Is Nikki Haley Using the UN as a Political Ladder?

The uncanny success of Nikki Haley in becoming the most public and quotable voice on President Trump’s foreign-policy team, combined with the telegenic United Nations ambassador’s apparent disinterest in the nuts and bolts of how it actually works, has piqued speculation among New York’s busy diplomats and idle diplomat-watchers alike: what is Haley’s game plan?

Ambassador Haley visits Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, where she laid a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance. Photo Credit: US EMBASSY

The former South Carolina governor is clearly a political animal wandering a landscape of diplomatic plants. And, just as Madeleine Albright easily outshined the contentedly colorless Warren Christopher, Haley is blessed with a near-invisible secretary of state in Rex Tillerson.

Unlike Albright, however, Haley isn’t gunning to be Tillerson’s successor when the time comes. Rather, she seems to be positioning herself to become Trump’s.

That, at least, is what Haley-watchers in New York are concluding. The very notion that a country’s permanent representative to the United Nations (the official title) could use the post as a springboard to the presidency is deeply unsettling to European diplomats who all come from career foreign-policy bureaucracies. At best, one might dream of capping one’s career, and sweetening one’s pension, as foreign minister.

But president? In a country where politicians on the right are still campaigning against the UN? How is it possible?

America, history shows, is the land of infinite possibility, where a lowly UN ambassador can rise to become leader of the Free World. George H. W. Bush is proof. And Haley is a far hotter political asset than Bush ever was, with a more direct path from the UN to the Oval Office than Bush had.

Facing career extinction after losing a Senate bid in Texas, Bush asked President Nixon for the UN post, arguing he could raise the president’s profile in the nation’s capital of finance, media and high society. Foreign-policy expertise was not required. When the nomination was announced, Bush’s Yale classmate, Ohio Congressman Lud Ashley, incredulously asked him, “What the fuck do you know about foreign policy?” — a question also asked, if perhaps more politely, regarding Governor Haley’s qualifications.

Though Barbara Bush was likewise incredulous — “we hated the UN in Texas,” she pointedly objected — her husband threw himself into the job, making connections in both diplomatic and social circles in New York and coming surprisingly close, in the battle over Chinese representation at the world body, to keeping a seat for Chiang Kai-shek’s government in Taipei.

He gained enviable foreign-policy credentials from that service, which he would later burnish as US mission chief in Beijing and as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He drew on his UN experience as president two decades later to assemble a strong Security Council coalition on Kuwait and establish himself as a remarkably successful foreign-policy president.

Perhaps Haley does not want to wait two decades. She can take heart from the success of Dwight Eisenhower’s UN ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., in landing the Republican nomination for vice president in 1960 while still at the UN. True, the Nixon-Lodge ticket lost to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson by the narrowest of margins, but Lodge’s UN tenure had given the one-time ex-Congressman the stature for a national nomination.

Unlike Bush and Lodge, Haley does not descend from New England’s Yankee Republican elite (now extinct). Rather, she is the gift from central casting for national Republican strategists terrified about the party’s long-term demographic trap that its angry older white male base has set for them. Young, photogenic, a woman, a minority of color (her parents immigrated from India), the pragmatic Haley improbably rose to the top in a state whose reactionary brand of Republicanism was fossilized in the person of Strom Thurmond.

Haley could be a mortal threat to the ambitions of the many white male Republicans hungering for the Oval Office. With her bully pulpit at the UN, she will be.

At the UN, she uniquely commands the spotlight as the American engaged in debate daily on vexing international controversies. Her predecessor in the Ford administration, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, demonstrated that confrontation in front of UN cameras can generate considerable political capital. Moynihan had, for instance, paid scant attention to warning signs of an Arab resolution linking Zionism with racism in 1975, but he emerged as Israel’s eloquent rhetorical champion once it became unstoppable. His televised moment — declaring “the inmates have taken over the lunatic asylum” — endeared him to New York’s outraged Jewish community and catapulted him into the US Senate a year later.

Haley too seems to sense the opportunities that rhetorical confrontation can provide for ingratiating oneself with domestic constituencies. Though the UN ambassador does not deal with US-Cuban bilateral relations, she won prompt press attention for praising President Trump’s rollback of the Obama administration’s renewal of diplomatic ties.

“The Cuban dictatorship is one of the most oppressive in the world. It denies its people the most basic freedoms,” Haley said. “That did not change under the previous administration’s policy.”

While Cuba concerns an influential community concentrated in South Florida, supporters of Israel’s policies are more numerous, resourced and influential — and the UN is the pre-eminent international stage for debate on those policies.

Haley professes amazement that this ongoing Middle East conflict appears on the Security Council’s regular agenda, affirms Trump’s “ironclad support” for Israel and has vowed to “never repeat the terrible mistake” of Obama’s ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, in not vetoing a resolution critical of Israeli settlements.

“I know the settlements issue is going to be an area of contention,” she told a rabbi worried that settlement expansion was impeding a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians, “but they’ve got to work it out” themselves.

On Iran, so closely related to the politics around Israel, she is similarly critical of the Obama administration’s efforts. Even as senior UN officials say they are “deeply encouraged” by Iran’s implementation of its nuclear obligations and the European Union affirms “Iran’s nuclear program has been rolled back and placed under tight inspections,” Haley claims “violations” and demands that the Security Council “show Iran that we will not tolerate their egregious flaunting of UN resolutions.”

Perhaps what lies behind the Council’s indifference to American alarm, she suggests, is that a shadowy “international elite had other priorities for Iran.”

On these concerns, Haley seems in lockstep with the views of the president; that they dovetail with the concerns of impassioned constituencies that donate generously in Republican primaries is a happy coincidence. There are other areas where Haley seems to have leeway to enunciate views that are a bit distinct from what is known of the president’s but that fit more comfortably with the traditions of Washington’s conservative foreign-policy establishment.

While Trump has sought a new modus vivendi with Russia, Haley has not pulled punches about the Kremlin’s “aggressive” disposition. She said in her Security Council debut that “the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.” She insists on “an obvious truth” about Syria — “that Assad, Russia and Iran have no interest in peace.”

And while, aside from Cuba, the Trump administration has utterly abandoned the promotion of human rights, Haley unwaveringly avers that the Security Council “cannot continue to be silent when we see widespread violations of human rights.” Indeed, she volunteers, “For me, human rights are at the heart of the mission of the United Nations.”

Haley’s embrace of human rights puts her squarely in the post-Reagan Republican mainstream. Yet she disdains the UN’s machinery to sustain them.

“I mean,” she told the Council on Foreign Relations, “the Human Rights Council is so corrupt.” What corruption actually means in the Trump era is unclear — Hillary Clinton’s emails? The Trump family’s businesses? Governments’ maneuvering to avoid censure? But this much is quite clear: attacks on this UN body are cost-free in contemporary Republican politics.

What Haley has not yet done is risk her growing political capital by fulfilling the other representational function of an effective ambassador: reporting frankly and fairly back home — to the Congress and American people as well as to the president and secretary of state — the views and arguments of her interlocutors from the rest of the world.

Testifying before Congress in June, she acknowledged no downside to slashing or eliminating US funding for Unicef, the World Food Program, the UN Development Program or UN Women, though US diplomats at the UN have expressed consternation at the loss of American influence such cuts would cause. She has not warned Congress that cutting funds for peacekeeping troops out in the field could reignite tamped-down conflicts.

America’s most effective UN ambassadors — like Obama’s Samantha Power or the elder Bush’s Thomas Pickering — communicated realities in both directions between Washington and New York. They ended up forging winning coalitions for purposeful action at the UN on a wide range of issues.

Successful politicians making the most of a short stay at the UN may perhaps focus more on issues that resonate with domestic constituencies, media and donors. If that is Haley’s career choice, her service at the UN should prove a unique ladder to national leadership that few competitors in her party can match.



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Independent Coverage the United Nations. A project of The New School’s Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, supported by the Carnegie Corporation.