Karen Pierce, the Foreign Office (FCO) political director, has been appointed UK ambassador to the United Nations, the first woman to be given the most prestigious post in the British diplomatic service since the UN’s formation in 1945.
Seen as a trailblazer for women in the FCO, she will take over in January, and succeeds 18 different male postwar UK permanent representatives at the UN in New York.
The high-profile UN posting comes at a critical time for the FCO as the UK battles to prove its departure from the European Union will not diminish British influence on the international stage, especially at the UN. Many have questioned the long-term viability of the UK’s continued place as one of the permanent five veto-wielding members of the security council, with some claiming the UK’s status looks anachronistic, especially since France will effectively become the voice of the EU among the group.
Pierce is well suited to the task as she is a former UK deputy permanent representative at the UN in New York. She also represented the UK at the UN and the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.
Unfazed in the company of journalists, and informal in her manner, she joined the FCO in 1981. She has had a varied career in Washington, the Balkans, Afghanistan and briefly as head of news in the FCO under the turbulent foreign secretaryship of Robin Cook between 1999 and 2001. Most recently as political director she has been visiting the US advocating the retention of the Iran nuclear deal.
She is leading a relatively new team since her deputy, Jonathan Allen, has only been in New York since April. She is to succeed Matthew Rycroft, who is to return to the UK as permanent secretary to the Department for International Development. Rycroft will replace Mark Lowcock, who has taken up a senior humanitarian co-ordinating role at the UN.
With the advent of the live broadcasting of security council meetings, the advocacy role in the UN chamber has become more important, even if the heart of the job is to be at the centre of convening political alliances. The UK’s recent failure to retain a seat for a UK judge on the international criminal court was seen as a UK diplomatic setback, due either to Brexit or the emergence of powerful new diplomatic forces such as India.
The UN has also become more important to the UK as it attempts to retain a “special relationship” with the US, since the US permanent representative, Nikki Haley, is seen as a more dynamic and influential figure in Donald Trump’s administration than the current secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
Pierce’s arrival also comes at a time when the effectiveness of the UN is under greater question than ever. The new UN secretary, António Guterres, is starting to implement a reform programme aimed at reducing bureaucracy.
But the UN’s status is under siege from a US president opposed to multilateralism, and by Russia, which has now used its veto 10 times to block condemnation of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, including over the use of chemical weapons.