South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to be the US ambassador to the United Nations, has virtually no experience on the world stage, and absolutely none in the high-stakes realm of international diplomacy.
But in her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, she didn’t hesitate to answer some of the toughest foreign policy questions with firm, unequivocal answers.
Do you think Russia committed war crimes in Syria? “Yes, I do.”
Do you believe Russia violated the international order when it annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine? “Yes, I do.”
Should the US move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem? “Absolutely.”
When it came to defending Trump, though, she stumbled.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said that she was “disturbed by some of the president-elect’s comments that are different from those you have enunciated here,” prompting the following rather remarkable exchange:
SHAHEEN: Do you agree with [Trump’s] suggestion that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger and better leader than [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel?
HALEY: I think that what he is looking at ... he’s looking at opportunities. And he’s trying to find opportunities where he can relate to different leaders and work with different leaders. That’s not a bad thing.
SHAHEEN: It’s not a good way to relate to Angela Merkel.
HALEY: No, it’s not. And I agree with you on that.
Haley is clearly in line with Trump when it comes to staunch, unyielding support of Israel — a theme she harped on repeatedly throughout her testimony — and the belief that the UN has been woefully ineffective at stopping conflict around the world. And nothing in the hearing suggested that she will have any trouble winning confirmation.
But like several of Trump’s other Cabinet picks, she also expressed a number of views on critical foreign policy issues, from Russia’s aggression and human rights violations to the importance of NATO, that directly contradict the stated views of her soon-to-be boss — even prompting Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy to joke that these hearings seem to be taking place “in an alternate reality” from the one Trump lives in.
Haley: The UN is a body “often at odds with American national interests”
Haley is up for the job of ambassador to the UN, yet she devoted much of her testimony to denouncing that very institution — particularly when it comes to its perceived bias against Israel.
“In the past 10 years, the [UN] Human Rights Council has passed 62 resolutions condemning the reasonable actions Israel takes to defend its security,” she noted. “Meanwhile, the world’s worst human rights abusers in Syria, Iran, and North Korea received far fewer condemnations. This cannot continue.”
She also ripped the Obama administration for choosing to abstain on a recent UN vote condemning Israeli settlements, calling it a “terrible mistake” and a “kick to the gut” for Israel (though she did say she supports a two-state solution and committed to maintaining the longstanding bipartisan US policy that Israeli settlements are an obstacle to peace).
This sentiment — that the UN is biased against Israel and that it unfairly singles out Israel for censure while ignoring egregious actions by other countries — is also shared by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
And it’s not without merit. Indeed, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who just stepped down at the end of 2016 after having served two five-year terms, told the Security Council in December that "[d]ecades of political maneuvering have created a disproportionate number of resolutions, reports and committees against Israel,” and said that “[i]n many cases, instead of helping the Palestinian issue, this reality has foiled the ability of the UN to fulfill its role effectively."
But Haley went beyond just criticizing the UN’s bias against Israel, lambasting “its failure to prevent the North Korean nuclear threat” and “its waste and corruption,” and declaring that the American people are “fed up” with business as usual at the world body.
She then launched into a diatribe that was in perfect lockstep with Trump’s own views: “We contribute 22 percent of the UN’s budget, far more than any other country. We are a generous nation,” she said. “But we must ask ourselves what good is being accomplished by this disproportionate contribution. Are we getting what we pay for?”
Interestingly, though, she seemed to back away somewhat from calls by Trump and some Republicans in Congress for an across-the-board suspension of all US financial support for the UN until the world body reverses its controversial resolution on Israeli settlements.
Haley made it clear that she does not support pulling funding from the UN if Washington doesn’t get results it likes. She acknowledged that Trump “has made comments about the UN, but those are not my feelings. ... I don’t think there should be a slash and burn at the UN.”
Ultimately, she said, “I want to bring back faith in the UN. I want to show that we can be a strong voice at the UN. I want to show that we can make progress and have action at the UN.”
Russia can’t be trusted; NATO is not obsolete
Trump openly admires Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been publicly feuding with the US intelligence community over its assessment that Russia tried to influence the US election, has expressed a desire to build closer ties with Russia, especially in the fight against ISIS in Syria, and has called NATO “obsolete.”
But it seems most of his Cabinet picks don’t agree with him on that. Haley’s potential boss, secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, stumbled when pressed to condemn Russia’s atrocities in Syria and crackdown on dissent at home, but he was very much the exception. During his own Senate confirmation hearing, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s pick to be the next secretary of defense, called NATO “the most successful alliance in modern history, and maybe ever,” and said that his list of threats to the US “starts with Russia.” Trump’s pick for CIA director, Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo, staked out an equally hard-line position on Russia at his own confirmation hearing.
Trump can now add Haley to the list of detractors within his own administration-to-be. Responding to a question about Russia, Haley stated flatly, “We have to be cautious and not trust them.” “When you look at Russia,” she said, “you should know that there is always an angle that they are trying to do.”
She also offered a robust defense of NATO, stating that “NATO obviously has been an alliance that we value, an alliance that we need to keep.”
She continued, optimistically: “I think that as we continue to talk to [Trump] about these alliances and how they can be helpful and strategic in the way that we move forward, I do anticipate that he will listen to all of us and that we can get him to see it they way we see it.”
Can Haley actually get Trump to see the light?
To be able to do this, though, she will need a close working relationship — which includes a healthy dose of trust and the ability to communicate clearly and candidly — with the president-elect. And it remains to be seen whether Haley and Trump will be able to develop such a relationship, given their rocky past.
The two openly clashed during the presidential campaign. In December 2015, Haley 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 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.
If Haley isn’t able to keep her relationship with the incoming president on solid ground, navigating the administration’s internal divisions could prove to be just as difficult as navigating the diplomatic controversies that regularly roil the UN itself.