Here’s How Nikki Haley Can Salvage Her Reputation and Get to Work
Three ideas to help the new U.S. ambassador to the U.N. recover from an awkward first week in New York.
Even in the best of times, it’s not always easy being a U.S. diplomat. And these are not the best of times.
From the White House’s harsh words on NATO and about key European allies, to an early blunder with Mexico, to the threatened release of executive orders re-instituting torture and pulling the United States out of multilateral treaties, to the actual release of a travesty of an executive order on refugees and immigrants, it would have been hard enough for new Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to get off to a good start in New York. Add to that the leaked news of an impending executive order that would slash U.S. financial support for the U.N. (now on indefinite “pause”) on her first day at work, and I was left scratching my head over her choice to launch her tenure as ambassador with a press conference in which, among other somewhat hostile sounding remarks, she said: “For those who don’t have our backs, we’re taking names.” Having just concluded a job that required regular diplomatic engagement, I can attest that threatening to “take names” of those who don’t agree with you isn’t normally part of a diplomat’s lexicon. It certainly seemed at odds with the tone Haley struck during her confirmation hearing earlier this month, in which among other things she spoke about building coalitions. I assume the points Haley read before the press late last week were hand delivered from a White House seemingly intent on shaking things up, if not blowing them up entirely.
But given the fallout from the refugee executive order and deep concern among U.N. member states and the U.N. Secretariat about just what kind of adversary they are facing in the new U.S. administration, it will be important for Haley to take some early steps to carve out her role in New York, and to cultivate allies and partners who can help drive the strong agenda on reform and cost savings that she has undoubtedly been told to pursue. These steps will mean the difference between being remembered as a mouthpiece of a hostile Donald Trump administration, possibly intent on wrecking the multilateral system, and leaving a legacy of some positive accomplishments, however modest. Anything more than that, at this stage, seems fanciful to imagine, given how the administration has launched itself onto the global stage in its first ten days of life.
Here are three ideas to help Haley recover from an awkward first week in New York.
1) Make friends. We often forget that regardless of who occupies the White House, it is U.S. diplomats who are the everyday face of U.S. policies to the global community and have to sell or defend any policy to foreigners. Haley, sitting amid 192 other member states at the U.N. every day, will be on the front lines of U.S. diplomacy like no other. What we’ve seen of the White House’s hand in policymaking so far makes it hard to envision Haley becoming a primary architect of U.S. foreign policy; early signs suggest an insular White House that will cut out its Cabinet officials from decisions, even those of enormous consequence and even those for which said officials will bear primary responsibility to implement or defend. By all accounts, Haley didn’t know about the proposed executive order on cutting funding to the United Nations until it was leaked to the press, but she faced a massive uproar over it on her first day in office. In order to get anything done, Haley must develop personal rapport among a broad group of fellow diplomats. New York remains an old-fashioned diplomatic environment, where success depends on cultivating personal relationships. Ultimately, with policies as hard to defend as those we’ve seen since January 20, Haley must make some friends if she doesn’t want to have a lonely next few years.
She should spend her early weeks on the job building relationships, through face-to-face, old-fashioned diplomacy, with the other permanent representatives in New York, and with the new secretary-general, António Guterres (as I wrote here). The administration will need partners in order to make progress on any aspect of a reform agenda, whether on budget issues, peacekeeping, or whistleblower protection. Given how the United Nations works, the United States can’t simply bully its way to reform; the country needs other U.N. members with which to work on overhauling entrenched policies, mandates, and programs. To get anything big done — like the Barack Obama administration did with its peacekeeping and refugee summits and the counter-Islamic State effort — Haley will have to make good on her word and build coalitions. The administration she works for won’t be much help in this regard, so her ability to succeed will rely on an effort on her part to make some friends, and fast.
2) Pick a few signature issues and get to work. Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon and company are unlikely to give Haley much, if any, running room. She should pick a few issues that will be easier than others for her to advance and get to work. There are many issues ripe for the picking, on which progress is already underway and Haley would have ready partners in other member states and/or U.N. leadership. A few such issues come to mind easily: peacekeeping reform, ethics and whistleblower protection, sexual exploitation and abuse, and tackling the sprawling and outdated U.N. counterterrorism architecture.
As she makes the rounds among her diplomatic counterparts in her early days, Haley should bring a short but achievable list of issues she wants to work on. This will help soften somewhat the harsh impression she gave last week by showing other member states that she wants to work constructively. It will also give Haley an early chance to figure out who her best partners might be.
3) Find your voice — and use it. To be effective in New York, with the backdrop of an unpredictable, shoot-from-the-hip White House, Haley will have to find her own voice and use it consistently. This is easier said than done, especially in an administration that will be keeping its Cabinet officials on short leashes. But Haley also may have it easier than some — she will have distance from Washington and may be able to operate a bit more freely. Even without freelancing, Haley can carve out a niche and make progress on some issues the White House and Congress will care about. To do so, she has to come across as more than a White House puppet. Haley should stake out her own persona early as top U.S. diplomat in New York. This will matter on everything from sensitive, sometimes heated conversations in the Security Council on issues of geopolitical weight — like the Syria conflict or this week’s discussion on Iran’s missile launch — to challenging the arcane U.N. budgeting process in search of cost savings and efficiencies, an issue Haley highlighted in her inaugural press remarks last week.
It’s easy, but too simplistic, to assume that the threat of funding cuts will be all it takes to whip the U.N. into shape. The United States’ 71-year experience as a U.N. member state has taught us otherwise. To get anything done, others in New York will need to know that what they see is what they get with Haley. There’s not much she can do about the White House she works for, but at least she should try to salvage her own reputation and make as much as she can out of her time as U.N. ambassador. Her diplomatic peers will not always agree with the positions she takes or the policies she tries to advance, but if they believe that they are hearing from Haley herself, they will be willing to try to do business. At this point, after the utter chaos, confusion, and backlash born of Trump’s first ten days in office, that is probably the best she can hope for.
Photo credit: WIN MCNAMEE/Getty Images