Rob Sutton is a junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.
The UK’s Ambassador to China, Dame Barbara Woodward, has been announced as the next permanent representative to the United Nations in New York. Woodward is a career civil diplomat who has been at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) since 1994.
Her distinguished record includes five years in Moscow, as Second then First Secretary, Commercial and Political. She has served as Deputy Head of the Human Rights Policy Department of the FCO, International Director of the UK Border Agency and Director General, Economic and Consular of the FCO.
Despite a career path which seems quite typical of what would be expected of such a senior diplomatic appointment, the contrast with previous representatives is notable. Dame Karen Pierce, whom Woodward will take over from, worked in Japan, the USA, Ukraine, Belarus, Switzerland and Afghanistan. Before her, Matthew Rycroft spent much of his FCO career in Geneva, London, Paris and Washington.
The significance of Woodward’s experience relates to the body of the UN in which the UK bears the most influence – the Security Council. The Security Council contains 15 members, of which five are permanent: China, France, the USA, Russia, and the UK – the so-called ‘P5’.
The considerable influence of the P5 is due to their powers of veto for all Council resolutions. Thus, these nations are the key players around which Britain must skilfully manoeuvre.
How much Woodward will be able to achieve is of course constrained by the limitations of the UN itself, its lack of moral leadership and its inability to intervene on the most pressing international crises. For an organisation which positions itself as a leader of leaders, the failings of the UN during the most trying international crises reflect the difficulty of building and implementing consensus at a global level. The response to the coronavirus pandemic is just the latest in a long series of failures of leadership.
At the lofty heights of the P5, leadership could hardly be further from the ideals envisioned by Churchill and Roosevelt when they spearheaded the UN’s formation. Secretary-General António Guterres has also received fierce criticism for his toothless approach to challenging human rights violations.
Even amid such company, we have been timid where we should have been bold, and our future influence is in doubt. Britain has not used its veto since 1989. Since then, Russia, China and the USA have used it on a total of 45 times. We’re sitting at the grown-ups’ table, but we act as though we have no right to be.
By placing Woodward at the table, we can be assured that our representative will be completely comfortable with the competition. China is not a cultural mystery to her. Russia is no riddle wrapped in an enigma. Woodward understands the nuanced politics of our most serious rivals in the P5, and that experience is invaluable. Following her appointment, she spoke of joining the UN at “a time when the rules-based international system faces pressing global challenges”, so we might hope that she will speak out on the numerous egregious violations committed by these nations.
The challenge in shaping Britain’s role as an international player is due in large part to our antagonistic aims. Seeking trade deals across the globe becomes considerably more difficult when one seeks to also criticise these partners when they stray outside international law. So we could opt for business as usual. We could quietly talk Britain up in the back rooms and decline to use our veto or publicly criticise our rivals for fear of being exposed as a lesser force than we were in the immediate post-war years.
Or we could seize this opportunity. Woodward has the skill, experience and support to be a key voice as we seek a renewed national identity amidst a decaying rules-based international order. A respected, principled, and industrious diplomat who is unafraid to articulate the importance of an open society may go some way to helping the UN and the UK rediscover their moral authority.