Was Nikki Haley “as good as it gets” for the UN under Trump?

Trump accepted Haley’s resignation.
Trump accepted Haley’s resignation.
Image: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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Back in 2016, rumors that Nikki Haley was lined up to be US secretary of State or UN ambassador were met with derision from analysts and UN insiders. The then-South Carolina governor had almost no experience outside her home state, let alone internationally.

But Donald Trump appointed Haley to the UN anyway. After two years, she will leave her post at the end of 2018, she announced this morning. And today, the feeling at the UN is that Haley was “about as good as it can get under Trump,” says Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the United Nations University.

Despite fears that seasoned diplomats from Russia and China would outplay this folksy politician, she leaves her job with an excellent reputation both in New York and Washington. “Haley actually played her political hand remarkably well and really had an unusual level of political clout for a UN ambassador in a Republican administration,” Gowan says.

Her major wins include a series of sanctions on North Korea, and a partnership with UN secretary general Antonio Guterres to reform the institution. She achieved these victories in part by leveraging one thing—Donald Trump.

Trump the “madman”

The job seemed a poisoned chalice, at first. At the UN, Haley would represent a president who had called the organization “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” Trump was also threatening to aggressively defund the UN, and, on the campaign trail, had attacked two major multilateral achievements: the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal.

But Haley’s number one tactic in negotiating the North Korea sanctions was to make use of the threats, essentially deploying the Nixonian “madman theory.” She would constantly remind the Chinese of the “unpredictability of president Trump,” she told students at the University of Houston earlier this year.

Haley said that in disagreements over China’s support for Pyongyang, she would tell negotiators, “I can’t promise you that President Trump won’t use the military. I can’t promise that there won’t be a more forceful action, so why can’t we do this and see if we can start to cut the revenue in North Korea?”

She eventually helped deliver three sets of sanctions on the rogue regime, which were seen as an important factor in bringing Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table with Trump. Whether the push for denuclearization on the peninsular will actually work remains to be seen, however.

An unlikely alliance: Haley and Guterres

Haley also managed to channel Trump’s disdain for the UN into a surprisingly constructive reform agenda. This came through an unlikely alliance with UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, the socialist former Portuguese prime minister.

Guterres’ push for reforms to streamline the bureaucracy was backed up by Haley’s threats to slash vital UN funding. This convinced bureaucrats and diplomats that reform really was needed. ”[Guterres and Haley] formed a rather effective double act,” says Gowan. “The fact that the US was making some pretty scary noises about defunding the UN did focus the mind wonderfully.”

It will be a while before we know how effective the reforms have actually been, as they wend their way through the UN system and are slowly put in place. But efforts to reorganize the UN’s peacekeeping and mediation departments should at least make the system slightly leaner and more efficient, Gowan says.

Stumbling blocks

Her ability to work with the UN, however, has not kept a rift from opening between the US and the organization. In June, after a year of complaints about the UN Human Rights Council’s alleged bias against Israel, the US withdrew from the committee. And it cut all US funding—$350 million in 2017—from the UN agency that supports 5 million Palestinian refugees.

Haley also failed to win support at the UN for some of the White House’s major foreign policy stances—albeit ones that were never likely to find many supporters in the organization.

Washington’s decision to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem was met with humiliating slap-downs from the international community. In the UN General Assembly, 128 countries voted against the move in a non-binding resolution, with only nine supporting the US—despite Haley publicly threatening those who didn’t support the move. They lost 14 to 1 in the Security Council, with old allies Britain and France opposing them. Haley was flabbergasted by these losses, a senior UN official told Quartz. Fortunately for her, the US is able to veto Security Council resolutions, so the embassy is moving anyway.

Similarly, Haley never won any ground on the White House’s attitude towards Iran, and the decision to pull out of the nuclear deal. Attempts to convene a special Security Council session on Iran during the UN’s high-level General Assembly week mostly revealed White House chaos, as the meeting’s theme was hurriedly switched to “non-proliferation” to avoid a diplomatic standoff. In the meeting itself, British prime minister Theresa May and China’s foreign minister Wang Yi both defended the Iran deal from Trump’s attacks.

Who next?

Haley was a vocal Trump critic during the 2016 campaign, and some say he gave her the job to pacify her. She leaves office firmly on Team Trump, but has maintained an reputation for independence through a striking willingness to publicly contradict the administration on big issues. These include becoming the first cabinet official to criticize Russian aggression in Crimea, saying that women who accuse men of sexual misconduct “should be heard,” and rejecting attempts to blame her for White House errors.

The approach shaped her as the friendlier, more moderate face of Trump foreign policy—even if it wasn’t always clear whether she was really speaking for the administration, or for herself.

Most UN insiders expected Haley to stay in the job for around two years and then head off to higher office, Gowan says. The concern has always been who would replace her. Richard Grenell, the hardline ambassador to Germany and former US spokesman at the UN, has emerged as a favorite replacement. That would not go down well at the UN—he was unpopular during his time there and has made a habit of riling the Germans.

Her departure could prompt a “real slash and burn approach to the UN” from the US, Gowan says. “We may look back on Haley as the last real US ambassador to the UN before the deluge.”