Why the ordinary Nikki Haley is exercising extraordinary influence over American foreign policy

Published 12:14 am Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Syria strikes have highlighted the outsized role of Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. On April 3, Politico’s Eliana Johnson wrote that, “with Rex Tillerson conducting his job almost entirely out of public view, Haley has improbably eclipsed the secretary of state as the country’s leading voice on foreign affairs.” On April 8, the New York Times’s Somini Sengupta wrote, “as diplomats at the United Nations saw it, [Haley] managed to elbow herself into a leading, outspoken role in the Trump administration.” On Monday, Washington Post reoprter James Hohmann wrote, “Haley doesn’t think she takes marching orders from Foggy Bottom.”

This pleases hawkish conservatives and displeases New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore:

“Hohmann leaves it an open question as to whether Haley wants to succeed Tillerson at Foggy Bottom, or just check a foreign-policy box on her way to a presidential run. Either ambition would have been considered audacious not that long ago. …

“Haley has serious political skills, and has benefited from a lot of luck. But she had better watch her back if she is indeed disrespecting not just career diplomats or her foreign-policy bosses, but also the policy-making autonomy of Donald Trump.”

Without judging Haley’s performance to date, it is worth noting that the job of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has been occupied by a fair number of politically ambitious folks. In the 1970s, both George H.W. Bush and Daniel Patrick Moynihan held the position, after which they became the president and a U.S. senator, respectively. Since the end of the Cold War, there’s been:

Madeleine Albright, who went on to become secretary of state;

Bill Richardson, who went on to run for president;

Richard Holbrooke, who never became secretary of state but really, really wanted that job;

John Negroponte, who went on to become the first director of national intelligence;

John Bolton, who has at least toyed with running for president;

Susan E. Rice, who almost became secretary of state but became national security adviser instead.

The idea that Haley is uniquely ambitious in this role doesn’t really wash. Her grandstanding behavior is par for the course with this gig.

No, what’s unusual isn’t Haley’s behavior, it’s the absence of any countervailing pressures from Washington. Her nominal boss is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson, however, does not like to talk to the media and then proves this by performing disastrously when he talks to the media. Because an awful lot of diplomacy is, you know, talking to the media, Tillerson is at a disadvantage in trying to rein in Haley.

This disadvantage is compounded in the Trump administration, for two reasons. First, President Donald Trump has made it clear that his cable news-watching habits guide his foreign policy instincts. If Haley is more willing to appear and more articulate when she’s on television, then her more hawkish viewpoint will carry greater weight.

Second, beyond just rhetoric, the State Department is currently outmanned. Tillerson remains the only political appointee confirmed by the Senate. The White House has been so slow in putting names forward that the State Department has delayed its training sessions for its ambassadors. Without any other senior appointees, the only person who can rein in Haley is Tillerson. Since Tillerson seems to think that public rhetoric doesn’t matter, he’s not going to rouse himself.

As Hohmann points out, what stands out isn’t Haley’s freelancing but that there’s no one in Washington imposing any constraints in response:

“All the chaos inside the Trump administration over the past 80 days has allowed Haley to get away with the kind of freelancing that would ordinarily cause someone in her position to be rebuked. In fact, she’s been left alone. As she said on ABC the weekend before last, ‘The president has not once called me and said, “Don’t beat up on Russia.” He has not once called me and told me what to say.’ ”

And, indeed, on Tuesday it appeared that the secretary of State has gone from disagreeing with Haley on the Sunday morning shows to sounding an awful lot like Haley. The Associated Press said on Twitter: “BREAKING: Tillerson says it is clear ‘to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,’ ” while CNN Politics wrote: “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: ‘Russia has failed in its responsibility’ to rid Syria of chemical weapons ”

I confess to mixed feelings on this issue. On the one hand, Haley is probably more hawkish in her views than I am. Her rhetoric raises the stakes in Syria, asking more from Trump’s policy principals; I don’t trust this administration to competently organize a White House Easter Egg roll, much less a multi-pronged strategy to address Syria.

On the other hand, in the wake of the president and the secretary of state sounding borderline incoherent on American foreign policy, it’s nice to hear someone articulating U.S. principles on the global stage.

And it is very interesting to note that, after an election season in which traditional political experience was disdained, it’s the seasoned politician who seems to be thriving among a collection of non-politicians in the foreign policy world.

Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.