Why US Ambassador Craft deserves greater credit for her time in Canada

Trump’s nomination of Kelly Knight Craft to serve at the UN has sparked a debate about her time in Ottawa. Here, Christopher Sands addresses three of the harshest criticisms levelled against the diplomat.

By: /
March 4, 2019
Kelly Knight Craft
US Ambassador to Canada Kelly Knight Craft speaks after she was sworn in by US Vice President Mike Pence in Washington. September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Christopher Sands

Director, Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University

On Friday, February 22, US President Donald Trump announced that Kelly Knight Craft was his choice to replace former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley as the US ambassador (or permanent representative, to use the UN term) at the United Nations. The move, coming after Craft served just 16 months as US ambassador to Canada, has prompted a debate in both Canada and the United States about her record in Ottawa.

Craft has been, in my judgment, a very effective diplomat and representative of the US during a particularly tumultuous time. To explain why I think so, I want to address three criticisms that have been levelled against Craft during her time in Ottawa.

1. Craft is Trump’s ambassador and supported him in 2016.

Many Canadians do not like Trump and so would take an immediate dislike to anyone he picked and sent to Canada. Some have been unhappy with Trump’s approach to Canada, from the renegotiation of NAFTA, to the imposition of tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum on “national security” grounds, to his insulting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Quebec.

Critics who take this view have a fair point, but it is criticism of the Trump administration rather than a reflection on Craft’s job performance. In fact, Craft attended most of the negotiating sessions that produced the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA in the US, or CUSMA in Canada), seated alongside US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

2. Craft is rich, tall, blonde…so must lack smarts?

Most critics in this category (see for example here, here and here) are arguing that Craft is not very smart, in particular after her comments on climate change, but to me this charge, often from people who have not met Craft, is a criticism not of Craft herself, but of the unfairness of life. Someone who seems so fortunate — Craft is married to the billionaire president and CEO of Alliance Resource Partners LP, Joe Craft — must have a flaw, and out come the “dumb blonde” stereotypes.

I have had the opportunity to observe Craft in formal and informal settings, and she is typically bright and engaging with people. She does not claim to be a policy wonk but is a good listener and therefore a quick study.

With regards to her comments on climate change, it is objectively true that there are two sides to the debate, but her assertion that she respects “both sides of the science” was widely mocked in the media. As with some other officials, from former US Vice President Dan Quayle to current US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Craft can be criticized for confusing facts and poorly expressing her thoughts, but that is hardly proof of stupidity.

3. Craft seems to be a bystander rather than a policy influencer.

This charge is the most completely wrong of any I have heard made about Craft. To be honest, it puzzled me for a long time. From here in Washington, Craft appeared to be doing an excellent job.

US ambassadors are not policymakers, but representatives. They oversee the multi-agency presence of US officials in Canada at the embassy, consulates, military bases and other sites. Most importantly of all, they have the job of briefing the president on key bilateral issues.

The ultimate test of a US ambassador is whether he or she can get the president on the phone or get a meeting with the president in person. Presidential time is scarce and in demand. Typically, the government in Washington responds quickly to only two things: threats and opportunities. And even so, it is threats that get attention above opportunities.

Craft has the ability to get Trump’s attention, and not attract his ire or a nasty tweet directed at her job performance. That is one reason that Canada’s ambassador to the United States, David MacNaughton, communicated frequently with, and through, Craft to make Canada’s case with the Trump administration.

In a recent interview with POLITICO, MacNaughton recalled Craft’s help getting Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to attend a meeting with stakeholders on regulatory cooperation. “Within 24 hours he confirmed his attendance,” MacNaughton said. “[Craft] used to do stuff like that all the time. ... She’s been a good friend to Canada and a good friend of mine. ... I’m sorry to see her go.”

I attended that meeting, where Mulvaney admitted that he had been suffering with a flu bug but had come to speak at the meeting nonetheless.

Of course, it will be up to historians to look at the records, interview the people privy to Craft’s communications with the president and form a judgment on her performance as US ambassador to Canada.

The passage of time might also give us a new perspective. The first female US ambassador to Canada may eventually be understood as doing the job well, but differently.

Craft has exhibited a style of diplomacy that reflects emotional intelligence and conciliation behind the scenes. This should serve the United States well at the United Nations, and I hope Craft’s successor in Ottawa will be equally good, and named quickly.