficult bilateral climate our countries have ever experienced,” says Frank McKenna, who was Canada’s ambassador in Washington in the mid-2000s. “Her charm and tact was a healing balm, and her intelligence and competence made her highly respected across the country.” Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney also praised Craft’s “outstanding” work in the trilateral trade negotiations that resulted in the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Of course, no single ambassadorship can provide full preparation for the multidimensional chess game that is U.N. diplomacy. In her testimony, Craft touched on the breadth of the challenge: the need for the U.S. to keep driving institutional reform; a commitment to defend Israel when it is unfairly singled out for censure; and (worthy of note for a Trump nominee) acknowledgment that all countries, including the U.S., must address “man-made climate change” with or without a Paris accord.
Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson compared Craft’s character to Samantha Power, President Barack Obama’s U.N. ambassador, noting that Power “had and exhibited the same sort of qualities as this lady.” Isakson didn’t just support Power’s nomination, he introduced her at her confirmation hearing. And if he could back a qualified nominee from the opposing party, surely Democrats can do the same with Craft?
Isakson said Craft “knows how to use her voice for the right thing to do.” In her testimony, the nominee made clear where she planned to use it: defending human rights and expanding the U.N.’s capabilities to respond to catastrophes that arise from their abuse (think Venezuela). She sees human rights and security as inseparable.
“If we observe these rights, for ourselves and for others, I think we will find that it is easier in the world to build peace because war destroys all human rights and freedoms. So in fighting for those, we fight for peace.”
That was Eleanor Roosevelt, speaking in 1951, confident that protecting human rights was the foundation for a better world. It’s a spirit that Democrats should still be able to get behind today.
Maryscott “Scotty” Greenwood was the chief of staff to the U.S. ambassador to Canada during the Clinton administration. She is the CEO of the Canadian American Business Council, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting business issues between Canada and the United States.