Whether leading efforts to isolate North Korea or hailing cuts to the United Nations budget, Haley’s ability to channel Trump’s blunt style is prompting fellow U.N. envoys and foreign policy specialists to wonder whether the 45-year-old former South Carolina governor is laying the groundwork to succeed her boss in the Oval Office.
U.N. ambassadors from other nations take Haley’s “obvious domestic political ambitions” in stride, said Richard Gowan, a UN expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Most foreign representatives are willing to shrug off her hard-line positions on Israel and U.N. costs as necessary political posturing.”
The theater of the U.N. podium and the Security Council chambers have long favored officials who can present their cases with flair and a sense of drama: think Colin Powell’s ultimately flawed arguments against Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction or, decades earlier, Fidel Castro’s tirades against colonialism and capitalism before the General Assembly.
Speculation about Haley’s future kicked back into gear after the American ambassador’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly last month, just before the global body condemned on a 128-9 vote President Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. Haley held a defiant thank-you reception for the small group of nations who voted with the U.S., abstained or managed to be no-shows for the vote.
Never mind that much of the world viewed the vote as a rejection of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. That wasn’t her audience.
Haley’s remarks — in which she said the U.S. had been “singled out for attack” after “exercising our right as a sovereign nation” — seemed more targeted to Trump and Republican voters than foreign diplomats, according to a Security Council diplomat from a U.S.-allied nation who asked not to be identified discussing the U.S. ambassador to the world body.
Even when events don’t go her way — an emergency Security Council meeting she called last week on street protests in Iran turned into a pointed defense of the nuclear accord Trump opposes — Haley is unfazed.
“Those don’t bother me,” she said of criticism from Security Council members. “We were there for the Iranian people. They were heard. That’s what matters.”
“Haley speaks her mind,” said Katon Dawson, an ally of Haley who ran the South Carolina Republican party from 2002 to 2009. “She’s got good political instincts.”
Dawson, who said he hasn’t spoken to Haley about her political ambitions, added one more thought that mirrored the speculation at the U.N.: “Nikki’s hot politically, she just is.”
In a written comment, Haley’s office said she “tunes out all the political speculation and stays focused on her work at the U.N., passing the toughest sanctions ever on North Korea, highlighting Iranian violations of missile bans and human rights, and standing up for America’s interests and those of our allies.”
Throughout 2017, Haley showed how to use the U.N. platform to her advantage. Her first day in the UN headquarters she warned that the U.S. would be “taking names” of countries that vote against Washington’s interests. That style continued all the way to Dec. 24, when she issued a statement emphasizing her role in cutting more than $285 million from the UN’s $5.4 billion budget, hinting more reductions were to come.
“We will no longer let the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of or remain unchecked,” Haley said. In future negotiations, she said, “you can be sure we’ll continue to look at ways to increase the UN’s efficiency while protecting our interests.”
While that statement wasn’t likely to endear her to the diplomatic community — which she still needs to rally behind U.S. positions on issues from Iran to North Korea — it could win her kudos among the Republican primary voters who regard the world body as anti-American.
“I sense she’s more worried about her next job than this one,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. “She will be well-positioned in the Republican primaries.”
If Haley does run for president, she could help lure women back to the Republican party after they defected in 2016 and offer a big-tent vision of the party as the daughter of immigrants from India.
“If the Republican party is going to be a nationally viable party for years to come, it has to be more than a party of aggrieved old men — and that’s where people like Ambassador Haley, Marco Rubio and Tim Scott come into play,” said Rob Godfrey, a former Haley spokesman from her campaign days, referring to senators from Florida and South Carolina who also represent diversity and relative youthfulness.
Haley’s choice of advisers and her focus as U.S. ambassador have fueled the political chatter. She has an active Twitter account that ranges from talk about the latest Security Council sanctions to her favorite music playlists. Her closest aide isn’t an experienced foreign policy hand but Jon Lerner, the former pollster who helped her win the Palmetto state governor’s mansion. Lerner serves as Haley’s deputy in Washington, a key job that allows him to serve as her eyes and ears in the capital, taking part in “deputies meetings” with top officials from throughout the Trump administration.
One thing her supporters and detractors agree on is that Haley has shown she has the political chops to thrive in the high-pressure setting of the U.N.
“Her success as one of the first women and one of the youngest people ever to be governor of a southern state should tell you she’s got the moxie to be able do a lot of things,” said Dawson. “It’s certainly not out of our realm of thinking that a lot of friends of Nikki ought to have calendars kind of free by 2022,” giving her enough time to prepare for the 2024 primaries.
While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has had to fend off reports that his retirement is imminent, or that he called the president a “moron” after a national security meeting, Haley has had a more stable public relationship with Trump. That has developed even though she endorsed one of Trump’s opponents — Rubio — during the Republican primaries and feuded with the future president on Twitter at the time.
Her posting in New York gives Haley a balance of access to the president and a safe distance from White House infighting. Asked about a new book that says many of Trump’s staff question his mental stability, Haley dismissed the assertion on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, but also said, “I’m there once a week, and I’m there for a day with White House meetings and everything. No one questions the stability of the president.”
Haley has shown she’s “an effective member of the Trump Cabinet — and that’s one of the rarest accolades in Washington right now,” Godfrey said.
A move from the U.N. to the White House isn’t without precedent: George H.W. Bush served as President Richard Nixon’s ambassador to the U.N. in the early 1970s before getting to the White House in 1981 as Ronald Reagan’s vice president and, in 1989, as president.
But given the turmoil of the Trump administration’s first year, Haley knows that she has to keep delivering, Dawson said.
“She doesn’t let her ambition get in the way of her day job,” Dawson said. “Nikki’s always had impeccable timing and very good political instincts.”