UN Ambassador Nikki Haley could be a mortal threat to the ambitions of the many white male Republicans hungering for the Oval Office.
The uncanny success of Nikki Haley in becoming the most public and quotable voice on President Donald Trumpâs foreign policy team, combined with the telegenic UN ambassadorâs apparent disinterest in the nuts and bolts of how the United Nations actually works, has piqued speculation among New Yorkâs busy diplomats and idle diplomat-watchers alike: What is Haleyâs game plan?
The former South Carolina governor is clearly a political animal wandering a landscape of diplomatic plants. And, just as Madeleine Albright easily outshined the contentedly colorless Warren Christopher, Haley is blessed with a near-invisible secretary of state in Rex Tillerson.
Unlike Albright, however, Nikki Haley isnât gunning to be Tillersonâs successor when the time comes. Rather, she seems to be positioning herself to become Trumpâs.
That, at least, is what Haley-watchers in New York are concluding. The very notion that a countryâs permanent representative to the United Nations (the jobâs official title) could use the post as a springboard to the presidency is deeply unsettling to European diplomats who all come out of career foreign policy bureaucracies. At best, one might dream of capping oneâs career, and sweetening oneâs pension, as foreign minister.
But president? In a country where politicians on the right are still campaigning against the United Nations? How is it possible?
America, history shows, is the land of infinite possibility, where a lowly UN ambassador can rise to become leader of the Free World. George H.W. Bush is proof. And Nikki Haley is a far hotter political asset than Bush ever was, with a more direct path from the United Nations to the Oval Office than Bush had.
Facing career extinction after losing a Senate bid in Texas, Bush asked President Richard Nixon for the UN post, arguing he could raise the presidentâs profile in the nationâs capital of finance, media and high society. Foreign policy expertise was not required. (When the nomination was announced, Bushâs Yale classmate, Ohio Congressman Lud Ashley, incredulously asked him, âWhat the fuck do you know about foreign policy?â â a question also asked, if perhaps more politely, regarding Governor Haleyâs qualifications.)
Though Barbara Bush was likewise incredulous â âwe hated the U.N. in Texas,â she pointedly objected â her husband threw himself into the job, making connections in both diplomatic and social circles in New York and coming surprisingly close, in the battle over Chinese representation at the UN, to keeping a seat for Chiang Kai-shekâs government in Taipei. He gained enviable foreign policy credentials from that service, which he would subsequently burnish as US mission chief in Beijing and as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He drew on his UN experience as president two decades later to assemble a strong Security Council coalition on Kuwait and establish himself as a remarkably successful foreign policy president.
Perhaps Haley does not want to wait two decades. She can take heart from the success of Dwight Eisenhowerâs UN ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., in landing the Republican nomination for vice president in 1960 while still at the United Nations. True, the Nixon-Lodge ticket lost to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson by the narrowest of margins, but Lodgeâs UN tenure had given the one-time ex-congressman the stature for a national nomination.
Unlike Bush and Lodge, Haley does not descend from New Englandâs Yankee Republican elite (now extinct). Rather, she is the gift from central casting for national Republican strategists terrified about the partyâs long-term demographic trap that its angry, older, white male base has set for them. Young, photogenic, a woman, a minority (her parents emigrated from India), the pragmatic Haley improbably rose to the top in a state whose reactionary brand of Republicanism was fossilized in the person of Strom Thurmond.
Haley could be a mortal threat to the ambitions of the many white male Republicans hungering for the Oval Office. With her bully pulpit at the United Nations, she will be.
At the United Nations she uniquely commands the spotlight as the American engaged in debate daily on vexing international controversies. Her predecessor in the Ford administration, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, demonstrated that confrontation in front of UN cameras can generate considerable political capital. Moynihan had, for instance, paid scant attention to warning signs of an Arab resolution linking Zionism with racism in 1975, but he emerged as Israelâs eloquent rhetorical champion once it became unstoppable. His televised moment â declaring âthe inmates have taken over the lunatic asylumâ â endeared him to New Yorkâs outraged Jewish community and catapulted him into the US Senate a year later.
US FOREIGN POLICY
Haley, too, seems to sense the opportunities that rhetorical confrontation can provide for ingratiating oneself with domestic constituencies. Though the UN ambassador does not deal with American-Cuban bilateral relations, she won prompt press attention for praising President Trumpâs rollback of the Obama administrationâs renewal of diplomatic ties. âThe Cuban dictatorship is one of the most oppressive in the world. It denies its people the most basic freedoms,â Haley said. âThat did not change under the previous administrationâs policy.â
While Cuba concerns an influential community concentrated in South Florida, supporters of Israelâs policies are more numerous, resourced and influential â and the United Nations is the preeminent international stage for debate on those policies. Haley professes amazement that this ongoing Middle East conflict appears on the Security Councilâs regular agenda, affirms Trumpâs âironclad supportâ for Israel, and has vowed to ânever repeat the terrible mistakeâ of Obamaâs Ambassador Samantha Power in not vetoing a resolution critical of Israeli settlements. âI know the settlements issue is going to be an area of contention,â she told a rabbi worried that settlement expansion is impeding a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians, âbut theyâve got to work it outâ themselves.
On Iran, so closely related to the politics around Israel, she is similarly critical of the Obama administrationâs efforts. Even as senior UN officials say they are âdeeply encouragedâ by Iranâs implementation of its nuclear obligations and the European Union affirms âIran’s nuclear program has been rolled back and placed under tight inspections,â Haley claims âviolationsâ and demands the Security Council âshow Iran that we will not tolerate their egregious flaunting of UN resolutions.â Perhaps what lies behind the councilâs indifference to American alarm, she suggests, is that a shadowy âinternational elite had other priorities for Iran.â
On these concerns, Haley seems in lock-step with the views of the president; that they dovetail with the concerns of impassioned constituencies that donate generously in Republican primaries is a happy coincidence. There are other areas where Haley seems to have leeway to enunciate views that are a bit distinct from what is known of the presidentâs, but which fit more comfortably with the traditions of Washingtonâs conservative foreign-policy establishment.
While Trump has sought a new modus vivendi with Russia, Haley has not pulled punches about the Kremlinâs âaggressiveâ disposition. She said in her Security Council debut that âthe dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.â She insists on âan obvious truthâ about Syria â âthat Assad, Russia, and Iran have no interest in peace.â
And while, aside from Cuba, the Trump administration has utterly abandoned the promotion of human rights, Haley unwaveringly avers that the Security Council, at least, âcannot continue to be silent when we see widespread violations of human rights.â Indeed, she volunteers, âFor me, human rights are at the heart of the mission of the United Nations.â
Haleyâs embrace of human rights puts her squarely in the post-Ronald Reagan Republican mainstream. Yet she disdains the UNâs machinery to sustain them. âI mean,â she told the Council on Foreign Relations, âthe Human Rights Council is so corrupt.â What corruption actually means in the Trump era is unclear: Hillary Clintonâs emails? The Trump familyâs businesses? Governmentsâ maneuvering to avoid censure? But this much is quite clear: Attacks on this UN body are cost-free in contemporary Republican politics.
What Haley has not yet done is risk her growing political capital by fulfilling the other representational function of an effective ambassador: reporting frankly and fairly back home â to the Congress and American people as well as to the president and secretary of state â the views and arguments of her interlocutors from the rest of the world.
Testifying before Congress in June, she acknowledged no downside to slashing or eliminating US funding for UNICEF, the World Food Program, the UN Development Program or the UN fund for women, though US diplomats at the UN have expressed consternation at the loss of US influence such cuts would cause. She has not warned Congress that cutting funds for peacekeeping troops out in the field could reignite tamped-down conflicts.
Americaâs most effective UN ambassadors â such as Obamaâs Samantha Power or the elder Bushâs Thomas Pickering â communicated realities in both directions between Washington and New York. They ended up forging winning coalitions for purposeful action at the United Nations on a wide range of issues.
Successful politicians making the most of a short stay at the UN may perhaps focus more on issues that resonate with domestic constituencies, media and donors. If that is Nikki Haleyâs career choice, her service at the UN should prove a unique ladder to national leadership that few competitors in her party can match.
*[A version of this article also appears at PassBlue.com.]
The views expressed in this article are the authorâs own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observerâs editorial policy.