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Can Nikki Haley Change Trump’s Mind About Russia and Putin?

America’s new U.N. envoy tries to chart her own course, putting her at odds with the White House.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley testifies during her confirmation hearing for US Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) before the Senate Foreign Relations committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 18, 2017. / AFP / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley testifies during her confirmation hearing for US Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) before the Senate Foreign Relations committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January 18, 2017. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump has pledged a new era in U.S.-Russian relations. But his recently confirmed U.N. envoy, outgoing South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, is having none of it.

In a Senate hearing and in written responses to questions from Foreign Relations Committee members, Haley has made it clear that Russia could never be a fully trusted friend of the United States as long as President Vladimir Putin remains in power.

“The lesson to learn from the failed Russian ‘reset’ is that as long as Vladimir Putin is in charge, Russia will never be a credible partner for the United States,” Haley wrote. “I do not see, at present, the conditions that would allow the U.S. to forge a new relationship with Russia” at the U.N. Security Council.

Far from pledging to rally forces with Russia in the war on terror, Haley vowed to use her U.N. megaphone to counter what she described as “Russia’s malign influence” in the elections of the United States and other Western powers. She said she would also rally support from “like-minded” allies to maintain pressure on Russia to reverse its grab for land in Ukraine and to halt its brutal repression of opposition groups in Syria.

The stark contrast with Trump’s views reflects the through-the-looking-glass nature of foreign policy under a new American president whose vision has, so far, been largely repudiated by those whom he has charged with making it a reality. Top advisors from Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson to Secretary of Defense James Mattis have differed with Trump on issues including Russia, climate change, and the effectiveness of torture.

But no one in Trump’s cabinet has taken stances that appear as starkly at odds with Trump’s worldview as Haley has. The 45-year-old Indian-American politician acknowledged the differences in confirmation hearings last week as she expressed her opposition to a registry for Muslims and highlighted the importance of preserving NATO. But she voiced confidence that she and other foreign-policy advisors could persuade Trump to change his stripes.

She doubled down on those tough sentiments in her written responses to the panel, further underscoring the differences between her and Trump.

“Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine — and its invasion and illegal occupation of Crimea — establish a very dangerous precedent only last seen in Europe during World War II,” she wrote. “This could lead to a complete breakdown in the postwar settlement that has largely endured peace and stability throughout much of Europe since 1945. This would have a profound negative impact on U.S. national interests.”

The big question is whether Haley, from her cabinet seat and through day-to-day diplomacy in the U.N. trenches, can actually prevail upon Trump to revise his foreign-policy priorities, and to view Putin more as America’s adversary than a partner, or whether she will be steamrolled by his radically different view of U.S. foreign policy.

If Haley is going to push back against some of her boss’s ideas, she has a potentially powerful perch. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has long served as America’s face before the world, a high-visibility diplomat who projects American values to 193 member states.

The post has functioned as a weigh station for big-name politicians in need of a job and as a critical springboard to higher office for political up-and-comers.

George H.W. Bush did time at Turtle Bay long before ascending to the presidency, and Madeleine Albright moved on to secretary of state while her onetime protégé Susan Rice became former President Barack Obama’s national security advisor. Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, is viewed by many as a rising Republican star with the potential to become president or vice president in the future. But it is rare for a U.N. envoy to take positions so much at odds with the president he or she serves.

But by publicly challenging Trump, she may run the risk of squandering whatever influence she might have over a political leader she sharply criticized during his presidential campaign.

In New York and Washington, Democratic stalwarts and foreign delegates are rooting for Haley to succeed. They see her brand of establishment Republicanism as more firmly rooted in the mainstream, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to promote human rights and embracing the need to work with allies.

She has reaffirmed bedrock principles that a week ago would have been unremarkable: that climate change is not a hoax; that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is illegal; and that Russian pilots have committed war crimes in Syria. On Tuesday, Haley breezed through the confirmation process, with only four Senators — including Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — opposing her.

Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was impressed by Haley’s pledge to promote “U.S. values, including universal human rights, good governance, and press and religious freedom.”

“The United States is stronger when we have a seat and a voice at the U.N., and the U.N. is better off with American leadership and values on display,” he added, calling the body “an indispensable force for good in the world that bolsters American national security.”

But some observers worry that Haley will have little real influence in the White House. Her commitments to uphold free speech and human rights frontally collide with an administration that just tried to place a gag order on some federal workers and which is mulling the prospect of re-establishing “black site” detention centers.

“I have no reason to assume she is going to have a lot of influence on policymaking in the administration,” said one European ambassador. “But I think there is a general consensus here that she is probably the least bad option we could have got among the names floated.”

“The chances of Nikki Haley having a great deal of influence on the president are not large,” said Michael Doyle, a Columbia University law professor who served as a top advisor to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, noting that she lacks a close personal relationship with Trump and has no experience in international affairs.

But when it comes to Russia, she won’t be alone in the administration and her views could ultimately prevail, some experts say. Previous administrations, including those of Obama and George W. Bush, sought to forge a new relationship with Moscow. But those efforts foundered, said Bruce Jones, the vice president for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, “because Russian interests and American interests don’t align.”

“Trump may have a different view of America’s interests, and he may push this further than other presidents,” he said. But some cabinet members are also skeptical of Russia, including Mattis and retired Gen. John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, as are nearly all Republicans in Congress, he noted.

“Trump may find himself having much less room to maneuver on Russia than he thinks,” Jones said.

One issue that unites Trump, Haley, and the Republican-controlled Congress is Israel. Haley has echoed Trump’s outrage over a U.N. Security Council resolution in December condemning Israeli settlements. The United Nations will have to reach some sort of accommodation with Washington on Israel, said Peter Yeo, the president of the Better World Campaign, a U.N. advocacy group.

But Haley has also pushed back on legislation proposed by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that threatens to withhold all U.S. financial assistance to the United Nations if the Security Council fails to repeal its settlements resolution — a demand diplomats at Turtle Bay view as a nonstarter.

Saying she opposes “slash-and-burn cuts,” Haley urged Congress to consider “targeted and selective withholding” to secure specific goals, such as pressuring the U.N. Human Rights Council to stop introducing resolutions denouncing Israel’s human rights abuses.

As ambassador, she said she would recommend that Trump announce that the United States “no longer supports that resolution and would veto any U.N. Security Council efforts to implement it or enforce it and block any future U.N. sanctions based on it.”

But the prospect of resolving the settlement standoff appeared increasingly remote Tuesday, as Israel announced its approval of a large new wave of 2,500 housing units to be built in the occupied West Bank.

Haley also pledged to negotiate a deal reducing the U.S. share of the U.N.’s nearly $8 billion peacekeeping budget, down to 25 percent from about 29 percent presently. The annual peacekeeping tab for the United States is more than $2.5 billion.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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