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The unbearable lightness of being Donald Trump’s UN ambassador

Nikki Haley human rights US leadership UN ambassador
Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley is sworn in as UN ambassador.
  • Max de Haldevang
By Max de Haldevang

Geopolitics reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Foreign-policy wonks were baffled when Nikki Haley’s name was first floated for a senior diplomatic role in US president Donald Trump’s administration. Not only did the then-South Carolina governor have no background in foreign affairs, she had precious little experience outside her small home state—and was a big Trump critic to boot. Her eventual appointment as UN ambassador looked like a classic cynical boss move: co-opt a critic and send her far away from the real action.

Now preparing to take over the UN security council’s one-month rotating presidency in April, Haley gave her first talk to foreign-policy experts on March 29, at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. She revealed priorities often in stark contrast to those of her anti-globalist, international institution-wary, human rights-agnostic boss, but not much grasp of how to advance her agenda.

Reflecting on the talk later, CFR’s global governance director, Stewart Patrick, characterized points she made as “disingenuous,” “deeply problematic,” showing “a certain amount of naiveté” and an “enormous disconnect” with Trump’s own stated views.

Human rights

In an opening speech, Haley lambasted Russian, Syrian, Iranian, and North Korean human-rights abuses. “The United States is the moral conscience of the world. We will not walk away from this role, but we will insist that our participation in the UN honor and reflect this role,” she said. “For me, human rights are at the heart of the mission of the United Nations.”

It was quite a disconnect from the way Trump has addressed—or rather ignored—such matters. “How outraged she was by Russia’s behavior was in striking contrast to the moral relativism that the president has at times expressed,” Patrick said in a phone interview. “You work for a president who hasn’t said boo about human rights since he was elected or beforehand and his secretary of State [Rex Tillerson] hasn’t exactly made it a priority.”

That’s probably an understatement: The most attention the matter has received since Trump took office has been at moments such as when Tillerson upended decades of precedent by not showing up to announce the release of the State Department’s annual human-rights report. Indeed, hours after Haley’s speech, Tillerson decided to sweeten up authoritarian Bahrain by lifting all human rights conditions on a sale of F-16 fighter jets.

Reforming the UN

Haley’s relationship with the UN seems caught in an uncomfortable bind. She argued the UN is “absolutely” needed, even though it is ”basically a club,” with “rules and a culture” that are ”becoming stale.” She characterized herself as an outsider ready to bring in crucial reforms. But that’s a lot more enthusiasm than shown by Trump, who who has called the UN ”a waste of time and money” in its present state and threatened it with hefty cuts.

Sensing this divide, the CFR’s president, Richard Haass, asked Haley if she was ”out on a limb” in her seeming embrace of the institution. The question seemed to make her uncomfortable. She tried to laugh it off—”It’s like you want me to answer it a certain way. That was too funny in the way you worded that.” She then gave a lengthy, somewhat evasive answer that boiled down to: whatever the president decides, she’ll go along with.

Haass also challenged her on how the US could “lead” at the UN—a word she had used more than once—when it’s also threatening to slash the institution’s budget. Her answer suggested that budget cuts and US security interests could, indeed, overrule leadership and international collaboration. ”I think that what you saw with [Trump’s proposed] budget was really trying to figure out what our priorities are,” she said. “And I think the president’s saying, ‘Ok, first, we’ve got to make sure our military is strong, the equipment is good, everything is in place so that we can protect the people of the United States. And then I think he’s saying, ‘Ok, where are the rest of the priorities?'”

She also revealed a number of cost-saving measures (“pinching pennies,” Patrick called them) at the US mission that would probably only make her stated goal of reforming the UN more difficult, such as deciding not to fill 18 open jobs and pushing people to not work overtime. “If you actually had ambitions for the institutions why would you take that stance unless it was part and parcel of trying to kill the foreign-policy arm of the administrative state?” Patrick asks—an allusion to Trump adviser Stephen Bannon’s call for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Haley’s reform proposals, meanwhile, suggest more a naive student than a wily outsider. One of her promises was to use her presidency of the security council to put human rights front and center there, saying that it “has never had a session focused exclusively on human rights.” On the surface that seems like a laudable aim—the security council is, after all, the UN’s top decision-making body, and the UN human rights council is famously ineffectual.

But it’s a simplistic idea, Patrick argues. The security council is, if anything, an even worse venue for human rights, since regimes like Russia and China can veto any proposal they don’t like. ”The security council was paralyzed on Syria because structurally it’s set up so that if one of the permanent five disagrees and wields a veto no action is going to be taken,” he said. “Ironically, at the same time the human rights council took quite a lot of strong action with respect to Syria.”

Leader of the free world?

This leaves perhaps the starkest contrast between Haley’s and Trump’s views: Should their worldview be “America First,” as Trump advocates? Or America, “moral conscience of the world,” as Haley put it, after describing as “gut-wrenching” another ambassador’s appeal for the US “to lead again”? It’s an “enormous disconnect,” Patrick says, and points to a “major fissure” between the neoconservative, internationalist wing of the Republican party and the nativist, dog-eat-dog approach that Trump has been touting.

If, from her New York pulpit, Haley does want to stand up for that more orthodox wing of Republican diplomacy, she’s going to have learn fast where to fight her battles—and grab hold of any resources she can.

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