Whatever the real reason that led Donald Trump to name Nikki Haley as his ambassador to the United Nations — that she is a “deal-maker,” a woman from an ethnic minority and a moderate Republican voice he may want to remove from South Carolina — a wave of justifiable pride in many Indians and Indian-Americans has greeted his choice. Their expectations are high not only for her success, despite her complete lack of international experience, but also for what she could do for India from her UN position and influence. Her Senate confirmation is expected to go well.
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, a Hindu zealot in tune with many of Trump’s nationalist political instincts, has lavished praise on Haley ever since he came to power in 2014. Well before the American election, Modi invited her and her family to be his guests in India, where she promoted investment in South Carolina and visited Amritsar, the global center of the Sikh religion, in Punjab state. That is the region Haley’s parents had emigrated from in the 1960s.
Born Nimrata Randhawa and raised a Sikh as a child in South Carolina, she converted to Christianity as an adult, but this has apparently not dented her following among an important Hindu-nationalist, upper-caste lobby in the US, nor the increasingly powerful pro-Modi Indian-American business world. Many successful Indians, especially in small or medium companies in the US, are from Gujarat, Modi’s home base. They always provide a boisterous cheering section for Modi and his policies in India, which are in rocky shape right now because of ad hoc economic decisions, not unlike Trump’s off-the-cuff promises. The two share a dislike for institutions and procedure; neither one of them holds traditional news conferences and both disdain reporters.
Among the first meetings that Trump held in his Trump Tower aerie after his election victory in November was one with Indian businessmen who are building a Trump-branded luxury apartment complex near Mumbai, India’s business and financial capital. A photograph of the four men, thumbs up, appeared in Indian media but was not circulated by the Trump team in the US.
India has counted on the US to keep the tragic issue of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir — the Indian side being held under repressive military occupation — out of the UN Security Council’s purview. India has tested nuclear weapons twice, egging on Pakistan to emulate and not be left behind in the South Asian arms race. Yet Indian governments have refused to sign the NPT, or the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), while demanding international approval of its bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The US has backed India’s application, but it has been blocked by China and other nations.
What Haley can do to help India and Indian-Americans, strictly unofficially since India has an active and influential mission to the UN just two blocks from the grander US diplomatic mission facing the UN, is to present a good image of an Indian-American success story and to be a hospitable go-between in Indian-American relations. She will hold a permanent seat in the Security Council, a body that India desperately wants to join to show itself as a global power, though the chances of that happening are remote, since Council reform campaigns have stagnated. In addition, India could face a Chinese veto.
It is too early to say what plans may be in store in the US among Indian-American citizens or residents the Indian government tellingly calls “non-resident Indians” or “people of Indian origin,” to make the most of Haley’s newly created international presence. Trump may have given them hope when he said that what he liked about Haley was “She is . . . a proven deal-maker, and we look to be making plenty of deals.”
There is widespread agreement that Haley, who is 44, has no experience in international affairs, apart from business trips abroad in search of foreign investment for her state, where she was first elected governor in 2010, with Tea Party- Republican support. Her university degree is in accounting, and her political life has been confined to South Carolina, a state with about five million people.
Sunil Adam, a leading Indian-American journalist and the editor of a news site, India Abroad, said that the Haley appointment may have been made “to soften Mr. Trump’s image on the world stage.”
Adam added: “While her appointment will be received with great pride by Indian-Americans, the serious among them will wonder if she is qualified for a job that requires a wide knowledge of international affairs and proven diplomatic skills. The switch from Charleston to the United Nations is a big leap even for a woman of substance.”
As a woman, Haley has been preceded by three other female, post-Cold War US ambassadors to the UN, all of them powerful, extremely qualified women: Madeleine Albright, Susan Rice and Samantha Power. Comparisons stop there. Making “deals” may be one way to describe Security Council consultations and negotiations, but that does not even hint at the complexity of dealing as one of 15 Security Council members, five of which hold veto power, as well as the interests, policies and cultures of 193 nations, many of them instinctively opposed to American positions.
“Strategic realities and hard choices, not business-book negotiating skills, will determine the outcome of the Korea crisis,” the columnist Michael Gerson wrote in The Washington Post on Dec. 2, regarding North Korea’s increasing nuclear threats. “This is reality television — minus the television.” His comment could apply to many contentious issues fueling Security Council debates, most conducted behind closed doors.
India and Indian-Americans may have their expectations tested with the Haley appointment. In a bizarre telephone conversation with Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan, as transcribed in a readout by Pakistani officials and published by Time magazine, Trump heaped praise on India’s most hostile and dangerous neighbor, calling Sharif “a terrific guy . . . doing amazing work.”
Trump added: “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems,” according to the Pakistani readout.
“Please convey to the Pakistani people that they are amazing and all Pakistanis I have known are exceptional people,” Trump went on, telling Sharif that he should feel free to call him at any time, even before the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.