Throughout his campaign and since taking office, President Trump has pushed his “America First” stance, prompting much anxiety that the United States will neglect its longstanding world leadership role. He has been a consistent critic of globalism and has disparaged the United States’ standing international agreements, such as NAFTA and NATO. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others in the administration have affirmed this view. But enter Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. At Trump’s first address to the UN General Assembly last Tuesday, her introductory remarks set an optimistic tone and displayed her willingness to embrace the diplomatic and internationalist aims of the UN. She showed that she seeks to reconcile the president’s stated positions, her own convictions, and the UN’s mission—a herculean task. But if anyone is up to such a task, it might just be her.
Haley is a relative newcomer to the world stage, but her political acumen and ambition have been garnering attention for years, with the New York Times even hailing her as “one of the Republican Party’s brightest stars.” In 2010, just six years into her political career, she was elected governor of her home state of South Carolina, becoming the first woman and first person of color ever to hold the office. From the outset, she earned a reputation for tenacity and ironclad devotion to her grassroots conservative political beliefs. As governor, she proved that her principles were truly her own, not just the party line. For example, in 2015, she received national attention for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, allying with many state Democrats in the face of opposition from many legislators in her own party. A year later, she surprised constituents by coming out against a “bathroom bill” that would prevent transgender people from choosing their bathroom based on gender identity, calling it an attempt to over-legislate. These maverick tendencies have not gone anywhere since her South Carolina days. In February, she became the first in the administration to criticize Russia for its aggression in Ukraine; in April, she voiced support for ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, publicly disagreeing with Tillerson.
She has also differed from many in her own party in her willingness to embrace the UN as a means to pursue US policy goals. Yet, she’s already started changing minds in Washington. Many credit Haley’s newly forged relationship with UN secretary general Antonio Guterres for helping the Trump administration realize it has priorities in common with many UN leaders, from cutting bureaucratic bloat to levying harsh sanctions against North Korea. The very fact that Trump agreed to meet with Guterres and address the General Assembly last week shows that his stance on the UN has evolved somewhat since he took office. Gone now are the rumors that he planned to withdraw the United States entirely. But does Trump see value in the concrete achievements Haley has produced? He called the harshest sanctions resolution against North Korea ever passed by the UN—engineered and pursued tirelessly by Haley—“just another very small step, not a big deal.” Further, the President realized his desire to rollback the peacekeeping budget in June, and, though he fell short of the administration’s proposed $1 billion figure, he still reduced it by $600 million.
However, Haley’s behind the scenes role last week in orchestrating Trump’s visit to the UN and arranging numerous meetings with foreign heads of state, including President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, proved an unequivocal success. It was in the company of these two leaders that Trump announced a new round of sanctions taking aim at nations and corporations doing business with North Korea, presenting his executive order as a multilateral measure taken in solidarity with important US regional allies. Both Moon and Abe praised Trump’s sanctions, stressing the importance of forcing North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to negotiate on issues of its nuclear capabilities. North Korea’s scapegoating and narrative of being a target of Western imperialism hold little water when it faces united international opposition. And for now, Trump appears to agree with his counterparts’ hopes for the sanctions, softening his stance from threatening to destroy North Korea to leaving the door open to negotiations. While last Monday he threatened that the United States “will have no choice but to destroy North Korea” if provoked, at the announcement of sanctions on Thursday, when asked if he was still open to a negotiation, he said “Why not?”
Whether or not Trump directly credits his UN ambassador for the diplomatic fruits of last week—an address to the General Assembly, new sanctions amid solidarity, a realization that negotiating with North Korea could still be an option, and even a surprise concession by China in the face of mounting international pressure—there can be little doubt she had a hand in facilitating them. Her political savvy, her willingness to work within the existing framework of her institution, and her fight to prove to a skeptical Washington that UN diplomacy can really work paid off this week. Although mutual resentment and suspicion still dominate the tone of dialogue between the Trump administration and many UN leaders, the South Carolinian diplomat has shown that she is a match for the challenging road ahead. Her role is expected to remain prominent, and while it’s not clear if Trump intends to comply with UN initiatives and membership duties in the future, Haley has set an important precedent for cooperation. Whether or not Trump regards her as the voice of the administration on foreign affairs, the world has seen her in action, and her budding record of diplomatic success increases her de facto role as a representative of US policy interests.
Abraham Cooper is a contributing writer for The Gate. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.