Politico

Cindy McCain on her new U.N. ambassador role and diplomatic 'baptism by fire'


Cindy McCain, wife of the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), has spent a lifetime around politics and policymakers, but it wasn’t until she was confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to three United Nations food and agriculture agencies last October that she suddenly took on a policy role, herself. Her new job as the Biden administration’s representative at the global bodies tasked with addressing global hunger and food access fit with McCain’s decades of humanitarian work. But it was not expected to put her at the center of a geopolitical firestorm.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine. Now McCain is one of a small cadre of U.S. diplomats working to limit the damage of a fast-moving food crisis intensified by the war, and which is threatening to destabilize dozens of fragile countries already on the brink of widespread hunger. The conflict has contributed to sky-rocketing grain and other food prices, which has made it harder for the U.N.’s World Food Program, one of the agencies where McCain serves as ambassador, and other humanitarian organizations to respond. The U.S. is leading meetings on food security at the U.N. Security Council this week, as U.S. and western officials grapple with the Russian military blockade in the Black Sea, which is holding back millions of tons of grain from the world food supply. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is convening a series of ministerial-level meetings, including with officials from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) — another of the agencies McCain works with.

POLITICO spoke with McCain earlier this week about how the U.S. is responding to the unfolding crisis and her role in marshaling resources to address escalating hunger.

This transcript has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

You were confirmed and started this role shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine. And I know you mentioned a few weeks ago that about half of your day is spent talking with foreign officials about trade restrictions, specifically on food. How has your role changed since the invasion? And specifically on some of those issues about trade restrictions, what are the tools that you can leverage there?

First of all yes, most of my day is spent, unfortunately, right now on the Ukrainian situation and certainly what Russia has done that this is a result of. That’s much different than when I first got here. I’d been on the job about six weeks when the war broke out. So for me it was baptism by fire, quite frankly.

But with regard to the trade issues, as you mentioned there, we’re trying to encourage countries in a hard-line way to not restrict exports, to continue to export grain and other other items needed for cooking, etc., and that it does nobody any good in the world if everyone begins to hoard goods.

And I know this past weekend you read it as well, India did define that they were going to stop exports, but that does not include humanitarian issues. I just got a note from our guy here with USAID that said that it will not affect WFP. So I’m happy to hear that. Nevertheless, I don’t think they should have done it at all. So my job in all of this is to talk about and to remind other countries that this is not a good idea. It’s not helpful. And it certainly won’t help the countries who are most in need.

Fragile nations around the world that have already been reeling from the pandemic and climate change and climate disasters and have depended on Ukraine for grain and other food supplies are now scrambling for alternatives. Where do you see the three U.N. food and agriculture agencies that you work with fitting into the U.S. response and also the global response to the growing food crisis?

Well, first of all, all of the agencies here are front and center with this issue. We all work well together. And we are dealing with the situation — a crisis — that we haven’t seen in 70 years. So our role together with the agencies is to do as much as we can to make sure that we can feed the necessary people, also remembering that there are, as you said, countries outside the Ukrainian zone that need just as much help in many ways and figure out ways that we can support this and also work together with the agencies in a more robust fashion to make sure that we can make it happen.

We’re working with U.S. farmers right now to figure out how we can grow more with less, how we can do it quickly, how we can make this sustainable. And those are things that FAO does, as you know, and IFAD [International Fund for Agricultural Development] does also.

Could you give a little bit more detail about some of the work, especially with U.S. farmers, that they do?

Well, the U.S. farmers have always been innovators on things like this. People are probably tired of me raising my own state [Arizona] in all of this, but we do a lot of water management initiatives, which is a large part, as you know, of agriculture around the world. We’re always innovating. We’re always using science and technology. We need to do more of it, though, and we need to encourage our farmers to adapt to that.

But with that said, remember, we are dealing with grain shortages right now. We’re dealing with the issues of whether or not we can produce grain at all out of Ukraine. There are reports that the agricultural farms have been mined, that the equipment has been mined. So the amount that we would normally depend on coming out of Ukraine is simply not going to be there or if it is, it’s going to be in very small quantities.

You’re dealing with fragile nations that depended on Ukraine for food. They’re also reeling from the pandemic and from climate disasters and climate change. Beyond providing food aid, how do you see your role in standing up and rebuilding agriculture in a lot of these countries that are very dependent on it?

Well, as you know, all three — the World Food Program, IFAD and FAO all do a marvelous job of that. They basically have three different kinds of roles. IFAD deals with the smaller farmers and smaller quantities, whereas FAO is on a larger scale and WFP is our emergency relief in all of this.

Once the smoke clears from this, it’s about seeds, it’s about tools, it’s about land management again, because most of the land is going to be really torn up as a result of this. So I think the easiest thing for me to say would be that the U.S. role in all of this is to certainly be on top of this.

And also remind FAO, that they need to continue to condemn the Russian invasion and condemn what Russia is doing. We need them to come out harder and faster on this. It was unprecedented and unwarranted. So it’s up to us in the United States to remind people how we got here in all of this.

Specifically on the World Food Program and concerns about getting millions of tons of grain out from Ukraine — I know David Beasley in particular has been very vocal about trying to reestablish port operations at Odesa, trying to get either a U.N.-led humanitarian corridor or maybe even a NATO-enforced humanitarian corridor, to get that grain out of Ukraine and get it through the Black Sea. And I’m wondering if you’ve been pressing or talking with any administration officials, U.N. officials, about trying to set up any kind of a corridor and where you see those talks right now.

Certainly we’ve all been talking about it. Those are some of the things we talk about all the time. But the Russians seem to think that we don’t need a humanitarian corridor and they continue to bomb those who are trying to get through with supplies, with medical equipment, etc. As you saw today, they used a playground for horrible atrocities.

So until we can manage to get a corridor put in place, one that’s respected, and we’re all in the same situation. We can’t get these humanitarian items in, we can’t get the food out — we’re in a quandary right now. It’s a real tough issue and I don’t think Putin is listening to us.

Talking with the U.N. officials, do you have any idea if that’s something that they are planning to take action on, the humanitarian corridor, this coming week at the general meetings?

Certainly, that will be quite a large portion of the discussions that are going to take place in the U.N. this week. I’m looking forward to the action items that come out of that because the time for talk is over, the time for action has begun. You know, I come from a family that action’s like who we are. So this is something that not only do I believe in, but that I know my country believes in as well. So I’m grateful that Secretary Blinken is doing this, and I’m grateful that he’s going to hold these ministerial discussions and listen to the people who are on the ground, more importantly, which is WFP, FAO and IFAD.

It seems like policymakers, especially in Washington, are coming to grips with the widespread fallout of the war. Did you have any trouble or meet any obstacles in the early days of the invasion trying to convince people that we were going to see such widespread ripple effects from this and that the resources needed to be marshaled in a very quick fashion?

Well, certainly not administration officials and certainly not of the like mindeds here in Rome. I think what I’ve tried to do throughout this is to talk to the American people a little bit. Because there is some confusion. You know, we’re hearing different numbers. We’re hearing different stories, etc. And so I view part of my role in talking to the American people about what is actually going on and why we need to do this, more importantly. Why we need to be part of this, why we need to to help food insecurity in a major way.

The American people are a little burned out right now with Afghanistan and coming out of Iraq and all those things, as you know. I view my job very explicitly and also for making sure the American people understand what’s happening and why we need to do this.

There’s a little over $5 billion worth of global food aid in the current Ukraine aid package that’s supposed to pass Congress this week. How have you been talking to lawmakers and others trying to make the case for this aid and, basically, a continued argument for it?

Well, many. [A CODEL led by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.)] came through here. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was with them. Sen. [Bob] Casey (D-Pa.) was with them. There were other members of Congress that were here. We spent one day with them just talking about these issues. So I think we had some influence on them.

I know in the case of WFP, it was very helpful, because the dollars [in the U.S. Ukraine aid package] came out higher than what I’ve been initially told. So I’m thrilled about that. I think not just talking to members of Congress, but sending the message back with them to other members. The three senators that were here are great messengers for this, as are the members of Congress.

You alluded to this a little bit, but the United States has a different approach to the food security crisis, especially on how much food countries should be producing to fill supply gaps, different approaches than France and other European nations. How do you navigate those divides and bridge some of those differences?

Open discussions. The one thing that I can tell you is that the folks here that represent the various countries within the U.N. system here are open-minded, we have lively discussions, we have disagreements. But the overall goal of making sure that people are fed is a single goal that we all have. So I enjoy the discussions. I think sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t with each other. But it’s not something that we’re dug in.

There are countries that are dug in on this. And unfortunately, that’s a real shame that that’s occurring. A majority of FAO is not dug in, that are a part of all of this, that all believe in the same thing, that this was an unwarranted, unprecedented invasion and should never have happened. And so it’s up to us to help make sure that the fallout, which is food insecurity, is handled in the best way worldwide that we can as countries that have the ability to help and encouraging other smaller countries.

One that stepped up and really helped us out a few weeks ago was the Bahamas. They are a very tiny country, but they were very helpful in FAO meetings and they were very helpful in encouraging the rest of us, which to me was great because I sometimes feel like I’m the Lone Ranger, but I’m not. I know I’m not because so many other countries feel the same way I do. We work together.

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