Nikki Haley crouched low in the trailer of an 18-wheeler taping up a box of lentils and wheat for besieged Syrians, her hands-on diplomacy a world apart from the gleaming new NATO headquarters where President Donald Trump was debuting his “America First” doctrine overseas.
Haley, Trump’s U.N. ambassador, had started the day in Turkey’s capital, opened a refugee school in the south of the country, then travelled hours in an armoured vehicle to the Syrian border. Her afternoon stop had to be short. She had a packed schedule, and at a nearby refugee camp she was soon kicking soccer balls with stranded Syrians and noshing on shawarma.
As she hopped a flight to Istanbul, Trump was arriving in Brussels to scold European allies for relying too much on U.S. defence spending. Haley’s mission represented another side of Trump’s “America First,” assuring nations on the border of the world’s worst crisis that the U.S. wasn’t forgetting them.
“I think ‘America First’ is human rights and ‘America First’ is humanitarian issues,” Haley said. “It’s what we’ve always been known for.”
Haley’s trip last week to Jordan and Turkey showcased the outspoken former South Carolina governor-turned-Trump diplomat’s emergence as Trump’s foreign policy alter ego: still bold, still brash-talking, but with greater attention to America’s traditional global roles and the personable side of diplomacy.
Whereas Trump has emphasized U.S. security and prosperity and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has distinguished between America’s interests and its values, Haley is the national security voice insisting the U.S. still seeks to promote human rights, democracy and the well-being of others. Yet Haley brushes off any suggestion of divergent interests, arguing instead that the members of Trump’s Cabinet simply “see the world through a different scope.”
“We take basically what we work with every day and try to make America first through that lens,” she said at Altinozu Refugee Camp in southern Turkey, in explaining her sharply contrasting style. “For me to make America first, I have to fight for the political solution, have to fight for human rights and I have to fight for humanitarian issues, because I’m surrounded by it every day.”
So far, the White House has cautiously embraced Haley’s higher profile, perhaps as an antidote to Democratic and Republican critiques that Trump doesn’t care about human rights. Her prominent role as a face of Trump’s foreign policy has fueled talk in Washington about her political future, including potentially as a future secretary of state.
And while Haley has sometimes contributed to mixed messages, on everything from Syria to the delicate issue of Jerusalem’s status, the White House has continued sending her out frequently to represent the administration in public and on television.
Haley’s role as boundary-pusher may have roots in her political upbringing in South Carolina, where the daughter of Indian immigrants became the first female governor in a state notorious for its “good-old-boy” Republican network.
When a self-avowed white supremacist gunned down nine black worshippers in a Charleston church, Haley sat front-and-centre for weeks at every one of the funerals. She grieved publicly throughout her second term after the “1,000-year flood,” Hurricane Matthew, and other tragedies in the state.
Yet it was her role in the roiling controversy over removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds that largely defined her ascent as a national political figure. For many in the state, it was a cherished symbol of Civil War sacrifices. But the rebel flag had been brandished by the Charleston church gunman in a display of hate, and Haley said South Carolinians needed to move forward and “put themselves in other people’s shoes.”
“She’s definitely someone who seemed to rise to the occasion when faced with these controversies,” said Gibbs Knotts, who teaches political science at the College of Charleston. “She hadn’t necessarily had a legislative success, but her ability to handle crises and connect with people and represent the state was when she was at her strongest as governor.”
After being picked by Trump in January for the U.N. ambassadorship, Haley said that “everything I’ve done leading up to this point has always been about diplomacy.”
“It’s been about trying to lift up everyone, getting them to work together for the greater good, and that’s what I’m going to attempt to do going forward,” she said.
As a member of Trump’s administration, though, it’s been more complicated.
While Haley conducted her reassurance tour for Syria’s neighbours last week, Trump unveiled a budget proposing sweeping cuts to U.S. foreign aid. Many of the same U.N. agencies whose programs Haley visited faced sharply reduced U.S. contributions, creating uncertainty about whether she could deliver on her declarations of support.
It’s contradictions like that, plus her extemporaneous style, that have led to speculation she sometimes deviates from the approved message in an administration in which Trump seeks to be the brightest star, demands loyalty and doesn’t tolerate public dissent. After the U.S. blamed a chemical attack on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, Haley was outspoken in questioning Assad’s future while Tillerson and Trump were more circumspect. It took about a week for trio to get on the same page.