When working on sticky world problems, should the United States use the United Nations as a forum to try to drum up global support for its policies, reasoning that it gains strength by linking its interests to as many other countries as possible? Or should it stand alone in a blind embrace of President Trump’s America First credo, belittling other nations’ interests altogether?
If you’re Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, the answer to this seemingly obvious question unfortunately seems to be “both.”
It’s a no-brainer to appeal to other governments to join hands with Washington and support its methods and policies if they want to get the best results on thorny global problems. But it isn’t so clear that if they don’t agree with her on what is best, then they should expect a tongue-lashing and no US sympathy.
So after an Uzbeki supporter of ISIS snuffed out eight lives — including five Argentines and a Belgian — by driving a truck down a bicycle path less than four miles from UN headquarters, Haley wisely told the General Assembly on Nov. 1 that the nations of the world needed to unite to defeat terrorism.
“This hit our city. This is where we all come together and we work together,” she said. “If we stand together, we will once and for all defeat the evil.”
But moments later, when the debate turned to an Assembly resolution urging Washington to lift its decades-old embargo on trade with Cuba, Haley got pretty worked up over the fact that her point of view was opposed by 191 of the UN’s 193 members. (Israel was her only friend in this fight.)
“The United States does not fear isolation in this chamber or anywhere else,” Haley stunningly told her fellow diplomats, while accusing them of engaging in “political theater.” The vote was indeed largely symbolic because the General Assembly lacks the power to overturn US law.
Let’s get real: it was Haley herself who brought on the drama. She chose to dress-down her fellow ambassadors, at some length and in provocative language, for a vote to condemn an overwhelmingly unpopular US policy that has been repeated, with essentially the same result, annually for the past 26 years. The main difference this year was the chance for Haley to throw shade on Barack Obama and his UN ambassador at the time, Samantha Power.
That’s not the worst of it. Haley also felt it necessary to offer a completely breathtaking explanation for her vote against the Cuba resolution on which Power abstained in 2016. Or, in Haley’s words, how a single country was taking “such opposite positions” just a year apart.
“To those who are confused as to where the United States stands, let me be clear: as is their right under our constitution, the American people have spoken. They have chosen a new president, and he has chosen a new ambassador to the United Nations,” she said.
As if that were news at the UN.
Let’s not dwell too much on Haley’s insistence that a no vote and an abstention are opposite positions — since they are not. It may well be that she has yet to grapple with the concept of abstention during her relatively short UN tenure.
But Haley has no pipeline to the American people. No voter cast a ballot to send Haley to the UN. The line of her authority traces back to Trump, period. Haley is not voting on her own behalf. President Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur for a similar misconception. In fact, US diplomacy works best when it is practiced as a team sport, not as a competition of prima donnas.
Haley’s repeated insistence that she is free to make policy on her own, without the president or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson butting in, is one of the clearest signs of US foreign policymaking dysfunction. Strength and clarity come to an administration’s policies when the policymakers sing in harmony, from the same hymnal.
The absence of administration teamwork was also on display during Haley’s recent trip to Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Trump has shown little interest in Africa and asked Haley to visit the region after lunching with nine African leaders on the sidelines of the General Assembly opening session in September. At the luncheon, he referred to Namibia as Nambia and boasted that he had “so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich.”
So when Trump announced after lunch that he was sending Haley to Africa, as the most senior official of his administration to visit the continent so far, was he perhaps just passing the buck? If he doesn’t even know the names of the countries, how likely is it that he even knows what he wants out of a senior official’s visit to those countries?
During Haley’s tour, she visited camps for those fleeing violence in each of the three countries, pressed Congolese officials to schedule elections before the end of next year and pushed South Sudanese leaders to do more to shut down an enduring civil war and protect civilians from abusive soldiers.
Haley said she told Congo election officials and President Joseph Kabila, whose term finished last December, that they will lose international support if they don’t hold long-delayed elections by the end of 2018; Kabila is barred by the country’s constitution from running again. The Congolese election commission announced on Nov. 6 that a vote would take place on Dec. 23, 2018, cutting it close to the US-imposed deadline but bypassing an earlier agreement to hold elections this December.
Haley also told President Salva Kiir of South Sudan that Washington was growing impatient with his government’s inability to pull things together. But Kiir disputed each of her accusations. The US played a central role in helping South Sudan become a nation — becoming the UN’s 193d member — in 2011, but the country fell into a violent ethnic conflict two years later and has been unable to put the fighting behind it.
Haley told reporters accompanying her on the African trip that her freedom to go beyond talking points helps make her more effective in her work — and that she knows not to go off the reservation.
“If I just went out there and read a statement it’s not going to do anything,” she said. “I can think for myself, I can do for myself. I am very aware of who I work for and very aware of the national security team and I’m very aware of doing everything in the best interests of the United States and for peace and security around the world and I’m very careful with how I use that flexibility.”
But given her lack of experience in the world, how much flexibility does she deserve? Does she understand the subtleties of diplomacy and negotiation? And given so many vacancies at the State Department, and Secretary Tillerson’s inscrutable ways, isn’t she often working without a safety net?
The Trump administration, as of Nov. 1, had yet to name an Assistant Secretary for African Affairs and has left 14 of the 49 embassies in the Bureau of African Affairs without an ambassador, according to the State Department website.
There is no ambassador to Congo, one of the world’s worst hot spots, for example, while the president’s nomination of Thomas Hushek as ambassador to South Sudan has been pending before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since August. Eunice Reddick, the US ambassador to Niger — where four American Special Forces soldiers were killed in an ambush in early October — was appointed by President Obama.
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.