A brutal war in Syria that has killed more than 400,000 people and sparked a refugee crisis of literally historic proportions. An increasingly aggressive Russia using its military strength to annex parts of other countries. A bloody war in Yemen that has put millions of people on the brink of starvation. A volatile and belligerent dictator with nuclear weapons in North Korea. Escalating tensions between the United States and China over territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas.
These are just a few of the critical international issues that will confront Nikki Haley if she’s confirmed as President-elect Donald Trump’s new US ambassador to the United Nations. On Wednesday, Trump’s transition team announced that it had chosen Haley for the job, the first woman to be tapped for a Cabinet-level position in the Trump White House. Her appointment must still be confirmed by the Senate.
In a statement announcing his decision, Trump said the South Carolina governor has a "track record of bringing people together regardless of background or party affiliation." He also called Haley "a proven deal-maker, and we look to be making plenty of deals."
That may be true, but Haley has virtually no experience on the world stage, and absolutely none in the high-stakes realm of international diplomacy. Trump’s erratic behavior and calls for upending decades of bipartisan consensus on issues ranging from NATO to nuclear proliferation have already sent alarms blaring in foreign capitals. It’s not clear that a neophyte like Haley will be able to silence them.
Haley will likely face a steep learning curve
If confirmed, Haley will represent the United States — and President Trump — at the UN Security Council, where the US is a permanent, veto-wielding member, and at the General Assembly. It’s a job that requires diplomatic finesse, the ability to navigate the vast, frustrating bureaucracy of the UN, and a willingness to confront Russia, which has consistently stymied US efforts to end the bloodshed in Ukraine and find a way out of Syria’s brutal civil war.
On top of that, as BuzzFeed’s Hayes Brown astutely pointed out, Haley will be the lone woman among 14 men on the UN Security Council. “That’s a reversion to the norm from the high point in 2014 when a third of the 15-member Security Council — five countries — were represented by women,” Hayes notes. Obama’s two UN ambassadors were also women: Susan Rice and Samantha Power, who currently holds the post.
It’s a tough job for anyone to fill, but there will likely be an especially steep learning curve for the young governor whose foreign policy experience is limited to a handful of overseas trips to negotiate trade deals on behalf of her state. Even previous UN ambassadors with strong foreign policy and diplomatic credentials have struggled to make any headway in leveraging the US role in the UN Security Council to stop the myriad conflicts raging around the world or rein in rogue adversaries.
Power started her career as a war correspondent covering the nightmarish wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and later wrote a Pulitzer Prize–winning book looking at how Washington and its allies have consistently failed to stop genocides. She was one of Obama’s closest advisers, held a high-level job at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and came to the UN with an air of global celebrity. Power, in other words, came to the job with a deep understanding of the exact issues the US ambassador to the UN deals with on a daily basis.
Yet despite all of her impressive credentials, not to mention her tireless work and obvious personal passion for and commitment to the job, Power has failed to end the carnage in Syria or impose even modest sanctions on Bashar al-Assad for war crimes like the use of chemical weapons against his own people.
During her tenure, Russia annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, and prolonged Syria’s civil war by using troops and warplanes to help Assad regain the momentum on the battlefield, causing untold amounts of new carnage; North Korea carried out multiple nuclear tests; and Saudi Arabia, with US backing, launched a disastrous war in Yemen characterized by massive casualties and gross human rights violations.
And Power has been able to do little more than watch the horror unfold and tweet about it in frustration. That means Haley will have a very low bar to clear: preventing those conflicts from getting worse while avoiding getting ensnared in new diplomatic crises. That, with a president as mercurial and inexperienced as Trump, will be difficult all the same.
Haley and Trump have a history that could complicate her job
Haley will also have the additional challenge of working closely with — and speaking for — a man she openly clashed with during the presidential campaign. In December 2015, she spoke out against Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States, calling it "absolutely un-American" and "unconstitutional."
"It defies everything that this country was based on and it's just wrong," Haley told reporters in December, and added that the policy was "an embarrassment" to her party.
Trump responded — in classic Trump fashion — by insulting her on Twitter.
The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 1, 2016
Haley, the daughter of immigrants from India, fired back the only way a Southern girl can in these situations:
Trump was clearly able to look past their previous public spat and is willing to give her a chance, which bodes well for the future of their working relationship. Still, Haley is the first person outside of the president-elect’s close inner circle of loyalists to be given a prominent position in his administration. Given Trump’s penchant for petty revenge and what can only be described as a truly heroic capacity to hold a grudge, the potential for a rocky relationship going forward is certainly there.
This matters greatly, as the UN ambassador serves as the face of not only the United States but also the Trump administration on the international stage. Her words and actions are taken as the official positions of the president of the most powerful country on Earth.
This means that for the UN ambassador, having a close working relationship — which includes a healthy dose of trust and the ability to communicate clearly and candidly — with the president is absolutely essential to her ability to do her job. Rice and Power both enjoyed close, warm working relationships with President Obama, who made Rice his national security adviser after she left New York.
It remains to be seen whether Haley and Trump will be able to develop such a relationship. If they don’t, Haley could find that her already extremely difficult job will be that much harder to navigate.