USA Foreign Policy

Why Nikki Haley's outlier status is useful for White House – up to a point

models of thought

Haley, in Geneva to address the UN Human Rights Council, places human rights at the core of foreign policy. While her outspoken stance offers President Trump some advantages, foreign policy experts say, it can also be confusing both to Americans and to the world.

Nikki Haley became the first US ambassador to the United Nations to address the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 6.
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It was no surprise when the United States, responding to recent repression of Venezuelans protesting food shortages and antidemocratic measures, condemned President Nicolas Maduro’s “disregard for the fundamental rights of his own people.”

What made the unvarnished criticism noteworthy was that it came not from the nation’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, nor from a State Department statement, but from the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

Last month, Ms. Haley was captured by global television cameras packing boxes of staples for Syrian refugees during a visit to an aid distribution center in Turkey – clad in her khaki pants and aid worker’s vest. The intrigue was not so much that an American diplomat was rolling up her sleeves to call attention to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Rather, it was that here was a representative of the new president promoting international humanitarian action and pledging US support for refugees and human rights at the same time her boss is seen widely to be downplaying those traditional American foreign-policy values and goals.

Four months into a Trump presidency typified by transactional diplomacy, retreat from American-led multilateralism, and Mr. Tillerson’s brand of interests-first, values-later international relations, Haley is the foreign-policy outlier.

Already the administration’s lone voice demanding global respect for human rights and democratic aspirations, the former South Carolina governor and daughter of Indian immigrants took her soapbox from New York to Geneva Tuesday. There, she addressed the UN’s Human Rights Council – underscoring the importance she assigns to the issue. (Her staff made a point of trumpeting that Haley would be the first US ambassador to the UN to speak to the council.)

Indeed Haley is so outspoken and public with her message – especially compared with the private and rhetorically parsimonious Tillerson – the world might be excused for thinking she is the new administration’s chief diplomat.

While Haley’s high international profile offers President Trump some advantages, foreign policy experts say, it can also be confusing both to Americans and to the world.

“The juxtaposition of her outspokenness and Rex Tillerson’s reticence may have some value for the president, but it becomes particularly problematic in terms of the administration’s messaging to the world,” says Stewart Patrick, a former policy planning staff member in the George W. Bush State Department who now focuses on US policy and international organizations at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

“It can be jarring to people here at home, not least to Congress, but it’s also confusing to allies and problematic in dealing with adversaries abroad,” he adds. “Ultimately that weakens the US position in the world.”

He cites the administration’s mixed messaging – generally with Haley as the outlier – on issues ranging from Russia and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to the place of values in US foreign policy. Tillerson has said Mr. al-Assad might stay; Haley says he must go. Tillerson prizes repairing relations with Russia; Haley blasts Moscow’s obstructionist work on Syria and other issues at the UN.

And Haley places human rights and values at the core of foreign policy. Tillerson, meanwhile, is probably best known so far for his interests-first speech in April in which he warned that conditioning international relations on values “creates obstacles to our ability to advance on our national security interests and our economic interests.”

In contrast, Haley told the Human Rights Council, “Respect for human rights is deeply intertwined with peace and security,” while “human rights violations and abuses often serve as triggers for instability and conflict.” Moreover, she said her presence at the council was meant to “underscore our strong conviction to the protection and promotion of human rights.”

Haley went on to host a council session on Venezuela’s human right abuses, and later gave a speech at the Graduate Institute Geneva on needed reforms and strengthening of the Human Rights Council.  

Washington vs. New York

The “tension” on display is not new to US foreign policy, Dr. Patrick says. But it is much more pronounced in the Trump administration, he adds, “with Nikki Haley at least a little bit out of sync with the more nationalist coterie of the president” – a group he says has  “abandoned the traditional position of stature the White House has given to human rights and promoting American values.”

Indeed some experts say that while there is nothing new in the tension between “Washington and New York” – meaning between the State Department and the US permanent representative to the UN – what is new is the switch in terms of which of the two is the iconoclast, and which represents more traditional US foreign policy.

“Being named the permanent representative in New York is an invitation to quasi independence, but typically it’s been the permanent representative who is the maverick pushing the limits,” says Michael Doyle, an international relations expert at Columbia University in New York. “The irony here is that it’s the permanent representative who is in the mainstream of traditional US foreign policy,” he adds, “and the administration in Washington that is the ‘ex-treme’.”

Dr. Doyle, who has decades of experience working with the UN and observing US ambassadors there, cites a list of Washington’s representatives who hewed their own path and often maintained contentious relations with the White House – from Jeanne Kirkpatrick under President Reagan to John Bolton under President George W. Bush.

“It got to the point with John Bolton that [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice had to insist that he restrict his comments to strictly UN matters and give up the commentary on broader US foreign policy,” Doyle says.

Outliers as assets

But outliers are sometimes useful, and both Doyle and Patrick see ways in which Haley is an asset to Trump – first and foremost, politically.

“Trump’s foreign policy doesn’t sit well with many more traditional Republicans, and so appointing [Haley] was essentially throwing a bone or a chip to the mainstream of the Republican Party,” Doyle says.

“I think there’s a recognition she can be useful to the president to reassure and attract some of the values promoters and the more neoconservative elements” in Washington, Patrick says.

Indeed Haley at times sounds like she’s channeling Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whom she supported in the Republican primaries. And last month Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a staunch advocate of prioritizing human rights in foreign policy, lauded Haley for her “moral clarity” – a quality he said was necessary to “drive us in the right direction.”

On another level, having Haley represent the US might help Trump smooth relations with allies who have been thrown for a loop by the new administration’s apparent aversion to multilateral engagement.

“Haley’s rhetoric is more traditionally American, and thus is much more acceptable to the community of democratic nations,” Doyle says, “and something of a reassurance that not all of America has gone off the deep end.”

‘Does everybody like Nikki?’

Still, there have been signs of White House irritation with Haley’s outspokenness and independence. In April, the State Department drafted a memo to Haley’s aides directing them to clear her comments with Washington first, according to The New York Times. The memo also advised that public statements should be constructed with “building blocks” provided by Washington, especially on “high-profile” issues like Syria and North Korea.

Then there was the joke that Trump cracked over lunch with UN Security Council diplomats, whom Haley had invited to the White House.

“Now, does everybody like Nikki?” Trump asked, adding, “Because if you don’t, otherwise, she can easily be replaced.” After a few nervous laughs, the president added, “We won’t do that, she’s doing a fantastic job.”

So for now Haley continues on her path, extolling the place of human rights in US foreign policy, and reassuring refugees that the US has not forgotten them. And that outlier position may retain its potency for some time to come, some say, at least until the fate of Trump’s proposed deep cuts to the UN and to humanitarian assistance provide some fresh clarity.

“Her rhetoric will continue to provide reassurances about the US for a while,” Doyle says, “but ultimately it’s the budget decisions that will determine if there’s really anything behind the rhetoric. And of course while there may be some independence with the rhetoric,” he adds, “the budget decisions are made in the president’s shop.”