I met with Matthew Rycroft, the British Ambassador to the United Nations, on Wednesday 10 November, the day after the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States. It was a gloomy day, raining and grey, and there was a sense of despondency and incredulity at the result around New Haven. Ambassador Rycroft is limited in what he can say about the election, (it is only a few hours since Trump’s victory was confirmed) but the position of the British government is to welcome the new administration and reiterate that the British-American ‘special relationship’ will endure.
Rycroft has had a full agenda since he took up one of Britain’s top diplomatic posts last year, and his duties may yet become more complicated under President Trump, whose references to isolationism and disdain for multilateral organizations such as NATO have stoked fears that the United States could also turn away from the United Nations.
In this wide-ranging conversation, we discuss Russia’s role in Syria, the global spread of populism and the battle for female leadership within the United Nations.
“What they [Russia] are doing is prolonging the war in Syria,” he says. “Not only is it not fighting terrorism, it is actually making the Syria situation worse, and I have never heard a convincing response to that.”
Below is an abridged transcript of our conversation, edited for brevity.
Josh Jacobs: Britain is pushing for United Nations reform, to add Japan, India, Germany, Brazil and an African representative as permanent members of the Security Council. Are the regional rivals to these countries opposing this?
Matthew Rycroft: Each of those countries has countries that are adamantly opposed to them joining the Security Council. For the countries that oppose, the status quo may be bad enough, but to have their archrival or their big neighbor or their enemy would make things even worse. There is one school of thought that favors those countries then there is another that is a collection of the opponents of those countries, and there is a bit of a standoff. And that is one of the many reasons why nothing has happened in terms of new countries joining the Security Council for decades.
JJ: You were a strong advocate for the next United Nations Secretary General to be a woman. In the end a man was chosen, António Guterres. Currently there is only one female Ambassador to the Security Council. What do these facts say about the fight for female leadership?
MR: Samantha Power is at the moment [the only female Ambassador to the United Nations Security Council]. When she leaves it is possible that it will be all 15 men, which is extraordinary. I think it is very bad for the image of an out of date, secretive club. That sort of goes with that image. But the UK is 1/15 of that, so I am not blaming anyone else.
In terms of why did we not choose a woman to be Secretary General, I pushed hard. I said it was high time for a woman to run the UN, other things being equal. We chose António Guterres because he was the best candidate and I’m very glad that we did. We worked hard to get women into the field, 7 out of 13 candidates, a majority of the candidates were women. But in the end the process did identify the strongest candidate and as it happens it was a man.
JJ: More broadly what are the forces holding back female leadership in politics; how can we see more success in this area?
There is a whole load of things. A lot of my experience with this come from being Chief Operation Officer of the UK Foreign Office. There is something in the stereotype that men put themselves forward for jobs on the off chance that they will get them whereas women tend to wait until they are absolutely sure that they are going to get something, absolutely sure that they are ready before putting themselves forward. Of course that’s a generalization, of course there are plenty of counterexamples, but on average that is what happens. On average more men put themselves forward so on average more men get promotions, get big jobs and so on.
To counter that, what you need is a proactive strategy to encourage women to apply. I think women disproportionately are positively influenced by having someone who matters to them saying ‘you should really go for this’. So having mentoring, sponsorship, all those sorts of things in a closed market like the British Foreign Office — that works well.
It carries on whoever is in power in any of those countries, including the world’s only superpower and host country of the United Nations.
JJ: You are limited in what you can say about the United States election results, but more generally how do you think the rise of these populist and authoritarian forces will effect international cooperation – both within the United Nations and European European Union and bilaterally as well?
MR: I think that there is going to be a continued requirement for multilateralism and for organizations that bring different parts of the world together. The United Nations is the most supreme example of that because it brings the whole world together, literally: 193 countries. And that is enduring. It carries on whoever is in power in any of those countries, including the world’s only superpower and host country of the United Nations. Over the 71 years that it has been in existence, it has had a very wide range of U.S. governments. None of them have prevented [the United Nations] from working. So, yes, there are some downs, but the U.N. will continue to be a place to set the norms, and to do a lot of delivery, aid, poverty reduction and humanitarian [work]. All of that I think will carry on, irrespective of any country’s views on those issues.
I think the areas where it will be interesting to see what happens are to do with the big conflicts in the news: Syria most obviously. The whole US-Russia relationship has a very significant relationship on how the Security Council works. Broadly speaking, the Security Council works when the permanent members can agree on something and it just doesn’t when we can’t. So that is I think a potential area of flux.
JJ: You have been a forthright advocate for passing resolutions against Syria, walking out of the Security Council several times in protest at the situation in that country. You’ve also been a stalwart critic of the use of chemical weapons. But it does seem like there is no military enforcement mechanism [to prevent their use].
MR: I [have] walked out three times now. Russia has chosen militarily to back the Assad regime and countries on the other side have chosen not to provide full military backing. There is some support to the opposition – the US has provided a lot, the UK has provided some things – but that is not the same as having our troops present on the ground or in the air over Syria. And that is not going to change any time soon. So what we need to do is to concentrate on other areas of influence, bearing in mind that there is a military mismatch.
JJ: President Putin has criticized a process that he sees as framing Western norms, such as sovereignty and non-intervention, in global terms. To what extent is that true and to what extent is it posturing, to distract from certain behaviors in places like Syria?
MR: You are right that there is a huge battle of framing and re-framing going on. Russia is seeking to make this about fighting terrorism and we are seeking to make this about ending the war in Syria. So from their point of view what they are doing is right because it is tackling terrorism, and from our point of view what they are doing is wrong because it is prolonging the war in Syria. Not only is it not fighting terrorism, it is actually making the Syria situation worse, and I have never heard a convincing response to that.
JJ: You were private secretary to British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq War. To what extent do you see the backlash against intervention as a result of Iraq having gone too far, and having promoted a noninterventionist impulse on Syria?
MR: Throughout my career and before, and probably after as well, there is a pendulum that swings in different directions on this sort of issue. So in the time of my career we have had a phase of under-intervening in the Western Balkans, Bosnia in particular. We learned from that and we arguably over-intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a result [U.S. President Barrack] Obama came in and has chosen not to intervene as strongly in places like Syria. And so it will carry on.
About the Interviewee
Interview by Josh Jacobs.