Nikki Haley: the unexpected rise of Trump’s woman at the UN

US ambassador is in the spotlight but she has not always seen eye to eye with her boss

US ambassador to the UN and UN Security Council president Nikki Haley at a United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria in New York last week. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

US ambassador to the UN and UN Security Council president Nikki Haley at a United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria in New York last week. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

 

When US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley took to the floor at an emergency session of the United Nations last Wednesday holding photographs of dead children and denouncing the Syrian government and Russia, many saw her words as just that – words.

In many ways her language and tone mirrored those of her predecessor, Irish-American Samantha Power, who in her final months as President Barack Obama’s UN envoy asked of Russia: “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin?”

The difference was that Haley’s tough talk at the United Nations was followed by action.

The next day the United States launched its first military assault against the Syrian regime since the conflict began in 2011, with a missile strike against the Shayrat air field in western Syria.

Haley had in fact been the first Trump administration official to signal that a US attack was in the offing, her words presaging an intervention by President Donald Trump hours later in the White House.

The events of the last week have put 45-year-old Haley firmly in the spotlight.

Who is the woman who has become an increasingly prominent voice in the emerging Trump foreign policy doctrine?

Haley was born in Bamberg, South Carolina in 1972 to Indian-Sikh parents. Her father was a doctor, her mother a teacher turned businesswoman. After working for her mother’s business, Haley entered the state House of Representatives in 2004, becoming governor of South Carolina in 2010.

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She rose to national prominence last year after she ordered the confederate flag – a controversial symbol with strong links to slavery – to be removed from the state Capitol following the shooting dead of nine African-Americans in a church in Charleston.

Tea Party affiliation

Politically, Haley sits to the right. Her affiliation with the Tea Party helped her get elected to the gubernatorial seat in 2010, she is anti-abortion and she converted to Christianity many years ago. But her gender and ethnic identity have helped her defy categorisations.

While Trump’s decision to pick Haley for UN ambassador undoubtedly helped the new administration tick the diversity box, it also showed that the new president was not one to hold grudges.

Haley was a sharp critic of Trump during the campaign, famously entering a public Twitter battle with the then candidate in 2016.

US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley holds photos of victims of the chemical weapons attack in Syria at the UN Security Council last week. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images
US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley holds photos of victims of the chemical weapons attack in Syria at the UN Security Council last week. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

“The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!” Mr Trump tweeted on March 1st, 2016 after Haley had raised the issue of disclosing tax returns. Haley replied with a three-word put-down: “Bless your heart.”

The former governor, who supported Florida senator Marco Rubio and then Ted Cruz for president, also criticised the would-be president’s stance on immigration, saying she could never support a Muslim ban.

Despite Haley’s early move to criticise Russia over its actions in Ukraine in her first weeks as ambassador, critics are wary of her shortcomings and her more controversial views

Trump’s decision to tap Haley for the UN post raised eyebrows among the foreign policy community given her lack of experience in international affairs.  

In one sense the decision to send her to New York could be perceived as a way to keep her from the centre of power, given Trump’s dismissal of the UN before his inauguration as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time”.

But with many positions still unfilled at the US state department, and the relatively low-key presence of secretary of state Rex Tillerson before the Syria strike, Haley could play a more significant role in US foreign policy.

Growing influence

While Haley herself has said that the president leaves her to her own devices at the UN, her appointment to the national security council principals committee this week, coinciding with the departure of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and deputy national security adviser KT McFarland, points to her growing influence within the White House.  

As it happens, the Syrian intervention occurred just as Haley was beginning to step up her public profile, with her first TV interview as ambassador on March 15th. Over the past week she has been a high-profile presence on the domestic political scene, making a series of prime-time TV appearances.

Despite Haley’s early move to criticise Russia over its actions in Ukraine in her first weeks as ambassador, critics are wary of her shortcomings and her more controversial views. She has already taken a strong pro-Israel stance, criticising the UN for an “anti Israel bias” following the decision by the outgoing administration to abstain on a vote demanding the end of settlements in December. In the past few weeks she has described the United Nations Human Rights Council as “so corrupt”.

As with the administration she represents at the United Nations, Haley will ultimately be judged by how US policy in Syria plays out in the coming weeks and months. But as the Trump presidency approaches its first 100 days, the former governor of South Carolina is one to watch.

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