Even before she became U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley appeared to have little in common, foreign policy-wise, with her would-be boss, President Donald Trump. After she assumed her new role, their differences have been thrown into stark relief. Haley has pushed to keep Russian sanctions in place, championed human rights in the U.N. Security Council, and advocated the United States to renew its commitment to NATO. In other words, the U.S. foreign policy that Haley has spent just over 10 months defending smacks more of traditional Republican (and, arguably, traditional U.S.) policies more closely in line with Ronald Reagan than with the current president.
In a cabinet stacked with decorated generals and multimillionaire moguls, the daughter of Indian immigrants whose only major political experience was serving as governor of South Carolina seemed an unlikely pick. Haley’s previous foreign-policy experience amounted to little more than courting foreign businesses to her state and resisting refugee resettlement during her time as governor from 2011 to 2017. And during last year’s presidential campaign, Haley made no bones about her dislike for Trump, saying in February 2016 that he was “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.” (Instead of Trump, she threw her support behind Florida Sen. Marco Rubio first and then Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.)
But Haley took the U.N. job insisting that she was a “policy girl” who wanted to be “part of the decision-making process.” And, by all appearances, that’s just what she’s become, promoting an establishment view of America’s place in the world, even while the administration she serves has often questioned and undermined that position.
Unlike Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom the president has repeatedly subverted (on the split between Qatar and its neighbors and the value of direct communications with North Korea), Haley has had some noticeable success. “I think it’s been quite striking how much she has accomplished personally in this role,” says Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation and editor of the book ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives. Schaefer points to how Haley has worked with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to “get a handle on sexual exploitation” by U.N. peacekeepers and employees “in a way that’s not been evident in the past.”
Haley’s deft hand with her U.N. colleagues has also distinguished her from a diplomacy-challenged administration that likes to trumpet “America First” in the least diplomatic terms. She has secured unanimous support for tougher sanctions on North Korea, boasted about paring back spending on U.N. peacekeeping missions, and according Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N., she was among the first of the Trump team to denounce Russian aggression in the region, reassuring allies in Kiev and Turtle Bay.
“Briefly, Haley made the U.N. look like a real venue for big-power diplomacy [on] top-level crises, not just a tired talking shop,” says Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
But Haley has also managed to win credit with her boss — especially by supporting Trump’s drive to decertify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord over reported objections from other top aides such as Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis. In fact, while rumors swirl that the secretary of state is on his way out, so, too, are tongues wagging that Haley may be his replacement in Foggy Bottom.
“There are concerns that she is willing to help undermine the Iran deal, which might satisfy some Republicans but would isolate the U.S. in the Security Council,” Gowan says, adding, “She’s walking a very fine political line, but at least she hasn’t fallen yet.”
Quite the contrary, according to Schaefer. “She is a leading figure in [the] administration,” he says. “I expect they’re going to continue to rely on her to provide that leadership.”
Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.
She was disqualified from a beauty pageant as a child, along with her sister, because she was neither black nor white.