Welcome back to our monthly column, Security Council Presidency, providing insight into the United Nations Security Council member sitting in the rotating seat of the president every month. The column began in July, when Sweden was president, led by the country’s ambassador to the UN, Olof Skoog. We interviewed Karen Pierce, the British ambassador, for August.
For September, we profile Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the UN, through original reporting from Bamberg, her hometown in South Carolina; elsewhere in the state, of which she was governor; and through her memoir, “Can’t Is Not an Option.” Haley, who declined an interview request with PassBlue, is one of three female ambassadors on the 15-member Security Council (along with the Polish and British envoys).
The column is meant to be a capsule of not only the country’s envoy but also the ambitions of the country in the presidency. A short country profile is also part of our new feature.
President Trump is scheduled to speak at the annual General Assembly debate on Sept. 25, but he is also to preside at a meeting of the Security Council on Sept. 26 on Iran, at which President Hassan Rouhani would be allowed to speak, per Council rules of procedure and Haley.
United States Ambassador to the UN: Nikki Haley
Ambassador to UN Since: Jan. 25, 2017
Education: Clemson University, Clemson, S.C.; B.S. in accounting, 1994
Her story, briefly: Nikki Haley, 46, was born in Bamberg, a town of approximately 3,000 people, on Jan. 20, 1972; her full name was Nimrata Randhawa. Her parents, Ajit and Raj Randhawa, were Indian Sikhs who immigrated to the US from the Punjab region in 1969, via a long stopover in Canada. Haley has condoned Trump’s ban on immigrants from mostly Muslim countries as well as stopping migrants at the US southern border who are seeking exile, saying that her parents came to the US legally, so others must too. But she doesn’t clarify the legal route that her parents took into America.
Haley attended the public schools in Bamberg until she switched to Orangeburg Preparatory Schools, near Bamberg, graduating from high school in 1989. The private school was a merger of two earlier ones that originated as “segregation academies” when Orangeburg public schools were forced to desegregate in 1964. “The railroad tracks divided Bamberg. On one side lived the black residents, on the other the white,” Haley wrote in her memoir. (Today, the divide appears intact, and the Randhawas lived on the white side.) Haley recalls in her book numerous slights as a child of Indian parents, living in Bamberg, but her parents reminded Nikki, as she was called, and her three siblings not to consider themselves victims. Her mother, who was a social-studies teacher, started a gifts business in the family home when Haley was young. She was asked to do the bookkeeping when she was 12 or 13, depending on the source, and the business, which expanded to women’s clothes, was moved to a main street location in town. Haley’s father was a biology professor at Voorhees College, a historically black institution in an equally small town, named Denmark, next door.
Haley has often repeated the story of her father wearing a turban and her mother wearing a sari in Bamberg, leading them to stand out. (As of 2017, the town was predominately African American.) The town is located in a rural area heavily invested in agriculture, including cotton. As there was a high demand for majors in that industry, Haley initially studied textile management and received a scholarship to study that at Clemson but changed her major.
Eventually, the Randhawa family moved from a one-story brick ranch house to a grander two-story home, with an ornate brick entrance, farther out in Bamberg, on a corner lot of three acres. (It was sold by the Randhawas in 2002 for $232,000, according to Bamberg County records.) The family climbed the social ladder to Lexington, a prosperous suburb of Columbia, the capital, where they opened Exotica International in a small strip mall on Sunset Boulevard. Haley claims it was a multimillion-dollar business, but no proof is provided in her memoir.
A sign at the entrance to Bamberg on Route 301 features a fading photo of Haley as governor (her first term, from 2010 to 2014, was followed by a second one until 2016, when she became ambassador). Across the road from the welcome sign is a farm selling bulls. (Another well-known resident, Mookie Wilson, a former outfielder and later coach for the New York Mets, is not pictured.) One town official called Haley a “Cracker Jack,” adding that she could become the first female president of the country because as a leader “she walks with a big stick.” Haley has a fourth-degree black belt, and on her first day meeting people at the UN in its lobby, she said she was “taking names” of countries that didn’t support America.
Haley worked in the corporate world in South Carolina before being elected governor in 2010, as the first female and the first minority government of the state. She met her husband, Michael, while they were at Clemson (though he graduated from University of North Carolina at Charlotte.) He is a captain in the South Carolina Army National Guard who was deployed for nearly a year in Afghanistan, while she was governor. In her memoir, Haley recounts her parents were originally against her engagement with Michael, as they would traditionally arrange her marriage, but that they were convinced of the union over time. (His first name is William, but Nikki decided he should use his middle name instead, after they started dating.) The couple have two children, Rena, 20, and Nalin, 16. The daughter studies nursing at Clemson and the son lives with his family in New York City.
In her book, Haley talks about her trips while growing up to Columbia, the “big city.” (A state historical marker near the governor’s mansion describes a former munitions factory there, Palmetto Iron Works, as operating during the “Confederate War.”)
As ambassador, Haley lives in America’s most populous city in a high-rise luxury residence provided by the American government, close to the UN, with her parents, Nalin and her dog, Bentley. Haley’s social media accounts combine personal and political posts — feeding Twitter fans nurtured in her governorship — and speaks about life in both the Big Apple as well as weekend trips to South Carolina (using a hashtag #ItsAGreatDayinSC). She honed her reputation as governor as a fiscal Tea Party conservative; at the UN, she has striven to cut peacekeeping budgets, but in doing so has met resistance and anger from some nations that contribute troops. She took a braggadocio stance from the first day of her role at the UN, where she has criticized perceived anti-Semitism against Israel, without providing context; and pushed for the US to successfully leave the Iran nuclear deal, among other actions. She successfully urged the US to resign from the Human Rights Council, blaming nongovernmental groups and some Western countries for being afraid to change it. Although the ambassadorship has afforded her an international stage, free housing and travel abroad, Haley says she has “disdain” for the UN. She rarely talks to the journalists based there, but invites reporters from large media to travel with her on official trips, ensuring positive coverage.
Her attendance in the Security Council has been spotty. She has also focused on rights abuses in Venezuela and Nicaragua but not in Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, for example, which are friends of the US. Her voice on women’s rights in the UN has not been heard. Her mantra is the UN is an old boys’ club that needs to show US taxpayers value for their money. Yet she relies on the organization, for instance, when she wants the Security Council to pass sanctions against North Korea, which has been a diplomatic feat of hers.
Priorities of America’s presidency of the Security Council in September 2018: Besides an “American theme with a Southern twist,” Haley told the media that the US would center its Council meetings on Syria; Iran; “the world drug problem” (to be held Sept. 24, a “complex” issue, Haley said); corruption in Venezuela; the strife in Nicaragua (despite some Council members objecting to it being discussed); peacekeeping; and regular items such as the UN mission in Haiti.
The war in Yemen, which Haley referred to as “settling a dispute,” is not on the proposed calendar, although the Saudi-led coalition there just dropped bombs in August, murdering dozens of Yemeni children and some mothers.
Haley told the media she cried when she first heard the US had the presidency in September, “but I’m over it now.” She called Venezuela one of the “worst man-made humanitarian crises in a generation”; said Syria could not use chemical weapons in Idlib but that “if they want to continue to go the route of taking over Syria they can do that.” She spoke at length on Iran, noting that Trump is “adamant” that the country begin “falling in line with international order like every other country.” She defended the US decision to stop its funding to the UN refugee agency in the Middle East, Unrwa, contending it was “not serving Palestinians.” Reflecting Haley’s vindictive streak, she said the US gave $60 million to Unrwa, but it didn’t thank the US. (In fact, Unrwa has gone overboard to express its “gratitude” to the US.)
She referred to the White House peace plan on Palestine and Israel as being “well thought out” but gave no date or details about the “deal of the century,” as Trump has boasted about it.
Head of State: Donald Trump
Foreign Affairs Minister: Mike Pompeo
Type of Government: Federal, constitutional republic
Year America Joined the UN: 1945
Years in the Security Council: One of the permanent-five members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US)
Closest Allies on the Council: Britain, France and other European countries
Population: 325.7 million
Memberships in Regional Groups: Group of Seven (G7), Group of Twenty (G20), NATO
Adult Literacy Rate: 14% fall “below basic” literacy (2003); (Unesco has no data on the US)
GDP per Capita: $57,000 (world: $11,000)
Emissions (tons of CO2/year, per capita): 17 (world average, 5)
Total Contributions to UN Operating Budget (rounded): $591 million, making the US the largest contributor to the UN, costing about $1.80 per capita.
Total Contributions to UN Peacekeeping Budget: approximately $1.9 billion, making it the biggest contributor of all 193 member nations, including the permanent-five Council members (in order of contributions: US, China, France, Britain, Russia); or about $5.80 per capita.
Electric Power Consumption: 13 kwh/year, per capita (world average: 3kWh/year)
Dulcie Leimbach contributed research from South Carolina and reporting from the UN.
This article was updated.
Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.