OPINION | Welcome to Nikki Haley’s era of American diplomacy

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As the Trump spectacle enters its eighth month, it is the rare senior administration official whose reputation remains intact, much less enhanced. The brightest remaining star may be Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. As chaos engulfs the White House and the State Department descends into irrelevance, the former South Carolina governor has emerged as a vigorous, independent voice in U.S. foreign policy, burnishing her credentials within the Republican Party.

The job of U.N. envoy entails a constant high wire act. The ambassador must advance U.S. interests and promote the president’s agenda while assuring skeptical legislators and citizens that they are getting their money’s worth from an organization many consider enemy-occupied territory and an infringement on U.S. sovereignty. Simultaneously, she must demonstrate sufficient diplomatic virtuosity to forge effective international responses to global threats.

{mosads}This is no simple task. U.S.-U.N. relations are fraught at the best of times. Since 1990, U.S.-U.N. relations have careened from euphoria about a “new world order” under George H.W. Bush to Sen. Jesse Helms’s (R-N.C.) determination to withhold U.S. dues to the world body, and from George W. Bush’s bypassing the “irrelevant” U.N. in the Iraq War to Barack Obama’s warm embrace of multilateralism.


Last November’s U.S. election seemed to guarantee a return to confrontation. A populist nationalist was headed to the White House, supported by a Republican congressional caucus convinced that the U.N. was a hotbed of corruption and haven for anti-American (and anti-Israel) sentiment. The United Nations appeared destined to be crushed between the administration’s hammer and the legislature’s anvil.

That hasn’t happened. And Ambassador Haley deserves much of the credit for preventing a total breakdown in U.S.-U.N. relations. Haley’s success comes as a surprise. She was a foreign policy neophyte. Her early bravado about “taking names” and punishing U.S. adversaries grated on U.N. diplomats. Her first public speech was a muddled mess.

But she has since found her footing, becoming the administration’s most compelling foreign policy voice, endearing herself to Republican realists and neoconservatives alike in the process. While the president continues to coddle the Kremlin, Haley has blasted Russia for aggression in Ukraine and Syria and condemned Putin’s government for hacking the 2016 election.

Exploiting her Cabinet status, Haley is challenging the putative foreign policy leadership of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has become marginalized within the administration and virtually absent on the global stage. As Tillerson busies himself with downsizing the State Department — and sees more of his portfolio outsourced to the Defense and Treasury departments — Haley fills the vacuum. And although the State Department has tried to rein in Haley’s freelancing, it is not clear that she is willing to take guidance from a department in turmoil.

Human rights is a case in point. Tillerson apparently interprets “America first” as abandoning the promotion of freedom. Not so Haley, who devoted the U.S. presidency of the U.N. Security Council in April to human rights. (As she later explained, “I think ‘America first’ is human rights.”) While President Trump cozies up to strongmen, Haley has called out abusers “like Venezuela, Cuba, China, Burundi and Saudi Arabia” on the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Far more than Tillerson, Haley enjoys political cover on Capitol Hill, including from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.). She has reassured GOP leaders that she will hold the U.N. to account and “find value” for U.S. taxpayers.

Indeed, she has already delivered them some relief, negotiating a more than $500 million cut to the annual U.N. peacekeeping budget. Tillerson’s own June testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, meanwhile, elicited eye-rolling from Corker, incredulous at his protracted timeline for restructuring the State Department.

Finally, Haley has developed a decent working relationship with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. The two share a pragmatic interest in U.N. management reform. This opens the potential for a fruitful “good cop-bad cop” dynamic, as Guterres holds out the implicit threat of a harder line by Haley if other member states fail to get on board.

Haley’s signature diplomatic achievement to date was securing unanimous passage on of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2371 earlier this month. It represents the most aggressive sanctions regime ever imposed on North Korea, in response to Pyongyang’s testing of increasingly capable intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Haley’s solid performance in New York fuels speculation that she may have grander ambitions in mind, as the future face of the Republican Party. While using her position as a springboard to the Oval Office would be unconventional, the example of George H.W. Bush, who served as U.N. ambassador from 1971 to 1973, suggests that it is no hindrance.

Haley’s honeymoon could yet prove short-lived. One worry is the budget. During her confirmation hearing, the governor heartened international observers by pledging to avoid a “slash and burn approach” to U.N. funding. But the administration’s fiscal 2018 budget promises precisely that, implying massive cuts in funding U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian relief.

In May, Haley visited Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey, where she touted the U.N.’s life-saving work that her own administration would jeopardize. The U.N.’s budget woes will become even more dire if the White House implements its misguided plan to reclassify U.S.-assessed contributions to the U.N. as “voluntary.”

But the biggest threat to Haley’s charmed tenure is the impending arrival of her boss in the corridors of the United Nations. On Sept. 19, Trump will make his first speech before the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly, marking an event that may reveal just how precarious Haley’s tightrope act is.

What message will the oft-unscripted president deliver to the world body, including when it comes to human rights? How belligerent might the domestically-embattled president become, confronting a global audience for whom his core supporters have nothing but disdain? Ambassador Haley may soon discover that keeping a colleague on message is a challenge that can run in two directions.

Stewart Patrick is the James Binger senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World.”

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Barack Obama Bob Corker Diplomacy Donald Trump Foreign policy international affairs Nikki Haley Nikki Haley Rex Tillerson Rex Tillerson State Department United Nations United States
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