U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told Congress Wednesday that foreign diplomats at the U.N. frequently cite their concerns about the unpredictability of U.S. foreign policy. That, she said, is a good thing.
Keeping foreign governments guessing about U.S. intentions has served as powerful negotiating lever, she said, helping her to secure cuts of hundreds of million dollars in peacekeeping costs. “For me, it’s been helpful,” she Wednesday at a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“I deal with 192 [countries] and the overwhelming feeling is that we are unpredictable; they don’t know exactly what we are going to do,” she said. “It has kept them more on alert, of wanting to be there with us, not wanting to get on the wrong side of us.”
Asked if unpredictability in foreign relations is dangerous, raising the risk of miscalculation and possibly conflict, Haley said: “In my job I found it’s made my negotiations better and it’s made them easier because they don’t assume, they don’t take us for granted any more. They no longer look at us as one they can just push over.”
The suggestion by Haley, a diplomatic novice, that U.S. leadership in the world is enhanced by its unpredictability struck some delegates as naive and a bit troubling. Traditionally, American allies have looked to the United States as a force for consistency and stability.
Haley’s remarks appeared aimed at demonstrating that there is method behind to what many international leaders see as the foreign policy madness of a Trump Administration that has zig-zagged on everything from the importance of NATO to the risks to the Western order posed by Russia.
Her remarks came amid reports that the United States had secured nearly $600 million in reductions to the U.N.’s nearly $2 billion a year peacekeeping budget, which translates to about $200 million in savings for U.S. taxpayers, who are obligated to pay about 28 percent of the U.N.’s peacekeeping costs. Still, that falls well short of the $1 billion in savings proposed by the White House.
Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the savings are a political victory for Haley, but could backfire in the future.
“This will look good until one of the hardest-hit missions faces a crisis,” Gowan said. “Some of the biggest cuts target to the Darfur operation. It is pretty inevitable that there will be more violence there, and the U.S. will face accusations of sacrificing vulnerable civilians for some pretty minor cost savings.”
Haley’s testimony came against a backdrop of mounting anxiety among American allies over whether the United States can be counted on to play its traditional role as the guarantor of the post World War II peace. That includes key economic, human rights, and environmental institutions and agreements the have contributed to decades of prosperity and growth – and the West’s political and financial dominance.
On June 20, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres told reporters in New York that the U.S. retreat from key foreign policy initiatives – including its withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement – was creating a leadership vacuum that will ultimately be filled by other countries.
“If the United States disengages,” Guterres said, “it will be unavoidable that other actors will occupy that space. And I don’t think this is good for the United States, and I don’t think this is good for the world.”
Before Congress, Haley defended the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris pact -claiming it would hurt American businesses- and downplayed the seriousness of the White House’s commitment to gut the U.N. budget, suggesting that it was intended to “make the point” that United States’ traditional role as the U.N.’s chief financial benefactor cannot be taken for granted. The U.S., she noted, is also “putting the U.N. on notice” that there could be consequences to anti-U.S. stances.
She also said that U.N. delegates privately reached out to the United States to express appreciation for exercising leadership after it launched missile attacks against an airfield in Syria in retaliation for that country’s alleged use of chemical weapons. This week, the White House threatened to use force again to deter what they claim was an effort by Syria to prepare for a new attack.
Haley also devoted much of the session to batting back questions about the perceived lack of unity on the president’s national security team, insisting that the administration’s key players were ultimately rowing in the same direction.
She noted noted that while President Donald Trump hasn’t echoed her own strong public condemnations of Russia policy from Ukraine to Syria, he has never reigned her in. “I’ve done a fair bit of Russia bashing,” Haley said. And the president, she noted, has never asked her to stop.
The White House and the State Department exercise limited oversight over the way she does her job, she said, which would be a departure from previous administrations.
“This administration does not tell me what to say or what not to say,” she said.