By Colum Lynch. Published in Foreign Policy.
From day one, the Trump White House screamed its desire to emasculate the United Nations, pushing for draconian budget cuts that would kneecap the world body and ease Washington’s retreat from multilateralism.
Yet President Donald Trump’s U.N. envoy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, has turned Turtle Bay into one of the administration’s favored soapboxes, providing an unexpected boost to the organization the White House set out to marginalize.
In her first months on the job, Haley has used the U.N. as a perch to deliver some of the administration’s most visceral attacks against Russia, Syria and North Korea. It was Haley who delivered the first hint that the U.S. would use military force to punish the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad for using chemical weapons.
There is no reason to think Trump is ready to fully embrace an institution he derided before his inauguration as an ineffectual talk shop. The president blithely bypassed the U.N. Security Council when it launched Tomahawk missiles at Syria, seeing little need to secure the U.N.’s blessing and shrugging off claims that missile strikes constituted a violation of international law.
But Haley has used her position as the president of the U.N. Security Council for the month of April to raise the profile of the U.N. in Washington. On Monday, Haley will lead the 14 other U.N. Security Council on a Washington tour that will include meetings with Congressional leaders and lunch with the American president. Last week, Haley organized a face-to-face exchange between U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and President Trump and his national security advisor, H.R. McMaster. Trump and Guterres agreed to meet again in the near future, according to Guterres’ spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
Few posts have been filled at the Pentagon, the State Department, or other agencies, and those officials that have been named have either fled from the public stage, or sent contradictory signals about U.S. foreign policy; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has managed to do both. Later this week, Tillerson — who declined a recommendation from his own department to hold an early meeting with the U.N. on the sidelines of a G-20 meeting in Bonn, Germany, in February — will host a Security Council session to draw attention to North Korea’s human rights abuses and its nuclear weapons program.
That has lent Haley’s forceful enunciation of U.S. policy extra heft.
“Given her important influence in the Trump administration, her key role here at the U.N., and her highly regarded professional and personal skills, Nikki Haley is an invaluable bridge between the U.S. administration and the U.N.,” France’s U.N. envoy Francois Delattre told Foreign Policy.
That prominence has given some U.N. envoys hope that Haley can help preserve the U.N.’s relevance, and fend off White House pressure to marginalize and starve it.
One European diplomat said he initially expected the U.S. to use its presidency of the council to showcase the administration’s policy before a domestic audience. But he said he was surprised that Washington has used the Security Council to stake out their positions on the “big topics” of the day, including Syria’s alleged chemical weapons strike, and then “to stand its ground.”
But critics say Haley’s performance has been big on rhetoric and small on achievements, and that her diplomacy appears more effective at generating headlines than solving problems.
Haley has made the U.N. “the center of attention” but she has not made it the “center of action”– at least not on the diplomatic front, said Richard Atwood, the New York director of the International Crisis Group.
One senior European diplomat said that Haley’s office — handicapped by a shortage of senior and mid-level policy makers in the State Department and in New York — often lacks the bandwidth to delve deeply into a range of issues before the U.N.
“I worry that U.N. watchers are dazzled by Haley, but miss the fact that Trump still seems intent on undercutting” key pillars of the multilateral system, said Richard Gowan, a U.N. scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations. The Trump administration has taken aim at everything from the World Trade Organization to the Paris Climate Accords to U.N. peacekeeping missions, while “remaining skeptical” of other key planks in the post-World War II international order, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Gowan said.
In order to succeed, Haley will have to strike a delicate balance between accommodating U.N. critics in the White House and Congress, who want to impoverish Turtle Bay, and U.S. allies, most of whom view the U.N. as a vital diplomatic institution.
She has so far veered from one extreme to another. In her confirmation hearing, Haley tried to shield the U.N. from proposals by GOP lawmakers to cut off funding to all U.N. programs in retaliation for the U.N. Security Council’s adoption in December of a resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policy as illegal.
But on her first day on the job, she delivered a provocative if vague ultimatum: Back U.S. positions or “we’re taking names.”
That same dynamic has prevailed behind closed doors, where Haley has deployed bluster, yet has ultimately proven to be a pragmatic negotiator, such as her give-and-take efforts to trim U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping missions, which showed a lot of flexibility.
“Haley has done an impressive job of attacking and defending the U.N. at the same time,” said Gowan. “She has convinced the Republican base that she is tough on the U.N. and is pushing for real cuts, while also making nice with foreign diplomats.”
For others, Haley is emblematic of a chaotic and undisciplined administration whose frequently contradictory foreign policy pronouncements have fueled confusion about American intentions among both friends and foes.
“Everybody appears to be freelancing,” said Michael Doyle, a former U.N. advisor who teaches law at Columbia University, who compared diplomacy under Trump to a reality show. Haley and other administration national security officials, he said, “are looking to attract headlines, make a statement, create media buzz. But it’s hard to know what all this means.”
Take Haley’s signature U.N. event: A public debate in the U.N. Security Council on human rights. Doyle called it an “estimable critique” of human rights abuses around the world, and rights advocates have been cautiously encouraged.
Haley condemned abuses of gay men in Chechnya, and used a Security Council meeting to “slam human rights abusers in Burundi, North Korea and Syria,” noted Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director at Human Rights Watch. Though Haley has also staked out some stances that make him “uneasy,” such as defending Trump’s travel ban for Muslim-majority countries or gutting funding for the U.N. population fund, she has been the administration’s early standard bearer for an emphasis on human rights.
“Our basic hope is that Nikki Haley can be a moderating influence on the Trump administration,” Charbonneau said.
Despite Haley’s performance, though, there is no indication that Trump’s White House or Tillerson’s State Department will make human rights a significant part of the administration’s foreign policy. One day before Haley hosted her human rights session at the Security Council, Trump called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him after a constitutional referendum vastly expanded his powers, a vote that international monitors faulted as unfair and lacking basic democratic standards. That followed months of purges and detentions after a failed military coup last summer.
And in a break with tradition, Tillerson didn’t personally release the annual State Department report documenting abuses by governments around the world. Instead, State Department rolled out the report in a background briefing by unnamed officials.
Haley and the Trump administration have also knocked heads with the United Nations on several big issues, underscoring the limits of American power. The administration, Atwood said, has been largely silent on peace plans for Syria and Libya. And in Yemen, he said, U.S. military support for a Saudi-led coalition is undercutting a U.N.-brokered effort to negotiate peace between a Saudi-backed leader, Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and the Iranian-backed rebel Houthis.
The administration’s focus on Iran has also unsettled many at the United Nations. Haley has channeled her diplomatic energy into trying to persuade persuading U.N. members to view Iran, and proxy militias like Hezbollah, as the chief threat to a Middle East Peace.
“Who are the regional players that benefit most from chaos in the region, and what are the connections between terrorist groups and these states,” Haley’s office wrote in a concept note outlined for Thursday’s Middle East meeting that served as a thinly veiled effort to shift the conversation to Iran.
Haley urged allies not to address the Israel-Palestine peace process during the monthly debate on the Middle East, fearing it would result in a forum to criticize Israel’s settlement program. Instead, her office tried to get other countries to zero in on the role of terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah, and their chief sponsor, Iran, according to U.N. diplomats.
But virtually every government that addressed the council highlighted the Middle East peace process, and denounced Israel’s settlement program with varying degrees of vigor. With the exception of Britain, which accused Iran of playing a “destabilizing role” in the region, and Tehran’s Persian Gulf rivals, few spotlighted Iran’s support for armed groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis. The United Nations and the European Union, for instance, didn’t even mention Iran in their statements.
Meanwhile, Russia’s new U.N. envoy, Peter Iliichev, blasted Haley for trying to “tailor” the U.N. Middle East meeting to serve Washington’s own narrow foreign policy goals, and insisted that the effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict should remain front and center.
But Haley declared the event a success on Twitter.
“We’re working hard to change the UN culture,” she tweeted Thursday. “Today’s Security Council session on the Middle East still involved far too much Israel bashing, but we made real progress toward focusing on the real culprit in the region — Iran.”