Nikki Haley, the Trump administration’s ambassador to the United Nations took her ambitious plans and convictions about the role of the United States in the UN to the center of New York’s foreign policy establishment: the Council on Foreign Relations. Her central message, delivered on March 29, was that the UN needs the “breath of fresh air” that she can bring to an organization with a sclerotic, clubby culture that needs change.
In a prepared speech and answering questions from members of the Council on Foreign Relations and its president, Richard Haass, a former US State Department policy planner, Haley was short on specifics about what White House financial cuts are likely be made to US assessments and voluntary contributions to UN budgets and programs. She said that many general measures that have been proposed in two Trump budget memos to Congress would be left to legislators to act on concretely. But she was unambiguous about a firm US decision to reduce the US assessment in the UN peacekeeping budget to 25 percent, from its current 28 percent. Other US budget proposals are expected by the end of April.
Haley, who presented her plans as she takes the Security Council rotating presidency in April, reiterated much of what she told American senators in her confirmation hearing in January, questioning the “value” to Americans of the UN Human Rights Council, from which the Trump administration may withdraw and which she described as populated by “bad actors” and “so corrupt.”
She did not mention the probably doomed US contributions to the UN Population Fund, the world’s largest provider of family planning needs and maternal health care. The US paid a total of $69 million to the fund last year in core budget financing and supplementary contributions. Haley also glossed over Unesco, which the US stopped paying its dues to in 2011, when the Palestinians were admitted as members. The US maintained its membership but at a reduced level. More active American diplomatic involvement was later restored with the appointment of a new ambassador, though financial records of Unesco, which is based in Paris, show that the US has not resumed contributions since 2011 and is more than $500 million in arrears.
In her opening remarks to the foreign-policy experts in New York and webcast live, Haley, a former governor of South Carolina who is a neophyte in foreign affairs with virtually no multilateral experience, breezily equated the UN with the South Carolina state legislature, her only other institutional history.
“The UN Security Council, just like the South Carolina legislature, is basically a club,” she said. “And the thing about clubs is that they have rules, and they have a culture. . . . I’ve approached my job at the UN in the same way I did in South Carolina. I’m working to change the culture.”
“So much energy is spent on the same old things,” Haley said. “Meanwhile, the UN is missing the growing discontent and growing distrust among the people it is supposed to represent. The fact is, a wave is building throughout the world. It’s a wave of populism that is challenging institutions like the United Nations and shaking them to their foundations.”
Haley returned often to her almost messianic vision. “I came to the UN with the goal of showing the American people value for investment in this institution. . . . I’m talking about making the UN an effective tool on behalf of our values. . . . The United States is the moral conscience of the world. We will not walk away from this role.”
Haley described how she planned to focus on two major issues as Security Council president in April: bringing human rights to the Council’s agenda and conducting “strategic reviews” of peacekeeping missions, which she described in vague terms. She suggested turning protection-of-civilian duties over to host governments, and not to international troops, to avoid the tendency of creating dependencies.
“It might surprise many Americans to learn that human rights violations have not been considered an appropriate subject for discussion in the Security Council,” Haley said. “This is the rule the club has created. The Security Council has never had a session focused exclusively on human rights. Human rights are left separate to others.”
She addressed the catastrophic disintegration of Syria, saying, at one point: “Together with Russia and Iran, the Assad regime has destroyed each and every hospital in east Aleppo. A quarter-million people are left to suffer. These are war crimes.”
She charged the Security Council with an unnecessary failure to stop Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, suggesting that she would reopen the issue, without mentioning a series of Russian (and Chinese) vetoes. “It will be very telling if any country tries to block this debate,” she said.
Elaborating on peacekeeping, Haley said: “One of the ways the UN does its best work and shows its greatest value is through peacekeeping operations. But here again, the rules of the club intervene . . . too often we’ve gotten bogged down in parochial questions. We’ve missed the forest for the trees. During the US presidency, I intend to do something different: we will lay out a comprehensive vision for how peacekeeping missions should be reviewed moving forward.”
Haley did not refer to the painstaking, comprehensive series of peacekeeping reform studies conducted over the past two decades.
In handling other questions from a knowledgeable audience, she seemed unprepared on the subject of Security Council reform, the possibility of reintroducing trusteeship to deal with failed nations like South Sudan or where the Trump administration’s priorities lie in international affairs.
“The president is going to make the decisions,” she said, adding that increased spending on the military is the foremost aim of the White House. On immigration — she is the daughter of immigrants from India — she said she accepted the need for restrictions, especially on refugees, whose entry she had halted in South Carolina.
“The president wants no danger to come into the country,” she added, noting the terrorist attack in London on March 22.
Quickly, Haass pointed out that the terrorist in that incident was British born.
This article was updated on April 3, 2017.
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.