The Cable

Nikki Haley and Trump’s Doctrine of Diplomatic Chaos

The U.S. envoy to the U.N. concedes that American foreign policy is unpredictable, and that's OK.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 16: (L to R) Koro Bessho, Japanese ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Cho Tae-yul, South Korean Ambassador to the United Nations, arrive a press briefing before a meeting of the United Nations Security Council concerning North Korea, May 16, 2017 in New York City. Following another ballistic missile test launch from North Korea, the UN Security Council once again condemned the isolated nation. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 16: (L to R) Koro Bessho, Japanese ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Cho Tae-yul, South Korean Ambassador to the United Nations, arrive a press briefing before a meeting of the United Nations Security Council concerning North Korea, May 16, 2017 in New York City. Following another ballistic missile test launch from North Korea, the UN Security Council once again condemned the isolated nation. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told Congress on Wednesday that foreign diplomats at the U.N. frequently cite their concerns about the unpredictability of U.S. foreign policy. That, she said, is a good thing.

Keeping foreign governments guessing about U.S. intentions has served as a powerful negotiating lever, she said, helping her to secure cuts of hundreds of millions of dollars in peacekeeping costs. “For me, it’s been helpful,” she said during a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“I deal with 192 [countries], and the overwhelming feeling is that we are unpredictable; they don’t know exactly what we are going to do,” she said. “It has kept them more on alert, of wanting to be there with us, not wanting to get on the wrong side of us.”

Asked if unpredictability in foreign relations is dangerous, raising the risk of miscalculation and conflict, Haley said: “In my job I found it’s made my negotiations better, and it’s made them easier because they don’t assume. They don’t take us for granted anymore. They no longer look at us as one they can just push over.”

The suggestion by Haley, a diplomatic novice, that U.S. leadership in the world is enhanced by its unpredictability struck some delegates as naive and a bit troubling. Traditionally, American allies have looked to the United States as a force for consistency and stability.

Haley’s remarks appeared aimed at demonstrating that there is a method behind what many international leaders see as the foreign-policy madness of the Trump administration, which has zigzagged on everything from the importance of NATO to the risks Russia poses to the Western order.

Her remarks came amid reports that the United States had secured nearly $600 million in reductions to the U.N.’s nearly $2 billion-a-year peacekeeping budget, which translates to about $200 million in savings for U.S. taxpayers, who are obligated to pay about 28 percent of the U.N.’s peacekeeping costs. Still, that falls well short of the $1 billion in savings proposed by the White House.

Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the savings are a political victory for Haley but could backfire.

“This will look good until one of the hardest-hit missions faces a crisis,” Gowan said. “Some of the biggest cuts target the Darfur operation. It is pretty inevitable that there will be more violence there, and the U.S. will face accusations of sacrificing vulnerable civilians for some pretty minor cost savings.”

Haley’s testimony came against a backdrop of mounting anxiety among American allies over whether the United States can be counted on to play its traditional role as the guarantor of postwar peace. That includes key economic, human rights, and environmental institutions and agreements that have contributed to decades of prosperity and growth — and the West’s political and financial dominance.

On June 20, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters in New York that the U.S. retreat from key foreign-policy initiatives, including its withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, was creating a leadership vacuum that will ultimately be filled by other countries.

“If the United States disengages, it will be unavoidable that other actors will occupy that space,” Guterres said. “And I don’t think this is good for the United States, and I don’t think this is good for the world.”

Before Congress, Haley defended the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris pact, claiming it would hurt American businesses, and downplayed the White House’s commitment to gut the U.N. budget. She suggested that it was intended to “make the point” that the United States’ traditional role as the U.N.’s chief financial benefactor cannot be taken for granted. The United States, she said, is “putting the U.N. on notice” that there could be consequences to anti-U.S. stances.

She also said that U.N. delegates privately reached out to the United States to express appreciation for exercising leadership after it launched missile attacks against an airfield in Syria in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons. This week, the White House threatened to use force again to deter what they claim was an effort by Syria to prepare for a new attack.

Haley also devoted much of the session to batting back questions about the perceived lack of unity on the president’s national security team, insisting that the administration’s key players were ultimately rowing in the same direction.

She said that while President Donald Trump hasn’t echoed her strong public condemnations of Russia policy from Ukraine to Syria, he has never reined her in. “I’ve done a fair bit of Russia-bashing,” Haley said. And the president, she said, has never asked her to stop.

The White House and the State Department exercise limited oversight over the way she does her job, she said, which would be a departure from previous administrations.

“This administration does not tell me what to say or what not to say,” she said.

Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images

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

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