Development experts react to Nikki Haley's appointment as US ambassador to UN

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Photo by: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a rising young Republican politician with little foreign policy experience, will serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

After news of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s latest selection to his administration circulated, the global development community and U.N. experts are now making sense of how Haley’s selection will impact development work and international relations around the world.

Haley’s domestic U.S. focus in her career so far could slow her down, initially, once she lands at U.N. headquarters, some observers said.

“If you ask her how many U.N. agencies there are she would say, ‘I have no idea,’ and if you ask her what the SDGs are she might say, ‘What’s that?’” said a U.N. civil society insider who did not want to be named for diplomatic reasons.

Haley’s political record will now be scoured for hints of her likely stances on key development and international issues, such as climate change and the world’s ongoing refugee crisis. Haley, a 44-year-old daughter of Indian immigrants, was part of a list of governors that opposed resettlement of Syrian refugees — a decision that ultimately does not fall in the hands of U.S. governors. South Carolina today hosts several dozen Syrian refugees. She publicly sparred with Trump during the presidential campaign on the issue of immigration, saying that he was engaging in “irresponsible talk” with his anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric.

Haley also has a questionable climate change record. She has not acknowledged the role climate change plays in extreme weather events, such as the recent floods in South Carolina, and she has been accused of hiding a report on climate change’s impacts in her state, as ThinkProgress reported.

Haley’s lack of direct foreign affairs and development experience also means the United States’ direction at the U.N. is now a blank slate.

“It’s simply too early to predict what Haley means for the U.N.,” U.N. expert Richard Gowan wrote in an email. “Unlike previous U.S. ambassadors, ranging from John Bolton to Samantha Power, she has no track record of comments on the organization.”

“I think a lot of non-American diplomats will hope that Haley will be relatively moderate, and her political skills may help her navigate Turtle Bay, but I don't think her appointment really gives us any clear signals about what Trump will do on climate change or development.”

This could stand as a benefit in Turtle Bay.

“Ignorance is bliss, in comparison to what we do know about some of the other candidates,” one senior U.N. official reportedly told Foreign Affairs.

One contender for the job was John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under George W. Bush and a supporter of the Iraq War.

Haley is not a known ideologue and could be flexible on certain policy issues, this civil society representative explained.

“The issues are not so set in stone. Churkin [Russia’s ambassador to the U.N.] is likely licking his lips this morning, but the French and the Brits will be encouraged too, since they may have someone they can work with,” the representative said. “Haley is a very ambitious person and her rise has shown that this is going to be about making her look good. I don’t think this is going to be as aggressive of a U.S. mission as we thought this was going to be.”

Trump, in making his selection, called her a “proven dealmaker.” Haley said she accepted Trump’s offer, in part, because of a “sense of duty.”

“When the president believes you have a major contribution to make to the welfare of our nation, and to our nation’s standing in the world, that is a calling that is important to heed,” she said in a statement. Aside from mentioning that America faced “enormous challenges” internationally, Haley’s statement contained no other details of her views on the U.N. or international issues.

Haley will also be the only female member on the Security Council — marking her selection as a deviation from all of Trump’s white, male choices so far to serve alongside him in the new administration.

U.S. governors have a “practical and frontline set of experiences when it comes to dealing with foreign governments,” said Richard Crespin, the CEO of Collaborate Up, a boutique consulting firm that advises businesses and nonprofits.

“They don’t deal with it in the abstract or the theoretical. They are typically dealing with practical trade issues — attracting business to the state, keeping trade flows, finding markets for products made in the state. I would expect that part of the reason she was selected was because she has that practical experience.”

The U.S. Senate will still have to confirm Haley’s nomination. She said in her statement she will continue her work as governor until that occurs.

Adva Saldinger contributed reporting for this story.

Stay tuned to Devex for more news and analysis of what the Trump administration will mean for global development. Read more coverage here and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.