When Nikki Haley informed President Donald Trump that she would be stepping down as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the president faced a choice. He could try to select a successor who would maintain the level of high-profile diplomacy Haley has conducted. Or, he could choose to downgrade the position.
He has chosen the latter.
Heather Nauert, who Trump is expected to nominate for the job, is new to government service and foreign policy after a career as a commentator at Fox News, but she has performed well in her current role as State Department spokeswoman. She has provided information to the State Department press corps in a professional manner and avoided the bombast and defensiveness that plagues other corners of the White House.
In fact, Nauert’s lack of experience in diplomacy is not the primary concern. Plenty of newcomers, Haley among them, have stepped into that world and performed well, drawing on success they have enjoyed in other fields. Nauert has shown herself to be a smart, capable person.
But there are other factors that help determine the success of individuals thrust onto the world stage of the United Nations. Namely, stature and knowing how to use it.
Hale’s credibility had a lot to do with her past — she had already been a successful politician when she assumed the role, serving as a popular governor of South Carolina. She is widely seen as a credible future secretary of state or even presidential candidate. Other delegates in New York knew they were dealing with a player in American politics. Nauert cannot make that claim.
Nauert will likely be seen by other diplomats at the United Nations as little more than a mouthpiece for U.S. policy, similar to her current role as spokeswoman, rather than as a serious player in the policy process.
But most of all, Haley demanded the respect of her global peers because of her relationship with the president. Her appearances with Trump, and his statements about her, conveyed that she was operating with his full backing.
This perception was further bolstered by the rare occasions when Haley expressed an opinion that was different from that of the White House, such as her forceful statements on Russian meddling. Trump never shot her down, indicating a level of professional respect few others in the administration enjoy.
That made it possible for Haley’s counterparts to view her not only as the president’s personal representative, but as someone with his ear, capable of looking him in the eye and telling him when she disagreed. Usually, it is the ultimate transgression for an ambassador to publicly disagree with the president. But Haley, ironically, often came off looking like the sensible adult in the room.
Nauert will need a significant investment from Trump to achieve the same status. Will he meet with her and give her the same public backing he gave Haley, when he gains no political benefit from it?
Already, the position has been dropped from the Cabinet table. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton — who openly despises the U.N. — both want the position to contribute less to the policymaking process.
That means that Nauert will likely be seen by other diplomats at the United Nations as little more than a mouthpiece for U.S. policy, similar to her current role as spokeswoman, rather than as a serious player in the policy process with influence in Washington. This impression, in turn, will reduce her stature further, hampering her ability to engage in creative negotiations.
Haley scored a number of wins on tough issues. She shepherded U.N. Security Council resolutions that increased sanctions on North Korea, winning the crucial support of China and Russia. She spoke forcefully against Russian aggression in Ukraine and interference in U.S. elections, far surpassing Trump’s own mealy mouthed criticism of Vladimir Putin. She earned deep appreciation from Israel for standing up forcefully against the criticism and delegitimization it often faces at the United Nations.
All of these accomplishments resulted from a combination of skill and international respect. Without this mix, the United States’ ability to get want it wants out the United Nations will be significantly reduced. And the decision makers in Washington surely know that.
Thus, what Nauert’s nomination ultimately reflects is a reduced interest in working with allies and others, and the Trump administration’s reflexive desire to go it alone. That will make the United States less effective in rallying other nations to support our policies on Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and Israel.
The United Sates has had high-stature and low-stature ambassadors at the United Nations before. When it is the former — people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Richard Holbrooke, Susan Rice, or Haley — the U.N. becomes a potent platform to effectively advance U.S. interests. When the person does not have that level of official legitimacy, even if they are of high quality, allies and adversaries know that they are less relevant to policymaking in Washington and more of a presenter of administration talking points.
I wish Heather Nauert well. Her wins at the United Nations are our country’s wins. But I fear that her chances for success are being handicapped before she even starts.