Nikki Haley’s Successor Probably Won’t Have Her Impact

The Washington power vacuum that worked in the U.N. ambassador’s favor is mostly resolved.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announces her resignation with President Donald Trump at the White House on Oct. 9. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announces her resignation with President Donald Trump at the White House on Oct. 9. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Less than a day after Nikki Haley stunned Washington with her surprise resignation from her post as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the Washington rumor mill is already firing on all cylinders with speculations of her replacement.

The fascination underscores how influential Haley became during her nearly two years working for President Donald Trump, occupying a unique political space and high-profile public stature that a U.N. ambassador rarely enjoys in any administration.

But regardless of whom Trump picks, veteran diplomats and U.N. watchers say no one can replicate Haley’s stature or influence, which was driven partly by her political savvy but also by a chaotic foreign-policy vacuum in Washington that Haley deftly filled.

With the arrival of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, both of whom appear to enjoy Trump’s confidence far more than their predecessors did, it is likely that the U.N. job will revert to being the second-order outpost it most often is.

“On any of the issues the White House cares about, there isn’t one where Pompeo and Bolton don’t own that space,” said one Republican source with ties to the administration. “That leaves a lot less room for a U.N. ambassador to carve out their own.”

Haley rose to prominence against the backdrop of a nearly constant state of chaos during Trump’s first year in office: Top White House aides rose and fell with the whims of the president, entered office, and were sacked. The National Security Council fell into dysfunction as Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired and subsequently indicted for lying to the FBI. The State Department languished under Rex Tillerson, whose tenure was marked by low morale and dozens of senior posts sitting empty for months on end, while the secretary of state himself shied away from the spotlight.

She quickly distinguished herself as a port in the diplomatic storm, in part by simply keeping her job and making public statements while most of her counterparts in Washington were flailing.

“During most of [the first year], there was no alternative challenge either at the State Department or the NSC to counterbalance some of Haley’s policies,” said Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington-based think tank.

“She had a lot of room for maneuver that she filled very shrewdly,” said Sheba Crocker, the former assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs under President Barack Obama.

The Trump administration also leaned heavily on Haley and the United Nations to push through a series of crippling sanctions packages on North Korea as Washington and Pyongyang came to the brink of a nuclear standoff in 2017. Haley cited three rounds of sanctions packages against North Korea—which received backing from both Russia and China—as some of her biggest accomplishments in her resignation announcement from the White House on Tuesday.

“Haley had this incredible window in New York in 2017,” said Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the United Nations University’s Centre for Policy Research. “On the one hand, she was largely unrestrained by Washington, and on the other hand, the North Korea issue suddenly put the U.N. Security Council at the center of the biggest crisis Trump had faced.

“It was an amazing confluence of events that played in her favor.”

When Trump installed Pompeo and Bolton—both of whom have exercised stronger sway over the foreign-policy machinery in Washington—Haley’s power naturally waned.

Several names are circulating Washington and the halls of the State Department on front-runners to succeed Haley. Trump said on Tuesday that he had five people on his shortlist, including Dina Powell, his former deputy national security advisor for strategy, who has emerged as the leading contender. Trump said he may also consider Richard Grenell, the firebrand U.S. ambassador to Germany who worked with Bolton during his time as U.N. ambassador under President George W. Bush.

He declined to give specifics on other candidates, but some names being floated include Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia; former independent Sen. Joe Lieberman; and Heather Nauert, the acting undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. (Trump took his daughter Ivanka out of the running when he said he would be accused of nepotism for trying to appoint her.)

None, experts agree, can enjoy the clout of Haley no matter how diplomatically skilled or politically savvy they are now that internal strife in the Trump White House has (somewhat) calmed down. Trump is back in the driver’s seat on nuclear negotiations with North Korea as Pompeo lays the groundwork for a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Bolton, meanwhile, is laser-focused on driving forward a conservative agenda on the United Nations and other international institutions, including curtailing support and funding for the world body.

Haley will be remembered for securing Chinese and Russian support on crippling North Korea sanctions packages and her controversial measures to back Israel at the United Nations. The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the U.N. Human Rights Council, and Haley threatened to “take names” on countries that voted in the U.N. to condemn Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But experts say she will also be remembered in Turtle Bay for driving policies on Africa that few in the Trump administration ever cared about.

“Where her absence may be felt strongest is on issues that weren’t on Washington’s radar as much,” said Ashish Pradhan, a senior U.N. analyst with the International Crisis Group. He cited her success of pushing through an arms embargo on South Sudan—something the Obama administration failed to do in its final months—and rallying international pressure on Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to set a date for elections to pick his successor, nearly two years after he was supposed to step down.

Behind the scenes, insiders say, she also forged an amicable relationship with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, which helped Washington keep an open channel with top U.N. leadership even as it alienated itself from other U.N. members. 

“If her successor takes a more hard-line view toward the U.N. and does not see it as a useful forum, it could result in further U.S. retrenchment from the multilateral arena,” Pradhan said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer