Nearly six months into her United Nations assignment, Ambassador Nikki Haley is aligning herself more decisively with President Donald Trump, defending some of his most controversial and unpopular moves.
It is a critical diplomatic time for the White House and for Haley, who is viewed around the UN mostly as a politician with big ambitions and not an envoy deeply involved in either the work of the UN for its own sake or international affairs more broadly. She seems to see her job primarily as saving the United States money by defending deep cuts in a wide range of UN work and other international programs.
With tensions in Washington erupting into shouting matches between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump advisers over White House interference in the secretary’s attempts to fill State Department vacancies, the obvious question is whether Haley could be in line to move into Tillerson’s job should he quit. She once remarked that Trump had been considering her for the position during his transition to the presidency, a fuzzy assertion that she herself tempered, but it was not publicly contradicted by Trump.
On June 28, Haley stunned members of the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee when, during a hearing on US-UN relations, she said she rarely speaks with Tillerson, for whom she is at least theoretically working. She has focused instead on the National Security Council for consultation and advice, where her closest relationships are with H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, and Jim Mattis, the defense secretary.
“We work as a team,” she told the committee members who questioned whether the administration was mired in chaos and was unpredictable. “There is a very organized process in place.” She said the White House never told her what or what not to say at the UN.
A popular, self-confident former governor of South Carolina, Haley is described in New York as a personable and engaging presence, even by those who abhor Trump’s policies, a former US diplomat said. Remembered for having removed a Confederate flag from the state capital after murders of parishioners in an African-American church in Charleston, she still speaks from her own convictions, as she did during her confirmation hearings in the Senate in January. She leads a sometimes lonely campaign for more international attention to the violence in Venezuela.
Recently, however, she has been tailoring public comments to fit the prevailing mood and signals from the White House. Once willing to say that Russia could be guilty of war crimes in Syria, she is now merely “calling out” — one of her favorite phrases — the Russians and the Iranians on the consequences of not preventing another chemical weapons strike by the Syrians.
Her tone can be shrill. Welcoming the decision by Trump to reverse the opening to Cuba by President Barack Obama, her public statement verged on a call for regime change: “The Cuban dictatorship is one of the most oppressive in the world,” she said. “It denies its people the most basic freedoms. That did not change under the previous administration’s policy. President Trump did the right thing. American dollars must not be used to support the Cuban military and regime. The people of Cuba will have freedom one day. This announcement is about helping that day arrive sooner.”
In Congressional testimony, Haley seemed unmoved by pointed questioning from both Republicans and Democrats on the Trump budget proposals that would cut off or severely slash American funds to the UN Population Fund, Unicef, UN Women and the World Food Program, among other components of the UN system.
Haley was proud to take credit for a $500 million reduction in current UN peacekeeping operations expenditures, which prompted some Congress members to question the wisdom of these cuts, given the turbulence in the world. Moreover, Trump says the US will unilaterally reduce US peacekeeping dues across the board in the future from 28 percent of the overall peacekeeping budget to 25 percent, setting up a confrontation in negotiations looming in December in the General Assembly Committee on Contributions. These dues are not optional.
Asked in Congress for her reaction to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, against the advice of Tillerson and others, Haley replied, “What the president did was in the best interest of businesses and the best interest of the country.” Meanwhile, Trump’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, was unraveling regulations that have made America more environment-friendly.
Haley repeatedly takes credit for convening the first Security Council session solely on human rights, a move not unrelated to putting the UN Human Rights Council on notice that the US could withdraw if the Human Rights Council did not meet two American demands: competitive elections to the 47-member body instead of the current system of regional groups presenting preordained slates of countries; and the deletion of an agenda provision known as Item 7, singling out Israel for periodic review.
Turning over human rights to the Security Council will never happen, and her promise to address the Human Rights Council in June amounted to a three-minute appearance. Her reform plan was delivered later at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, where the international audience was more amused — a ripple of laughter crossed the hall at one point — than impressed.