After two years as the American ambassador at the United Nations, Nikki Haley left the job in December 2018 as much an enigma as the day she arrived. Haley, a career politician, came to the UN with little foreign policy experience but national recognition for her handling of a domestic terror attack while governor of South Carolina, for removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capital and for being tapped by the Republican Party to respond to President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2016.
A two-year tenure as ambassador is not unprecedented. Since Richard Nixon’s presidency, only five ambassadors have held a tenure longer than three years: Jeane Kirkpatrick, Vernon Walters, Madeleine Albright, Susan Rice and Samantha Power. Excluding Walters and aside from Haley, those are all the women who have held the position.
“What most impressed me is that she got up to speed on every issue immediately,” said a former Cabinet-level Trump administration official who asked to remain anonymous. “She is an incredible hard worker; her knowledge base is impressive.”
There were times in debates on Afghanistan, the person recalled, when “she was a stronger voice than anybody on the National Security Council and had her facts on right.”
Twenty-four months is long enough for a US ambassador at the UN to craft a legacy and, in some cases, undo the legacy of the previous administration. John Bolton, the US national security adviser, was an interim ambassador to the UN for almost a year and half, but his name still elicits distinct reactions at the UN.
Haley’s next steps are far from transparent. Her resignation came just weeks before the US midterm elections, in what some say was a signal to moderate Republicans that she was breaking with President Trump. Since then, she has dropped hints of writing a book or working for a think tank or an investment bank. Yet she has not announced anything specific about what’s next.
In late December, she cleared her Twitter account, a requirement of the State Department based on an Obama-era rule that senior government officials cede their social media sites when leaving office, to avoid conflicts of interest. Haley dropped her account ungraciously, blaming the Obama administration for the loss of her 1.7 million followers, accrued since her days as governor of South Carolina, if not earlier.
Her new Twitter account resembles the old one, with comments on her dog and Clemson University sports. But she is also tweeting on new topics that might appeal to a political conservative following, such as supporting the need for the US to build a wall on its southern border (despite that the northern border poses the greater national security risks).
Regardless of her public assurance that she would campaign for Trump2020 when she announced her resignation on Oct. 9, many political observers think she is positioning herself as a moderate Republican to primary for the presidency or to be the Republican presidential candidate after Trump.
Notably, Haley is not returning to South Carolina, where she has lived her entire life, until she moved to New York in 2017 to work as ambassador. Symbolically, it’s huge that she’s not going home because she’s not a populist, suggested a former Trump official, adding that Haley’s going to run as the establishment person.
Two former UN ambassadors have run for president, George H.W. Bush and Bill Richardson. Both men served less than three years in the position, and people interviewed for this article agreed that Haley has cultivated credible foreign affairs experience to run for president.
She has also leveraged her time in New York to cultivate relationships with several prominent Republican donors, including the investment banker Paul Singer, who is more moderate in social positions around LGBTQ than hard-core Republican donors, like the Koch brothers. While ambassador, she courted conservative Jewish Americans by defending Israel in the UN.
Haley gained admiration in some circles for quickly mastering the curve of international diplomacy in the UN, while using, at times, a strong, independent voice. Almost everyone interviewed for this article mentioned her infamous clapback to the White House economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, saying, “I don’t get confused,” when he contradicted her remarks on a US plan to impose new sanctions against Russia.
Under Haley’s watch, the US was viewed for the first time as a dubious supporter of the UN, based on Trump’s fiery nationalistic speeches at the annual General Assembly gathering of heads of state.
As the ex-Trump official said, “Trump’s like Louis XV, after him the deluge; after him, nothing exists.”
Fellow UN member states and the UN Secretariat had reason to be wary of Haley, given that while she was ambassador, the US withdrew from Unesco, the Human Rights Council, the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord. The US also cut its funding to UN peacekeeping, the UN Population Fund and the UN Palestinian refugee agency, known by Unrwa.
Under Haley, for two years in a row, the annual Commission on the Status of Women held through-the-night negotiations, narrowly missing deadlines, as the US tried to pass language in a final document negating family planning goals.
Haley also pushed through reforms to try to streamline UN efficiency, although this effort began before her arrival. She also brokered the stringent UN sanctions on North Korea.
“Her legacy is mixed,” said Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the UN and an ex-governor of New Mexico. “On the positive side, she did a good job on the Security Council on the North Korea issue, while on the negative side I would say that a lot of third world countries felt that she paid little attention to them and often slighted them.
“Her attitude at the UN was pretty partisan, [saying] that the UN is not good for American interests.” To Richardson, a Democrat, Haley’s position reflected her Republican allegiance.
Haley was so partisan that she apparently removed Democrats’ names from a list of former personnel of the US mission to the UN, to not invite them to events and parties. (Because of the current US government furlough, the press office there said it couldn’t provide a comment.)
From the start of her tenure in late January 2017, Haley positioned herself as the “new sheriff in town” of Turtle Bay. Like other 21st-century politicians, she brought theater to her role, including walking out of UN Security Council midmeeting as a statement, timed for photojournalists to record her every move. She threw parties at the US mission for countries that supported American policies through votes on UN resolutions, and she “took names,” holding other countries accountable to back every move of the US in the UN.
It represented, as a former Obama official put it, “a sad chapter of lecturing other states.”
Despite her often-abrasive approach to the UN, Haley left with the admiration of some peers. Several sources for this article cited her close working relationship with Secretary-General António Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who also led the UN refugee agency for 10 years.
“I think what was surprising, given the aggressiveness of the current administration’s stance on issues like Israel and the basic skepticism of the Trump administration about the multilateral system,” said Jeffrey Feltman, who led the UN political affairs department and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, “is that there was more continuity in the day to day engagement than expected” between the US and the UN.
According to Feltman, Haley’s approach to certain issues aligned with her predecessor, Samantha Power, in “substantive analysis and even presentation.”
Like Power, Haley was outspoken about human-rights violations. Her comments zeroed in on select countries, however, such as Venezuela, Iran and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but not the Philippines or Egypt, other major human-rights abusers. She also pointed out Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and questioned its interference in other countries’ elections.
Haley did not stand up for women’s rights while at the UN in a noticeable way — a glaring lack of commitment to a cause dear to millions of women in the US and abroad, especially amid the MeToo movement.
As several former Obama administration officials noted, there was backsliding on the US positions in the UN around the women, peace and security agenda, which mandates women’s equal participation in peace talks, as well as the focus on sexual violence against women in conflicts.
Melanne Verveer was the first US ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, appointed by Obama. She is now the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. Verveer said of Haley’s commitment to women’s rights and gender equality, “I don’t think there’s much of a record around women’s issues; we haven’t seen her speak out in any specific way or make a marker on that whole issue area.”
At the UN, Haley did what few Republican politicians and top White House advisers were able to do publicly: express views that directly opposed those of the Trump administration, creating inconsistencies that only complicated Trumpian policies.
Haley “had those departures with the White House,” Verveer said. “Her voice has been a strong voice and, to some degree, maintained a cushion between the UN and White House so that we weren’t always on a side that was so antagonistic. Clearly, she played a positive role in separating actions from rhetoric, or lack of rhetoric.”
Even Haley’s resignation left people scratching their heads. In an administration where people were often dismissed by Trump via Twitter, Haley’s departure was announced from the Oval Office in a scene featuring a frozen smile from Trump as he reacted to Haley’s promise to campaign for him for the 2020 presidential election.
During her last week at the UN, in December, she spoke to a small pool of reporters and separately with The Atlantic. In both interviews, she was critical of the UN, as usual, and the role of the US there. In her provocative style, she even questioned whether the US should stay in the UN.
“Her comment is pure doctrine, pure party doctrine, not based on facts,” Richardson said of Haley’s remark about the US staying in the UN.
As Verveer said: “Look, no one defends the UN as being perfect and has it shares of problems. But if we didn’t have it, we would invent it, it’s a need. It came out of the ashes of the terrible world situations.”
If parsed, Haley’s statement, Verveer added, “is a cry for leadership from America, standing by alliances and values other countries respect and admire.”
Haley’s “all-in” strategy on Israel won over the dual base of conservative Jews and evangelical Christians, who “are really the state of Israel’s base in our country,” said the former Trump official. Her base also includes Southern rural Republicans and Fox News enthusiasts; a presidential candidacy could also attract college-educated suburban Republican women, who admire Haley for her conservative, somewhat-fundamental family values.
With the cushion that she provided between the UN and the Trump administration gone, the value of the US at the world body may hang further in limbo.
The nomination of Heather Nauert, the State Department spokesperson and a former Fox News personality, as a successor to Haley shows the Trump administration’s “complete disregard for the Security Council,” said a former US ambassador who worked in the Middle East.
For now, Haley’s tenure at the UN remains an enigma. “It’s ironic that the one person coming out of his administration, who is incredibly bright and has a bright future, is the one person who stood the most against him. I mean, it’s so Trumpian,” said the former Cabinet-level member of Trump’s White House.
The person added, however, “I don’t trust her as far as I can pick her up and throw her.”
This article was updated.