Nikki Haley: Rising star or passing comet?
Of all the nominations that the US president-elect Donald Trump has announced for his potential cabinet, none has received as broad acclaim—nationally and globally —as his decision to appoint Nikki Haley, the first female governor of South Carolina and the daughter of Sikh immigrants, to the cabinet-rank position of US ambassador to the United Nations.
Haley, whose senate confirmation is likely to be a relatively smooth, if thorough, process, will not only be the first Indian-American in a US cabinet but also the third woman appointed in a row and only the second woman of minority to hold that position.
Some experts have questioned Trump’s choice on account of the 44-year-old’s lack of foreign policy experience and at least one UN official dismissed her as a “total novice”. However, to be fair, even Haley’s predecessors with far more experience of the UN world, have not necessarily always been successful. Clearly then, foreign policy experience alone was not the key consideration for the president-elect to offer her the post.
In fact, Trump’s decision was probably driven by three other factors. First, having appointed a number of staunch loyalists (and polarizing figures) to key White House and cabinet positions, the choice of Haley was partly driven by the desire to make peace with mainstream Republicans who remained vehemently opposed to him. Haley, once an ardent critic who declared that she “wasn’t a fan” of Trump but voted for him in the end, was the ideal candidate to bridge the divide.
Second, the fact that Haley—a second-term governor in a racially divided state—succeeded in the bold act of removing the Confederate flag from state grounds following a racial attack on a church, also highlighted her leadership credentials. Such political prowess, coupled with her minority ethnic background (highlighted in contrast to Trump’s first round appointment of all white men), was another critical consideration and is likely to provide the much-needed semblance of diversity and colour to the otherwise monochromatic Trump administration.
Third, the fact that Haley was chosen even before Trump had decided on his secretary of state pick might indicate that the president-elect considers the UN-based multilateral system more as a sop for buttressing his domestic political standing than for serving his agenda. Although Trump justified his nomination of Haley on the grounds that she is a “proven dealmaker, and we look to be making plenty of deals”, there is little evidence so far to suggest that the UN will be the 45th president’s preferred forum for deal-making. In fact, experts are concerned that Trump (via Haley) might use the UN to break multilateral deals, such as the painfully negotiated agreement on climate change.
While this harkens back to the era of president George W. Bush, who was equally disdainful of the UN, it also reflects some continuity from the Barack Obama era. Although the Obama administration was far more engaged with the UN, it also sought to “lead from behind” in the case of Libya (with disastrous consequences). Similarly, Obama and his UN representatives, frustrated at their inability to build a Security Council consensus, often superseded council resolutions by imposing unilateral sanctions, as was the case with Iran and Russia. The Trump administration might continue that trend with other countries.
For Haley, the position offers an opportunity and a challenge. On the one hand it is recognition of her growing stature as a unifying force within the Republican Party. It is also an opportunity to prove her trustworthiness to Trump, who puts an unprecedented stock on loyalty. Although some experts have argued that the UN ambassadorship is actually a demotion for Haley, who was once being considered as a running mate for Mitt Romney, the post is nonetheless a crucial stepping stone to enhance her national and international standing. She will be aware that previous US ambassadors to the UN, who were able to deftly manoeuvre through the multilateral system, went on to become president (George H.W. Bush), national security adviser (Susan Rice) and secretary of state (Madeleine Albright). On the other hand, the failure to effectively work through the UN system, especially to make deals that both advance US interests and also enhance the credibility of the UN might have an adverse impact on her national ambitions and international standing. There are several issues where Haley and the US will have to tread carefully, such as UN funding, torture, and refugees.
For the UN, which is also in the midst of a leadership transition, the appointment of Haley—unencumbered by past multilateral failures—provides a rare opportunity for a fresh beginning with an incumbent who is keen on making her stint a successful one (even if in her own interests). The new UN secretary-general, António Guterres, could advance the cause of the UN in partnership with Haley in two ways. First, build on common areas of interest (such as enhancing UN peacekeeping, especially in areas where the Trump administration is unwilling to intervene) and seek to reduce differences on contentious issues. Second, the new secretary-general could also work with Haley to build crucial connections with the Republican Congress (as former secretary-general Kofi Annan tried) to argue that a strong UN is in the interest of the US.
Such a partnership, if successful, would not only benefit the UN but would also ensure that Haley’s star continues to rise and does not disappear like a passing comet.
W.P.S. Sidhu is visiting professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.