As Nikki Haley finishes her tenure this month, the woman who has spent the last two years representing the U.S. at the United Nations has a question for the American public: Should the U.S. remain a member?
"The American people need to decide if it's worth it," she said in an interview with a small group of journalists this week. There is a lot of waste and abuse at the UN, she said, and it is often "politically unfair" to the U.S. and its allies. That said, she also noted that the UN was the vehicle for imposing tough sanctions on North Korea and an arms embargo on South Sudan.
"There are rays of light," she said. "But the verdict is still out."
It's easy to see where Haley is coming from — during her tenure, the UN has had to deal with scandals of the self-inflicted and political variety. It continues to suffer the repercussions of child sex abuse by UN peacekeepers. Meanwhile Russia's veto at the Security Council, "one of the most frustrating things about the UN," continues to protect Syria from facing accountability for chemical weapons attacks.
Haley's signature moment came when she threatened nations that voted against the U.S. after President Donald Trump announced the decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. "You go in with body armor because you know you're going to fight that day," she said. "You just don't know who."
At the same time, Haley showed an ability to work within the institution. In addition to the North Korea sanctions, Haley and her team pushed through a set of reforms to streamline the UN bureaucracy and cut some of the waste from the budget. She wisely gave up on trying to reform the farcical UN Human Rights Council, instead withdrawing the U.S. from it in June. She also advocated for better mechanisms to hold countries that send abusive peacekeepers to war zones more accountable.
Haley distinguished her approach to the job from that of her predecessor, Samantha Power. Power was very gracious when Haley first came on the job, Haley said, offering her advice on how to deal with different ambassadors and other tips. They did not discuss policy, however. "The previous administration, while they were well-intentioned, they just wanted all the other countries to like us," Haley said.
Haley did not spend much time engaging with the envoys of rogue states and adversaries. She said she didn't want to waste her time with the Cuban or Syrian ambassadors.
What about the U.S.'s two biggest geopolitical rivals — Russia and China? Russian diplomats, she said, were interested mainly in creating "distractions" and "chaos." And the Chinese, she said, are becoming bolder with their economic power, telling smaller countries: "If you don't vote with us, we are going to recall all of our loans."
Ambassadors to foreign lands often retain some affection for their postings after they return home. Former ambassadors to the UN, not so much.
John Bolton, the former UN ambassador and current national security adviser, came away from his time in Turtle Bay even more skeptical of the institution than when he started. And Daniel Patrick Moynihan summed up his views in the title of his memoir about his time there. Forty years later, the United Nations remains, as Moynihan called it, "A Dangerous Place." Just ask Nikki Haley.
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