How Nikki Haley defied the skeptics, sidestepped Trump, and won the heart of the UN

Or will it be secretary Haley?
Or will it be secretary Haley?
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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When asked last November to opine on rumors that then-South Carolina governor Nikki Haley was in line to be secretary of State, foreign policy sage David Rothkopf echoed the bewilderment of many in the international affairs community.

“I thought it was impossible to find someone who has less foreign policy experience than [former New York mayor] Rudy Giuliani but bingo! Here is somebody who has no foreign policy experience at all,” said Rothkopf, then the editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

Onlookers reacted with only mild relief when State went to ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson and Haley instead became America’s ambassador to the UN. Under a president who has derided the UN as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time,” the US was getting an ambassador who had never shown any particular interest in international affairs and seemed to have precious little work experience outside her parochial home state.

Eight months into the job, however, and the skepticism has largely turned into praise for someone who, albeit starting from an exceptionally low bar, has proven herself a canny political operator while most of Trump’s cabinet flails. A case in point: when Haley marshals Trump through the UN General Assembly next week, she’ll do so having just helped deliver two broadly-lauded Security Council resolutions to sanction North Korea.

Indeed, watching Haley’s press conference at the White House on Sept. 15, previewing the General Assembly alongside national security advisor H.R. McMaster, it was hard not to feel she was making her unofficial debut as secretary of State. Haley was fluent and confident as reporters lobbed questions at her on North Korea, humanitarian crises, and other topics. And most strikingly her boss, Tillerson, was nowhere in sight.

In fact, as she wins plaudits among onlookers ranging from Melinda Gates (who told Quartz that Haley “is doing a particularly good job…in difficult political times”) to Eurasia Group director Ian Bremmer (she’s an “exceptionally talented politician” who has “done a pretty good job so far”), the figure least publicly impressed with Haley seems to be her ultimate boss, the president. Perhaps in an attempt to blunt rumors that Haley is being lined up (paywall) to replace Tillerson, Trump recently talked down the latest sanctions on Pyongyang as “just another very small step. Not a big deal.”

It all raises the question: How has Haley managed to gain such widespread praise while dealing with a boss who has little time for the State Department, has even less time for the UN, possesses no qualms about undermining her, and touts a foreign policy reviled by the vast majority of US allies?

Following her own foreign policy

Haley had a rough first week (paywall) at the UN. With the White House reeling from spats with Mexico and the furious response to its immigration ban, an extra sweetener landed on her desk: leaks of an impending massive cut of US funding for the UN. She compounded matters by undiplomatically warning other nations, “For those who don’t have our backs, we’re taking names.”

She quickly rebounded, however, deploying a startling readiness to depart from the White House line on major issues. In her UN Security Council debut she became the first administration official to upbraid Russia for its “aggressive actions” in Ukraine. When Trump ordered missile strikes on Syria, she split with Tillerson in saying she wanted (paywall) president Bashar al-Assad to go. She has stridently supported human rights while Trump and Tillerson have waffled on them.

“The simple fact is that she has completely and totally repudiated every element of Trump’s foreign policy. It’s been astonishing to watch,” said one top Washington foreign-policy figure, who didn’t want to be named because he works with the administration on policy. “If she were articulating any of Trump’s foreign policy at the UN, she’d be being savaged.”

Haley’s is a considered strategy of following a traditional Republican policy agenda wherever possible, said a seasoned UN watcher. ”I’ve heard that she goes looking for this; digging up Bush administration position files when they don’t have specific [policy] instructions,” the person said, asking not to be named.

Those stances have won traditional allies’ approval, but that’s not to say she’s always taken seriously. For example, other member states have “great skepticism” about whether or not her bold statements about human rights “will translate into real policy initiatives and whether that will be backed up by the president,” says Stewart Patrick, director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ International Institutions program.

What’s more, her views on human rights can sometimes look inconsistent, a senior Obama-era State department official points out. Haley has, for example, touted her heritage as the daughter of Indian immigrants while defending Trump’s travel ban for Muslim-majority countries.

Patting the right backs

Saying the right things has won respect from US allies, but Haley has also done the hard work to build relationships with the movers and shakers in New York.

“Tillerson isn’t looking to make sure he gets into rooms; he expects people to come to him. She’s working phones, working the people, she’s gotten to know an awful lot of people around the UN,” says Bremmer. “When you have conversations with [other] ambassadors and they talk about Haley, it’s as an intelligent and professional woman who gets things done. That’s very different from the way they talk about other people in the administration.”

She’s persuaded doubters that the kind of bartering and deal-making she learned in South Carolina is “eminently transferable” to the UN, says Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and expert on the UN. “There’s a slightly snobbish assumption around the UN that politics here is of another order of complexity to the outside world; in fact, I think politics in the UN is less complex than in DC or perhaps even South Carolina.”

The North Korea nuclear crisis has given her a perfect stage to display this political effectiveness. Building on the Obama administration’s collaboration with Russia and China on the issue, she reportedly worked behind the scenes to push the Security Council to pass tougher sanctions than anything seen under Obama and Bush. Bremmer points out that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s intransigence is probably the biggest reason Moscow and Beijing consented to these measures, but few disagree that, as Gowan puts it, “this has been substantive and successful crisis diplomacy.”

Haley’s background as a politician isn’t free of downsides, however. These include an inclination towards a “banal” folksiness in her public persona and sometimes “shallow” statements on complex policy issues, Gowan says, adding that her Twitter feed has become a “running joke” around the UN. When, after making a big speech on Iran’s nuclear program in DC, she tweeted her playlist for the train journey back to New York, the general feeling was, “We’re teetering on the edge of nuclear war, we don’t necessarily want to be listening to Fleetwood Mac as the missiles fly,” Gowan said.

She’s also had to learn a more nuanced approach to some subjects while on the job. For example: “The Israel-Palestine issue is not as black and white as she may have initially thought; it’s not just Israel are the good guys, and Palestine the bad guys, which is how she was initially characterizing it,” the longtime UN watcher says.

Big issues

The main issues Haley focuses on have received a pricklier response among some in New York. Under pressure from a president who wants to slash the organization’s budget and has said the UN can be a “waste of time and money,” Haley has pushed for cuts in spending on peacekeeping and called for widespread reforms to the organization as a whole—in particular, its Human Rights Council.

The UN did eventually agree to cut $600 million from peacekeeping operations—a bit more half of what Haley had reportedly demanded at first—but her efforts to portray them as an earnest push for greater efficiency have been seen as a touch crude. “When you go in with an attitude of ‘you have to make cuts,’ you do question whether it’s really about making the whole system more efficient or being able to hold up a piece of paper saying, the US saved money here,” the former Obama official says.

Nonetheless, she emerged from the negotiations looking reasonable, especially coming from an administration that could have sent someone far more obdurate. The cuts will let peacekeepers keep working without any serious harm to operations, experts say. “Many UN watchers believe it could have been much worse,” says Patrick, author of a forthcoming book, The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World.

Moreover, resentment in New York at her budget-cutting is tempered by the fact Haley has been a fervent defender of the UN and American diplomacy in Washington, the senior Washington foreign-policy figure said. She’s been “instrumental in making sure the Senate basically repudiated the White House’s proposed cuts to the State department,” he said. Partly thanks to her efforts, it looks like almost all the originally proposed State department and USAID cuts, as well as a lot of the cuts to the UN budget, will be avoided, he said.

Haley’s attempts to reform the Human Rights Council have made less progress. She’s pursued two longstanding American aims: to prevent so many states that are themselves flagrant human-rights abusers (such as Saudi Arabia) being allowed on the council, and to make the body soften its criticisms of Israel. Her sole bargaining tactic so far, though, has been to threaten to leave the council if other countries don’t acquiesce.

“That’s not a great set-up…in the way she’s framed this, these issues are pretty much impossible to achieve,” says the former Obama official. “She could try to pick them off in a way that could drive forward realistic progress but you can’t do that by playing them as a zero-sum game.” It doesn’t exactly help that Saudi Arabia is one of Trump’s closest allies.

In the quest for wider reforms, however, Haley has found a handy and unexpected ally: the UN’s secretary-general, António Guterres, who took office barely a month before she did. Trump’s and Haley’s push for a cheaper UN that’s less dependent on America dovetails conveniently with the aims of Guterres, who has made streamlining its inefficient bureaucracy a hallmark policy of his tenure. “Ironically, the Trump administration could help midwife reforms to make the UN more effective and more efficient—which is not, I think, what the president promised on the campaign trail,” says Gowan.

Haley and Guterres took a big first step towards this by engineering a meeting on Sept. 18 between Trump and the leaders of around a dozen other countries to discuss UN reforms—with the stipulation that everyone has to sign on to a vague American wishlist beforehand. Whether the meeting will achieve anything concrete is another matter, but getting Trump in a room to discuss reforms rather than throwing stones at the body from the sidelines is a coup in itself.

Nikki Haley, secretary of State?

The plaudits Haley has gained put her in sharp contrast to her immediate boss. Where Haley has been vocal during crises, Tillerson has equivocated. Where the South Carolinian has trumpeted her successes, the Texan has occupied the background. With Tillerson disappearing home to Texas and not even issuing a statement during the latest North Korean missile crisis, some have been questioning how long it might be until Haley gets the call-up to replace him.

If that happens, it may well prove a poisoned chalice. While Haley enjoys freedom to maneuver and speak her mind in New York, she’d find herself far more constrained in Washington, in close contact with Trump and with the world’s press focused on her every move, the former Obama official said.

“Trump will make statements that talk over you and change or undermine your policy; he’ll have meetings with heads of state that you’ll constantly have to second-guess and try to rework,” Bremmer said. Nonetheless, Haley’s sheer political talent would give her a better chance of success than the man currently in place, he says. “Someone who is savvy politically, [and] can build alliances and coalitions inside the administration is likely to do better than someone who expects everyone to come to them. I think Tillerson could have been a great secretary of State in other administrations but really not this one.”

While those political instincts would undoubtedly help her in the job, they may also stop her getting it. “She’s in a rather precarious position because it’s clear that at times Trump and Tillerson have become irritated with the amount of good press she’s getting,” Gowan says.

That means treading an extra-careful path as the world fixes its gaze on the attention-loving US president next week in New York. “While Haley has been a star at the UN, she’s going to have to spend General Assembly week trying to look like a servant in a sense,” Gowan says. “She needs to reassure the president that she isn’t using her base up here as a platform to outshine him or even potentially plan to replace to him in 2020.”

With a normal president in power, you’d expect a person of Haley’s political talents to negotiate that task with ease. But with Donald Trump, who can predict the kinds of fires she might be called on to put out?