The Novice Diplomat: Gov. Nikki Haley Set to Take Reins at UN. (Or is she?)

On November 23, President-elect Donald Trump named South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley as his nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Assuming Senate confirmation, Governor Haley will hold the status of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary and Representative of the United States of America in the Security Council of the United Nations—a long title for a person who doesn’t hold even a modicum of diplomatic experience, at least when compared to her predecessors.

Given the recent dilemmas that the UN Security Council faces, Governor Haley will have a lot on her plate come January 20, 2017. A few of the most pressing issues include: the precedent-breaking abstention from the United States on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, condemning Israel for its continuation of settlements; the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria; Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula; military buildups in the South China Sea; and the North Korea nuclear question, among others.

Since the founding of the United Nations in 1945, the United States has dispatched 28 “permanent representatives” to the institution, all of whom have been charged with leading a vast diplomatic operation and managing the team of people who represent U.S. interests at the UN. The United States Permanent Representative to the UN is the most visible person to the international community other than the president and secretary of state. Previous ambassadors have had distinguished academic or policy careers before ascending to the position, presenting an experienced face to the UN and the world.

Governor Haley, however, will enter the Security Council with little international experience. To effectively manage the relationship between the United States and other member states, she must learn both the institutional processes of the UN and the fundamentals of U.S. foreign policy.

There are several challenges facing the United Nations including orienting the agenda around the new secretary-general, Antonio Guterres. Many will wonder what will come of complex multilateral agreements, such as the Paris Accords on Climate Change, or the work currently underway with the Nuclear Security Summits—frameworks that the United States has traditionally played a critical role in implementing. These efforts will require effective management, careful communication, and deliberative diplomatic engagement. Needless to say, Governor Haley is likely going to be doing a great deal of reading when she takes command of the US Mission in New York, assuming she is confirmed.

Further complicating Haley’s task is the fact that President-elect Trump has not articulated a coherent approach to international affairs. Pundits and scholars alike are scrambling to make sense of how the Trump administration will engage diplomatically with the world. A more experienced diplomat might be able to shape his or her role at the UN despite this lack of clarity. Haley, however, lacks the background to effectively do so. In an administration that has already stated its disapproval of the UN, a weak UN ambassador will limit the United States’ capacity to engage with the institution—and will likely exacerbate existing U.S.-UN tensions.

The next U.S. ambassador to the UN will face a steep learning curve, and her lack of familiarity with the institution could destabilize diplomatic relationships worldwide. Governor Haley must be responsive to a range of issues when she enters the United Nations, and take responsibility for U.S. power on the Security Council. Has Haley ever read the United Nations Charter? Does she understand the liberal international order and the institutions that shape it? With Congressional scrutiny focused on more controversial appointments, these questions are not likely to be answered during Haley’s confirmation hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The new 115th Congress, and the Senate in particular, must ask itself: Is now the time to have a novice stateswoman assume the highest diplomatic post at the United Nations?

Image: Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore, Flickr)


Johnny V. Boykins is a husband, bow tie aficionado, amateur chef, co-host of the Irrelevantly Relevant Podcast, and U.S. Coast Guard veteran. Boykins has interned at both the United Nations Headquarters in New York City and Geneva, Switzerland. He earned his M.A. in diplomacy and security studies from Norwich University, and a B.A. in political science and communications from Eckerd College. He also has a graduate certificate in teaching and learning, and currently lives in Tampa Bay, Florida.

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