Nikki Haley is Emerging From the Trump Administration Unscathed
In an interview with The Atlantic, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the UN made the case for a values-driven foreign policy, and acknowledged daylight between her and the president.
Who, exactly, is Nikki Haley? With just weeks left in her role as the ambassador to the United Nations, I wanted to ask her one of the big questions naturally prompted by her departure: Does she share Donald Trump’s iconoclastic, transactional, über-nationalist vision of America’s role in the world?
“I get where he wants to go, and I just have my different style of getting us there,” Haley told me when we met in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Over the course of our conversation, on the morning of George H. W. Bush’s state funeral, she made the case for a values-driven U.S. foreign policy—albeit one that she herself has selectively applied—with hard-nosed diplomacy at its center.
She highlighted the value of Trump’s bluster about attacking North Korea, even as she told me that “diplomacy is always the right option, because war is never a good option.” She recognized Saudi Arabia as a vital partner against Iran, but insisted that Riyadh can’t be given “a pass” for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, pointedly noting that the Saudi crown prince’s “government did this, and so he technically is responsible.” And Haley, who has announced her resignation but won’t leave her post until the end of the year, acknowledged daylight between her and the president.
“I think we agree on most things,” she said. “There are certainly things that we don’t agree on. And when we talk about it, he’s the president … My job is to go and do what he needs me to do. But for the most part, he’s been very willing to listen and very willing to come around.”
A 46-year-old, exceedingly popular Republican politician, Haley is the daughter of Indian immigrants and a former South Carolina governor who is often discussed as a potential presidential candidate. Her reflection on her tenure at the UN, and the moral calling that she felt underpinned it, was a vivid reminder that the president’s America First vision isn’t necessarily the settled future of the Grand Old Party. It was also an object lesson in how Haley, perhaps more skillfully than any other top administration official, has navigated major differences with Trump while cultivating common ground. And she’s done it representing him at an organization he once denounced as no friend to the United States.
“The most dangerous thing we can ever do is show a blind eye to any sort of human-rights violations,” Haley told me, arguing that promoting American values overseas is in the core interest of the United States. “Because if [the violation] threatens people, it threatens the world.”
“You have Saudi government officials that did this in a Saudi consulate” in Turkey, Haley told me. “We can’t give them a pass,” she added, “because that’s not who America is.” That’s why the Trump administration has sanctioned 17 Saudi officials accused of involvement in the murder and is “asking for accountability,” she explained, and “we need to continue to do it until we get it.”
Asked about accountability for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who, at least according to senators briefed by the CIA this week, was likely behind the hit, Haley said, “I think all of that, the administration needs to decide.” She did not specify the additional steps she would like the White House to take.
But while Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have avoided calling out MbS, as the crown prince is known, citing a lack of clear proof of his complicity in the extrajudicial killing, Haley didn’t reference the intelligence community’s findings or lack thereof. Instead, she simply noted bin Salman’s status as the kingdom’s de facto ruler to make the point that the buck stops with him.
“We can’t condone [the Khashoggi murder], we can’t ever say it’s OK, we can’t ever support thuggish behavior, and we have to say that,” Haley told me.
At the United Nations, Haley has argued that prioritizing rights issues can avert conflict that endangers Americans and people around the world. She has sought to introduce debate on human rights into the UN Security Council, a body that is intended to focus on matters of peace and security, for this reason
“You look at Syria,” she observed, citing a conflict she has spent considerable time on, whether in visiting refugee camps, raising alarms about a (so far averted) Syrian government offensive against the rebel-held province of Idlib, or unsuccessfully seeking the renewal of a mechanism for holding perpetrators of chemical-weapons attacks accountable (Russia nixed it). “Everybody talks about how long this war has been. What started that war? That handful of teenagers was out there doing what every teenager does—spray-painted something on a wall, and even though it wasn’t that bad, the government officials don’t just go and say something to them; they beat them, they bloody them, they pull their nails out and return them to their parents. Their parents go out to the streets, the country rises up, the government oppresses them, conflict happens. It always happens.”
As Haley sees it, whenever people feel stripped of freedom and opportunity, they instinctively challenge their government in order to reclaim control over their lives. “And if a government doesn’t value human life,” she said, “then they will do something to their people that the whole world will have to pay attention to.” Haley has argued that the peril extends beyond those under the dictator’s thumb. In 2017, after a North Korean missile test, she drew a direct connection between the nuclear threat from Pyongyang and the government’s ghastly human-rights record. “Depravity toward one is a sure sign of willingness to do much more harm,” she warned at the time.
“I think those freedoms are every person’s God-given right, regardless of where they were born and raised, regardless of their religion, regardless of their ethnicity or gender,” said Haley, who was raised Sikh but converted to Christianity as an adult. (During her confirmation hearing, Haley traced her focus on human rights to her love of her family’s and America’s “immigrant heritage” and to her decision as governor to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse.) “It doesn’t cost us anything to fight for democracy, to fight for human rights, and to fight for the dignity of people … We have to understand the leverage we have: that when we call out a country or we call out a wrong, everyone takes notice.”
These views, she told me, have informed the tough line she’s repeatedly taken at the United Nations on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, support for Bashar al-Assad’s war crimes in Syria, and suspected nerve-agent attack against a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom.
When I asked whether the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was ultimately right when Barack Obama ridiculed him in 2012 for describing Russia as the United States’ top geopolitical foe, Haley responded, “I certainly think his instincts were right. I think the other one is China.”
Still, while Haley presented a rather conventional view of America’s role in the world—one of supporting allies, confronting dictators, and making the world more secure—she punctuated it with arguments for upending certain conventions of U.S. foreign policy.
She maintained, for example, that the United States should approach foreign aid in a more transactional way, offering it only to countries that show the U.S. goodwill. She recalled making this point to the president by showing him a book comparing the amount of foreign assistance that the United States gives to countries with those countries’ voting patterns at the United Nations. “He was shocked. He was furious,” she said. “We don’t need to be giving money to those that don’t want to be our partners, because there’s a lot of countries that do want to be our partners.”
“Look at Pakistan,” she continued. “Giving them over a billion dollars, and they continue to harbor terrorists that turn around and kill our soldiers. That’s never okay. We shouldn’t even give them a dollar until they correct it.”
Laying into the Obama administration for taking an approach to foreign policy of what she described as “don’t rock the boat,” she defended the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal over its failure to address issues such as Iranian missile testing and support for terrorism; the U.S. exit from the UN Human Rights Council on account of its rights-abusing members; and the decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in solidarity with Israel. Dismissing the charge that “America has been weakened under this administration,” she said that the United States is “not afraid to stand alone if it’s for the right things.” (Human-rights groups have denounced the Trump administration’s decision to leave the Human Rights Council, and Haley’s critics claim that her human-rights advocacy is conveniently selective, not extending to sensitive issues for the United States or its allies, such as the plight of the Palestinians or the humanitarian disaster in Yemen.)
Haley credited Trump’s fiery threats of military action against North Korea and its Little Rocket Man leader in the summer and fall of 2017 with helping her achieve arguably her greatest success at the UN: the passage of three rounds of unprecedentedly severe Security Council sanctions at a moment of acute crisis, when North Korea was testing nuclear bombs and missiles that could reach the United States. The sanctions helped cut off funding for the North’s nuclear-weapons program and pressure Kim Jong Un into (still very tentative) nuclear negotiations. To shepherd the measures through the council, she needed the support of Russia and China, both of which have served as North Korea’s protectors.
Before the first sanctions resolution, Haley recalled, she tried to look at the issue from China’s perspective. Leaning forward on the couch as she relished the memory of the high-stakes negotiations, she said she knew that China didn’t want war on the Korean peninsula or North Koreans streaming across its border. So she argued to the Chinese ambassador that the only way to address their shared concern about North Korea’s missile testing, short of war, was through sanctions on an initially limited set of sectors of the North Korean economy. She then leveraged Chinese support to convince the Russians that it would be a bad look to stand alone in support of Pyongyang.
By the time of the second resolution, Haley was leveraging the president’s trademark unpredictability in a manner reminiscent of the “madman theory” Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger famously employed. In light of Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and former National-Security Adviser H. R. McMaster’s broader campaign of pressure on North Korea, Haley was telling her counterparts on the Security Council, “‘I can’t stop [Trump]. I’m not gonna be able to control him. We’ve gotta get this done.’ … I would say, you know, ‘I don’t know what he’s gonna do.’” (Haley told me her regular contact with Trump gives her sway with fellow ambassadors.)
I asked whether she knew at the time what the president was actually going to do.
“Yeah, I knew,” she responded.
Was the United States really on the verge of initiating a war against North Korea?
Haley shook her head and smiled. “No,” she acknowledged. “Having said that, if they had launched something, if it had come near the U.S., the president totally would have. But at the time, were we gonna instigate something? No.”
The North Korea sanctions packages were a clear demonstration to the Trump administration of the benefits of the United Nations. But during Haley’s tenure, the United States has also stressed the international body’s drawbacks, exiting the Paris climate-change agreement and the UN’s cultural organization, refusing to join the new Global Compact on Migration, and withdrawing funding for the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees (an agency Haley was sympathetic toward early on in her ambassadorship).
When I asked her whether, given these actions, she would describe the United Nations as a total mess or just a partial mess, she responded, “Depends on the day. The United Nations has a lot of flaws: the waste and bureaucracy, the anti-Americanism, the Russian veto [as a permanent member of the Security Council]. It’s a very frustrating place. Having said that, we would not have gotten the North Korea sanctions had it not been for the UN. We would not have gotten the arms embargo” on combatants in the conflict in South Sudan, a resolution the U.S. drafted.
As for her political future, when I asked what the campaign slogan for Haley 2024 would be, she insisted that all she’s running for after leaving office is a bed to sleep in and a remote to binge-watch television. (She also hinted to The Weekly Standard that she’ll write a book, because it would be “therapeutic.”)
“Truly no one believes me: I am not even thinking about it,” she said, noting that she went straight from her governorship to the Trump administration. “For the last eight years, seven days a week, I always pick up my phone with a pit in my stomach, worrying that something bad is gonna happen. And I wait for the day when I don’t have to be so scared of my phone.” Of course, a person—particularly one as ambitious as Nikki Haley—can only sleep in late and binge-watch TV for so long.
What was next for her, in the moment, was Bush’s state funeral at the National Cathedral. In the streets below where Haley was sitting pensively, seemingly at peace with her decision to leave office, the city was starting to stir. “It’s hard not to look at [Bush’s life] and say, so many doors opened for him,” she observed of a man who was himself UN ambassador before going on to become president. “They weren’t always the doors he wanted, but he walked through them.”