Nikki Haley’s brief but ‘gracious’ legacy on world stage

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley looks on during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters, May 17, 2018 in New York City. (Getty Images)

Nikki Haley’s resignation as United States Ambassador to the United Nations genuinely stunned the diplomatic world. Ambassadors from near and far who had on occasion been at odds with her suddenly erupted in near-hysterical praise. The reason: apprehension – fear even – of who could replace her.

“I will miss Nikki Haley a lot,” said François Delattre, the ambassador from France, a country with which the U.S. had not infrequently tangled in the Security Council. “Even though we didn't agree on everything, we had established a particularly close and constructive working relationship based on trust. Nikki Haley is one of the most talented, most authentic U.S. government officials that I have ever met.”

Haley arrived at the UN in January 2017 with no international experience, but plenty of threats. She would “take names” of countries that opposed the U.S., but she was not afraid to “go it alone” if governments refused to back Trump’s attacks on the global order and its institutions.

By the time she leaves at the end of the year, she will be remembered for how much she had learned about diplomacy and how she tried to “explain” Trump to her diplomatic colleagues and UN officials while remaining shrill enough to suit the belligerent and ill-informed isolationists in the White House.

Nothing could be clearer about the new American attitude to the UN and all long established global institutions than this declaration by Trump in his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 25:

“America is governed by Americans,” he said. “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” It was a farewell by a government that no longer wanted to work in partnership with the world unless it was on his terms. In the eyes of representatives of 193 member countries and assorted observers he turned America First into America Alone.

Haley had to watch this from her seat in the U.S. delegation in the General Assembly hall. She also had to witness diplomats and government officials from around the world laughing at Trump when he launched into a bombastic, political rally-style summation of all his wonderful achievements as president, at least a few of them phony.

If there was a final turning point in Haley’s diminishing relations with the Trump team, it had happened in the weeks before the president’s speech. By then she had been largely sidelined by John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state. Her relations with Rex Tillerson were not terrific, but he mostly ignored her and she had a freer hand in New York, though she was being kept out of some important diplomatic initiatives, including negotiations with North Koreans. A prominent Asian diplomat asked me how this could be while she was hard at work in the Security Council on sanctions resolutions against the Kim Jong Un regime.

Earlier, after Tillerson was gone, she was double-crossed by the White House on several occasions. When she announced that U.S. sanctions were being readied against Russia for its involvement in the use of chemical weapons in Syria, The White House said it wasn’t true, and that she was “confused.” The policy had been abandoned, apparently, but no one told her.

Last month, Haley had to talk her way out of another embarrassment. She had told reporters at a briefing early in September the month that Trump would take the chair in the Security Council, in which the U.S. held the presidency for the month, and that the session would be devoted solely to Iran. She acknowledged that under UN rules this would give the Iranians the right to speak. The White House reversed the plan and cobbled together a broader topic for Trump’s agenda, so there would be no Iranian in the mix.

Most painful to watch was Haley backed into a corner by Trump’s abrupt decisions to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there – as no other country, respecting the international status of Jerusalem – had ever done.

Haley herself had been under the influence of Israel’s UN mission and even more pressed by Jared Kushner, a family friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Trump had put in charge of Middle East Policy. But on that fateful day in December 2017, Haley was faced with opposition from the entire Security Council and later a majority of members of the General Assembly, which voted to condemn the U.S. move. She was left to lash out angrily at the extraordinary snub.

Nikki Haley’s international profile was in many ways a creation of Donald Trump. She is also likely to be beholden to his whims if she moves into a political future on the national stage. There is much speculation in New York and Washington about the game of political chess Trump and his team seem to be playing as he keeps his eye on the prize he values most: the collapse of the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling by any means. But that’s only one interpretation, and maybe the most far-fetched.

It goes like this: If Jess Sessions is dismissed as attorney general and Lindsey Graham gets the job – in no small part because of his vicious attacks on Democrats during a hearing about charges that Christine Blasey Ford had been sexually abused by now — Justice Brett Kavanaugh — that would open up Graham’s seat from South Carolina, Haley’s home state, where she had been twice elected governor. Graham would be happy to sink the Russian investigation from which Sessions had recused himself. It could be open season on Mueller.

Meanwhile the UN would get a new ambassador more amenable to Republican hardliners – and White House misogynists.

By common analysis, Haley had been chosen for the UN job because she was a skilled and effective politician, represented a minority ethnic group and was a woman of relatively modest means in a cabinet of white male billionaires.

Haley did not play on ethnicity at the UN. She did not publicly criticize Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and the literal kidnapping of several thousand children from would-be asylum seekers from Central America.

As a woman, however, she stood firm behind her oft-stated position that all accusations of sexual assault should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. She showed some sympathy for Christine Ford as she took a ill-mannered beating from Trump disciples on the Senate judiciary committee during the hearing on Ford’s charges against Brett Kavanaugh.

Haley, often smiling and gracious in her interactions with diplomats in the social circles around the UN, could not have been more different from Trump, with his default snarl and ostentatious bad manners, showing up late for every major appearance at the UN in September, creating inconveniences at every turn. He has now encouraged his rally crowds to chant the old “lock her up!” epithet, at the mention of not only Ford but also Senator Diane Feinstein, her staunch defender on Capitol Hill.

What’s next for Nikki Haley? She isn’t sure yet, though she said she is thinking of moving into the private sector to earn some money for her family. The big unknown is whether Trump has some political plans for her in the future.

Whatever happens next, she’s still loyal to the Boss. In a meeting with Trump at the White House on the day her resignation was made public, she pledged to stay out of politics in 2020, but she added that she would be supporting Trump in his bid for a second term.

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Barbara Crossette was formerly the New York Times chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia, and the paper’s UN bureau chief from 1994 to 2001.

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