High-Wire Act Ahead for Trump’s New Women’s Rights Envoy
Tough but torn, Kelley Eckels Currie must find a way to balance her loyalties.
In the spring of 2018, Chinese diplomats strong-armed United Nations bureaucrats into blocking a prominent ethnic Uighur activist from entering U.N. headquarters on unsubstantiated charges of terrorism. But Kelley Eckels Currie wasn’t having it.
Currie, then a senior appointee at the United Nations under U.S. President Donald Trump, tracked down the activist, Dolkun Isa, marched him to the U.N. entrance, and demanded he be allowed into the building for a conference on indigenous peoples. When U.N. security still barred his entry, Currie got Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time, to take her case directly to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who granted Isa a grounds pass for the day.
“If Mr. Isa were in fact an actual terrorist … do you seriously think we would be inviting [him] into this country and giving him free rein to travel about?” she would later tell a gathering of former diplomats, including one from China. “Give me a break!”
Currie’s uncompromising stand didn’t surprise those who know her well. The Georgia-born diplomat has built a reputation as a fierce, and principled, critic of human rights abusers, goading China’s diplomats and confronting Myanmar’s generals for committing mass atrocities against their country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. Currie, who served as U.S. representative to the United Nations for economic and social affairs until Feb. 15, earned respect from colleagues and career diplomats for her grit and tough advocacy of U.S. interests. They paint a profile of Currie as a feisty diplomatic brawler unafraid to take principled stands.
But there’s another side to Currie: the agile political player who has found it necessary to align with the Trump administration’s decidedly conservative approach to women’s rights, especially on gender and sexual health issues. And now, her pending nomination as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues presents her with the toughest test yet of her reputation as a rights crusader: Can she apply the same fervor she has challenging Asia’s autocrats to championing the rights of women on behalf of a president who has often demeaned them and has largely handed over policymaking to evangelical Christians striving to curtail sexual and reproductive rights and women’s health services?
Those who have worked with Currie characterized her as conflicted: a passionate diplomat who wants to do what she believes is right but is also all too aware of the political constraints in an administration characterized by broken decision-making structures and volatile backroom power struggles.
Currie’s background spans the public and nonprofit sector. Educated at the University of Georgia and the Georgetown University Law Center, where she received her law degree, Currie served as a policy advisor to Rep. John Porter, an Illinois Republican, from 1995 to 1999, when she also worked concurrently on the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. During the George W. Bush administration, Currie was a policy advisor on Asia for Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky. She has also worked as a senior advisor to the International Committee of the Red Cross, as the director of government relations at the International Campaign for Tibet, and as the deputy director for Asia at the International Republican Institute.
But it was during a stint as a senior fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a think tank focused on Asia, that Currie found her voice as a sharp critic of Beijing, writing frequent opinion pieces denouncing the Obama administration for failing to confront Hu Jintao’s “lawless Chinese regime” for widening a crackdown on dissidents, journalists, and other independent voices.
On one hand, Currie’s admirers include notables from the other side of the aisle, such as Melanne Verveer, a close associate of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who was the first-ever ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues under President Barack Obama and now heads Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. “She has been deeply committed to human rights,” Verveer said. “She tried to create consensus and worked on humanitarian issues and other issues in a way that was useful.”
But detractors dismiss Currie as a faithful foot soldier in the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back human rights protections at the U.N., defending its decision to withdraw from the Human Rights Council and its support of initiatives backed by conservative religious groups.
“She was the Trump administration’s mouthpiece for regressive policies; she was instrumental in the U.S. government decision to weaken the [U.N.] Human Rights Council,” said Shannon Kowalski, the director of advocacy and policy for the International Women’s Health Coalition. “She represented the U.S. position faithfully when it came to sexual reproductive health and rights, and opposed references to reproductive health or sexual rights in U.N. resolutions.”
Reflecting on Currie’s efforts to reconcile her own passion for human rights with the administration’s stances, current and former U.S. officials say her advocacy of White House policy on these health issues came grudgingly. For example, during last year’s Commission on the Status of Women conference, Currie butted heads with administration hard-liners who demanded that the U.S. delegation oppose any reference to sexual and reproductive health in the final outcome document.
Currie “read the riot act” to Bethany Kozma, a U.S. Agency for International Development official who had made her mark as a campaigner against access for transgender students to bathrooms matching their gender identity, noting that the U.S. demand to strip out long-agreed compromise language threatened to blow up the negotiations and leave the United States isolated on the world stage, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the exchange. At the time, Currie received backing from the U.S. ambassador, Haley, who was eager to avoid a diplomatic train wreck. The United States finally agreed to drop its demand for the removal of the phrase “sexual and reproductive health” from the final outcome document.
But Kozma would later prevail in a May 2018 session of the U.N. Commission on Population and Development, appealing to conservative allies in the White House to oppose any reference to sexual and reproductive health. Kathryn “Katy” Talento, a senior official in the White House Domestic Policy Council, on the final day sent instructions to the U.S. mission to the United Nations to back Kozma. The conference ended—as had previous sessions—in failure, without an agreement on the final outcome document.
Laurie Phipps, then the lead negotiator at the U.S. mission to U.N. on women’s issues, was so appalled by the U.S. stance that she decided to stop delaying her plans for retirement last May.
“The White House changed our instructions at the eleventh hour, informing us the morning of the last day that we could no longer accept language about sexual reproductive health that we had agreed to a month before at the Commission on the Status of Women,” she said in an interview with Foreign Policy. “This change in our position left the U.S. looking as though we had negotiated in bad faith.”
“It was this change in the ground rules, as much as the policy itself, that led me to file my retirement papers,” she said. “After almost 30 years at the [U.S. Mission to the United Nations], I could not stomach the idea of negotiating in bad faith and losing the respect and trust of my colleagues, which I believe is essential to being a successful negotiating partner.”
But Currie faithfully accepted the White House’s dictate, an act that illustrates both the limits of Currie’s authority and influence and her reluctance to fight the White House’s ideologues.
“I think her instincts are very good and that she wants to protect the rights of women and human rights defenders, but I don’t think she feels powerful enough to take on well-entrenched political appointees,” Phipps said. Currie, she added, “will try to do her best to advance the cause of women in those areas where it is not controversial, like economic empowerment or women’s right to vote, where she isn’t running up against the entrenched retrograde opposition.”
The State Department declined to make Currie available for an interview for this story.
Currie’s colleagues say that she has worked behind the scenes to try to constrain some of the administration’s most extreme positions and sought to persuade Haley to not precipitously withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council.
During a Security Council visit to Myanmar last spring, Currie pressed her colleagues to meet with local civil society groups and refused to shake the hand of the country’s military leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. When the military leader sought to dismiss a Security Council request to investigate abuses in north Rakhine state, characterizing the situation of the Rohingya Muslims there as an “internal matter” that “had already been investigated enough,” Currie challenged him. She countered that the crisis was clearly international, as more than 700,000 refugees had fled the country into neighboring Bangladesh.
“She is a human rights person; she’s not just a political animal like Haley, who was always looking for a political angle,” said one former colleague.
And yet few human rights issues are more political than women’s rights in the Trump administration, given the importance the president’s conservative base places in curtailing language around women’s sexual rights, which they see as signaling support for abortion access.
If Trump formally nominates Currie and she is confirmed by the Senate, her challenges won’t just center on policy. She will take the helm of a State Department office that is understaffed and adrift, devoid of any direction from top leadership, as three current and former U.S. diplomats describe it.
The ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues post has sat empty for the entirety of the Trump administration—over two years. The office has still functioned, with day-to-day duties carried out by a small cadre of lower-level career diplomats. Like other offices across the department, the ambassador’s office was hamstrung by proposed budget cuts and hiring freezes emblematic of Trump’s broad approach to slashing investments in U.S. diplomacy.
“The reality is the global women’s issues office has been gutted,” said Tarah Demant, the director of the Gender, Sexuality, and Identity Program at Amnesty International USA. Under the Obama administration, the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues reported directly to the secretary of state and worked to keep women’s issues at the top of the agenda across the department. “That’s what makes this office so important. … Its job is to make sure that across the State Department, women’s issues are integrated, elevated, coordinated,” Demant said.
The inaction has drawn the ire of a top Democratic lawmaker. “The two-year absence of an Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues has sent the wrong message to the world about the United States’ priorities,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) in a statement to FP. Shaheen, the sole woman on the 22-member Senate Foreign Relations Committee, fought to elevate the office’s stature and prevent it from being defunded in the Trump administration’s push to defund and scrap dozens of diplomatic envoy posts at the State Department.
“One of my top concerns is that the ambassador continue to report directly to the Secretary of State and hold a distinguished position within the State Department,” Shaheen said. She hasn’t come out for or against Currie’s nomination, saying, “I look forward to meeting with her to go over the administration’s priorities for this role.”
A State Department spokesperson countered that the Office of Global Women’s Issues has continued to carry out meaningful work despite the absence of an ambassador.
“There has been some turnover in the office, people left on their own to pursue other career paths elsewhere in the government as well as in the private sector,” the official said, adding that they “are in the process of filling some of the vacant positions.”
The office recently launched an initiative to support women and girls at risk from violent extremism and is working with the White House to “promote women’s economic empowerment” through the new Women’s Global Development and Prosperity initiative.
“By no means has the office been ‘gutted,’” the official said. “We have a resilient, committed workforce.”
But some otherwise outspoken advocacy organizations have been conspicuously quiet on Currie’s planned nomination—and on the fact that the post has sat empty for over two years.
That, advocates say, is no accident.
Rumors swirled over who would take the post last year, long before Currie’s name was announced. The group of potential contenders, according to a handful of State Department officials, congressional aides, and advocacy groups, included Rachel Campos-Duffy, a Fox News commentator and former MTV reality television star who is the wife of Wisconsin Republican Rep. Sean Duffy, a fellow MTV star. Penny Young Nance, the head of a conservative women’s group who campaigned against trans and gay rights, was also slated to take the role in 2017. But months after he name first came out, it was promptly withdrawn after fierce opposition from Democrats who saw her as too extreme and several Republican lawmakers, one of whom she bashed on Twitter as sounding “like a middle school girl.”
Campos-Duffy could not be reached for comment, and Nance’s organization, Concerned Women for America, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Their diplomatic inexperience and conservative policy positions rattled women’s rights advocacy groups.
“A lot of those rumors around [Trump’s] picks were not people we could be enthusiastic about, to put it mildly,” said Verveer, the former ambassador.
Some experts quietly came to the conclusion that an understaffed and ineffective ambassador’s office was better, or at least less bad, than an office run by an inexperienced Trump acolyte determined to roll back U.S. policies on sexual and reproductive health and gender issues. So they held their tongues.
Still, in early 2018, dozens of advocacy groups and humanitarian organizations laid down a marker on what qualities the next ambassador-at-large should have in an open letter to the administration. “Any nominee for this post should, at a minimum, be a champion for the equality, rights, and empowerment of women and girls,” they wrote.
Officials and even some administration critics say Currie checks at least some of those boxes. “Currie is generally perceived as smart and hard-working, a tough leader with command of the issues and an ability to navigate State and the interagency strategically,” said one State Department official, who cited rumors that Currie had initially been reluctant to accept the job but was persuaded to take it by the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump (though a State Department spokesperson dismissed those rumors as “incorrect”).
“Frankly, that leadership profile is the kind of champion women around the world need right now,” the official said.
“Heard from three others at State tonight (trusted and principled people who are in it for the value-based policy) who really like Currie, but … there’s always a chance these accolades may be a function of low expectations in the Trump era,” the official said.
Update, April 1, 2019: This article was updated to include comments from a State Department spokesperson labeling rumors Ivanka Trump had to persuade Currie to take the job as “incorrect.”
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch