Nikki Haley the Alternative Secretary of State?
By Jonathan S.
June 30, 2017
of State Rex Tillerson doesn’t seem to enjoy being America’s top diplomat.
He finds himself isolated in Foggy Bottom and not getting much love or
cooperation from the White House. President Donald Trump often contradicts
Tillerson’s statements on major issues, like the dustup between the Saudis and
Qatar, in such a way as to indicate that Tillerson doesn’t have much influence
over U.S. policy.
choice for the far less important post of ambassador to the United Nations seems
to be having a much better time. Nikki Haley is speaking out frequently on
issues such as human rights, Israel, Iran, and Syria in ways that make it clear
that, like some of her predecessors, she understands that the U.N. post is the
ideal bully pulpit. In an administration in which the country’s putative top
diplomat is struggling to manage his department rather than advocating for U.S.
values, Haley has become a kind of alternative secretary of state.
is a long history of tension and contrasts between the occupants of these two
offices. But thanks to the huge disparity in power, probably never before has
there been a duo in which the U.N. ambassador appears to have the louder voice.
While it’s difficult to say what the long-term implications of this will be,
the length of Tillerson’s tenure in office is an open question, while
Haley’s promising political career — which might have come to an end after
she resigned as governor of South Carolina to join the administration of a man
she had bitterly opposed during the Republican primaries — seems to have
gotten a new lease on life.
transition from the business world to the State Department has been rocky.
Promised autonomy by Trump, the former Exxon CEO has discovered that the White
House still has the right to veto every appointment he wants to make. When he
recently lost his temper in a meeting over the issue in the White House, he
discovered that the inhabitants of the West Wing are always going to leak
embarrassing details about someone crossing them in that fashion. Unflattering
articles about the dysfunctional nature of his department and his inability to
influence the president’s decisions have proliferated.
particularly unfortunate because Tillerson is not the kind of secretary of state
who can rise above the organizational politics of Foggy Bottom or tense
relations with the West Wing by concentrating on diplomatic initiatives.
Tillerson is a manager by trade, not a diplomat, let alone an advocate of a
particular point of view about the world. Trump could have had the conservative
equivalent of a John Kerry by appointing any one of a number of other possible
candidates, including Mitt Romney, Rudolph Giuliani, and John Bolton. Instead he
chose someone with no political or diplomatic experience. Trump seems to have
assumed that Tillerson would run his department more efficiently than a
politician or diplomat would, and that his active participation in the global
marketplace would serve him well when seeking to make the brilliant deals Trump
assumed his administration would make with friends and foes.
was an effective CEO, but his considerable skills do not seem to translate well
to the intensely political nature of his job. He’s accused of not
understanding that Trump and his team get to control staffing while also cutting
himself off from the career Foreign Service officers who know how the department
and international diplomacy work.
contrast, Haley’s appointment didn’t seem to be based on any notion that she
could accomplish a thing. Putting her at the U.N. was a minimalist effort to
throw a bone to the Never Trump wing of the Republican party. A stern critic of
Trump during the campaign who was humiliated by the billionaire’s landslide
win in South Carolina, Haley may have expected a job that her experience as
governor of a small, mostly rural state might have prepared her to do. It was
unclear whether she actually knew anything about the subject of foreign policy.
despite her apparent lack of preparation, her transition has gone smoothly.
Though diplomatic veterans scoff at her willingness to echo Trump’s belief
that it is in America’s interests for the world to view it as an unpredictable
force, Haley understands that her purpose is not to curry favor with the
foreign-policy establishment, let alone with the representatives of other
nations. Taking former U.N. ambassadors such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeanne
Kirkpatrick, and Bolton as her role models, Haley has made herself right at home
in Turtle Bay speaking out fearlessly on a range of issues in ways that have
earned her rave reviews from Republicans, as well as some media outlets that
have little good to say about Trump, while earning the resentment of traditional
contrast to Tillerson, who has gone out of his way to eschew the traditional
role of diplomatic spokesman for the nation that leads the free world, in the
last six months Haley has become the leading American voice for human rights and
against tyranny. Where he has insisted that human rights should not be a prime
motive for U.S. foreign policy, they are a priority for Haley. He seems to
embody the notion that the purpose of the State Department is to manage a
complex world rather than to try to change it. She is someone who is prepared to
publicly pressure corrupt and ineffective U.N. agencies such as the Human Rights
Council for their hypocrisy and anti-Semitism while reaffirming the U.S.
alliance with Israel in a way that is normally the business of the secretary of
more interesting is that Haley has been a particular critic of Russia’s toxic
role in fomenting trouble around the world. Where Tillerson is largely silent
about the atrocities committed by Russia and its Iranian and Assad-government
allies, Haley is their most outspoken administration critic.
ought to have gotten her in trouble with a president who still seems to cling to
the illusion that a rapprochement with Moscow is possible. But so far Trump is
either ignoring her heresy or perhaps encouraging it because he understands the
value of having a strong administration voice playing the role of bad cop with
the Putin regime.
the result of all this is something that few could have foreseen when Tillerson
and Haley were appointed. While Tillerson is increasingly isolated and lacking
influence, Haley has become one of the few clear successes in the Trump cabinet.
no way of knowing whether Tillerson will eventually regain his balance and run
the State Department effectively, or whether Haley’s outspokenness will
eventually trip her up and cause Trump to dump her in a fit of jealousy or zeal
to appease Russia. But as of now, Haley is the person to listen to if you want
to hear talk about American values and interests, while Tillerson fumes in
private about his feuds with Trump’s aides. That doesn’t make her the
unofficial secretary of state, but it does speak to Haley’s political savvy
and eloquence, which will ensure this isn’t her last stop in public service.