The shock is gone. Panic is subsiding. Now, diplomats who represent the nations of the world are entering what one described as the third stage of grief: figuring out how to deal with President Donald Trump.
They’re scrambling to speak with his advisers and poring over his Twitter posts — or if they’re old school, ordering their minions to print out twice-daily lists of presidential outbursts. They’re watching anxiously how he reacts to a series of high-stakes tests (military provocations by Russia in Ukraine, for instance), while trying to parse the contradictory statements coming out of his administration (what exactly is the United States’ view on Russia?).
And they’re counting on his U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, to be a coolheaded adviser, even as they wonder whether she, his not-so-long-ago critic, has her mercurial boss’ ear.
Their doubts surfaced late Friday over the abruptly annulled appointment of a Palestinian leader for a senior U.N. post. Diplomats said they had been led to believe the appointment of the Palestinian, Salam Fayyad, had been approved by all Security Council members — only to be greeted with a last-minute statement from Haley’s office, quashing the appointment. The United States does not recognize Palestine as a state, the statement read, raising questions about whether Haley had been overridden by the White House.
So far, she has revealed little of her world views, except an opening salvo that did not go down very well among her peers. “For those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names,” she said of U.S. allies in her first remarks at the U.N. headquarters, and then repurposed it into a hashtag: #TakingNames.
So far on Trump’s watch, Iran and North Korea have carried out ballistic missile tests, Israel has expanded settlements and fighting has escalated between Ukraine and pro-Russia rebels — all regarded as early tests for the White House.
His travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations has given ballast to the Islamic State, his somersaults on Taiwan are seen to have strengthened China’s hand, and his unpleasant exchanges with the leaders of close allies like Mexico and Australia have left many diplomats wondering whether they can count on the world’s most powerful nation as a reliable partner.
Trump’s supporters see his edicts and outbursts as perfectly consistent with his campaign promise to upend the establishment, reassert U.S. primacy and put all on notice not to trifle with him — a kind of chaos theory of foreign-policy management to leave everyone guessing, all the time.
For the United States’ friends in the world, the uncertainty is complicated by not knowing exactly whom to talk to. The warrens of the State Department are unusually empty. Obama administration officials have packed up; new appointments have yet to be made. And a series of contradictory statements have emerged from Cabinet officials about crucial issues — not least Russia.
Trump has continued to express his admiration for his counterpart in the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Yet Haley has taken a different posture. In both her confirmation hearing and in her first open remarks in the Security Council, she condemned Russia’s “aggressive actions” in Ukraine and insisted that U.S. sanctions on Moscow would remain.
Several Western envoys breathed a sigh of relief, but not without doubts. Was she speaking for herself, or for the administration? Was the inconsistency deliberate, or did it reflect a lack of consensus? Who is setting U.S. policy, and whom should they be talking to?
“Unanswerable right now,” advised Kathleen Hicks, a Pentagon official under President Barack Obama and now a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They’re smartest to have multiple points of entry. Backups to backups.”
Haley will have to weigh in on difficult, contentious issues that are on the U.N. agenda: how to save South Sudan from what could be a genocide, say, or whether to punish the president of Syria, Bashar Assad, for unleashing chemical weapons on his people, or how to stanch the spread of terrorism in West Africa.
Yet she has not expressed opinions on much. On Twitter, she posted selfies with her husband, Michael, and a YouTube video of Billy Joel singing “New York State of Mind.” She admitted to being excited to see the movie “Deepwater Horizon,” and offered a new hashtag: #WeekendsInNYC.
On the last Sunday of January, as Trump’s travel ban left immigrants and refugees stranded across the world, Haley wrote a Twitter post about her husband driving up to New York with the family’s pets, including two frogs and a fish.
On Saturday night, after North Korea tested a missile, Haley posted a Twitter message about her admiration for Joan Jett, the 1980s rock star.
What kind of influence she may have on the White House remains unknown. She is far from being a confidante of Trump’s, and it’s unclear how much sway she will have over him on any of the big crises facing the world.
“Nikki Haley will be a perfectly normal politician sent to be ambassador,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a former Bush administration official. Trump, he warned, has “instincts and prejudices which are out of the norm of American diplomatic belief and practice.”
The diplomatic corps is queuing up to see her — and those who score face time are wasting no time sharing it. “The #SpecialRelationship comes to @UN,” the British ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, posted on Twitter, along with a photo of the two of them shoulder to shoulder.
“Very positive meeting,” the Ukrainian ambassador, Volodymyr Y. Yelchenko, offered, posting a picture of his own.
At a crowded reception one recent evening, one diplomat described the first weeks of the Trump presidency as “surreal,” as if he were describing a Luis Buñuel movie. Then he spotted Haley and deftly snaked through the crowd to introduce himself.
I spoke to more than a dozen diplomats for this article, and nearly all described Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, as a natural politician and a refreshing contrast to the president. “Cordial,” one envoy said. “Businesslike,” said another.
“We need to find a way to engage with the new administration, particularly with Ambassador Haley, and to explore with them what we can do together,” said João Vale de Almeida, the envoy representing the European Union’s 28 member nations. “In doing so, we should try to avoid dangers and pitfalls.”
Vitaly I. Churkin, the Russian ambassador and perhaps Haley’s most important colleague on the Council, complimented her “very powerful record” as governor. On Twitter, he said cryptically that he looked forward to working with her according to the “mindset of their capitals.” (Her boss, in Washington, has lavished praise on his, in Moscow.)
Few people at the United Nations need to be on her good list more than the man who heads the world body, António Guterres.
Trump has dismissed Guterres’ entire operation as a social club. Republicans in Congress have threatened to pull funding. And Haley has made it clear that she intends to scrutinize how the United Nations spends its money and eliminate things that do not serve U.S. interests, while also taking pains to say she would not take a “slash and burn” approach.
The United States pays for more than a fifth of the United Nations’ core budget, and controls key jobs in the world body’s system. So Guterres must strike a balance between keeping U.S. officials on board and not being seen as subservient to U.S. interests.
He faced that challenge over Trump’s travel ban. Guterres was criticized as not speaking out against it directly enough, quickly enough. Finally, he told reporters that the restrictions “violate our basic principles” and called for them to be discontinued.
Guterres is a former socialist prime minister of Portugal. Haley is a conservative from the American South. But both are politicians, as Richard Gowan, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out. And, he argued, they could help each other — Haley in prodding him to show that America gets value at the United Nations, Guterres by using pressure from her to make the reforms he thinks are necessary.
As Gowan put it in a recent essay, “Their political fortunes are inseparable.”