Before and after he became president, Donald Trump made it pretty clear that he didn’t see much value in the United Nations. So when he named Nikki Haley as his choice for United Nations ambassador, many wondered whether he was simply shunting a tough critic into a trivial post.
In the past week, Haley has made it increasingly clear that she has no intention of being sidelined. To the contrary, as diplomats at the United Nations saw it, she managed to elbow herself into a leading, outspoken role in the Trump administration.
On Wednesday, wielding pictures of dead Syrian children, she was the first senior official in the administration to warn that the United States could take unilateral action against Syria’s president for the chemical attack that killed more than 80 people in his country. The same day, she was named a full member of the coveted principals’ committee on Trump’s National Security Council, where crucial policy work is done.
In the United Nations Security Council, she pushed for a sharply worded draft resolution to remind the Syrian government to share the flight logs of all its air operations with international investigators. She confronted Russia for blocking it, and on Thursday evening, in what diplomats described as tense, closed-door negotiations, Haley not only rejected a compromise, but made it clear she was not happy to be led by other countries in the direction of a compromise. Their attempt at diplomacy had changed her script of pushing Russia to veto.
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Soon after she walked out of the Council’s chambers that evening, news emerged that the United States had, in fact, fired dozens of Tomahawk missiles at an air base in Syria.
Diplomacy is as much theatrics as it is dialogue. And Haley, 45, a former governor of South Carolina, has created at least the impression among her fellow ambassadors that she is carving out a space for herself in an administration where it isn’t always clear who is guiding contentious policy. The French ambassador, François Delattre, concluded Thursday evening that she was “clearly very influential in the Trump administration.”
On Friday, it was left to her to dangle yet another warning. She called the American strikes “fully justified,” though she offered no clear legal justification.
“The United States took a very measured step last night,” she said during a Security Council meeting. “We are prepared to do more. But we hope that will not be necessary.”
Haley’s office has not responded to repeated requests for interviews, but when asked onstage at the Women in the World conference in New York on Wednesday whether she liked her the job, she cheerfully put it this way: “You can move the ball. It’s not just about talking.”
Is she actually setting foreign policy? That would be highly unusual for any envoy to the United Nations. But in these unusual days, vital positions in the State Department remain vacant, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is far more distant from the public than his predecessors, and many American embassies are still without an ambassador.
That, say current and former American officials, seems to have given Haley, a neophyte in foreign affairs who works closely with a small band of trusted political aides, a great deal of visibility and, possibly, latitude.
“I think she has been, from the beginning, willing to be out front with policy statements before the White House or Secretary Tillerson,” said Michèle Flournoy, a Pentagon official in the Obama administration and now chief executive of the Center for a New American Security. “She right now has established herself as the more public voice of American diplomacy. That may be by design.”
But given that Haley has no foreign policy background, many wonder if the United Nations job is simply a useful steppingstone for her political ambitions.
Her remarks on world affairs are usually leavened by slogans – “call them out” is one of her favorites when referring to nations that run counter to American interests. Her statements are also sometimes thin on substance, offering no blueprint on how to approach North Korea or Iran, or how to make the United Nations deliver “value,” as she says, for American taxpayers.
“By being so high profile and ready to pronounce, there may be a perception that she’s more focused on positioning herself publicly than learning all the complexities of the job,” said Suzanne Nossel, a former State Department official who noted that the hard lessons of diplomacy come from experience.
United States decisions on crucial United Nations matters used to take shape through consultations among senior officials and experts in New York and Washington. These days, policies are drafted in Haley’s office, and sent to Washington to clear, according to two American officials who were not authorized to speak on the record. The policies are on everything from how to handle peacekeeping missions to what to do about United States membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council to who will be part of the delegation to the annual women’s rights meeting.
Haley came to United Nations headquarters two months ago with a brash promise that she would be “taking names” of those who did not side with the United States. She brought with her a handful of aides from South Carolina and hired a few conservative advisers. Those in her inner circle meet every morning on the 21st floor of the United States mission. Career foreign service staff members are invited only as necessary.
Haley is close to powerful members of Congress, including Senator Lindsey Graham, a fellow South Carolina Republican, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, and Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, who leads the Foreign Relations Committee. She has said she speaks to Trump often, including a talk on Wednesday, the same day she dangled the possibility of unilateral American action in Syria.
Her political instincts have been on sharp display. She posts on Twitter about her dog, roots for South Carolina sports and wears the symbol of her home state – a palmetto and crescent moon – as a locket around her neck.
She got a rousing welcome at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in March; her high heels, she told that audience to great applause, could be useful for kicking those she needed to. And she heard a collective murmur of disbelief when, during a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations, she defended the president’s travel ban by pointing to last month’s terrorist attack in London; the crime was the handiwork of a native Briton, not a migrant.
She has used her time here to speak out, again and again, on a handful of issues that have domestic political currency: Iran, Israel, toughness on Russia. She has promised to make the United Nations more efficient, and said she and the secretary general, António Guterres, “think alike.” (She aligned herself with the Tea Party; he was president of the Socialist International.)
Several diplomats noted privately that Haley had not bothered to go around and meet most of them, and only on the highest profile subjects has she been present in the Security Council. In contrast to her predecessor, Samantha Power, Haley goes home in time for dinner with her family most days. She said she was appalled by how much overtime staff members had piled up before she arrived.
She has been seemingly at odds with her boss on at least two things. She has repeatedly expressed her distrust of Russia, insisting that sanctions should be maintained for its annexation of Crimea. And she maintained that the United States remained committed to a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even after the president vaguely suggested otherwise.
R. Nicholas Burns, a veteran United States diplomat and a trenchant critic of the president, called her “one of the most pragmatic and one of the most courageous voices in the administration.” He pointed to her insistence that sanctions on Russia should remain, even as Trump signaled his admiration for the Russian president.
“In this case, within the fluidity of this administration, she has been a refreshing tough voice,” Burns said. “I wouldn’t say formally she was making policy. She was articulating positions that were not repudiated by others in the administration, and in some cases they then followed her lead.”