Hours after Houthi militants in Yemen launched a new missile at Saudi Arabia on December 19, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, took her blue seat at the horseshoe-shaped table of the Security Council. “Thankfully,” she said, “the missile was intercepted before it could hit its intended target,” which apparently was a palace in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. “But the very fact of this attack is a flashing red siren for this council.” Backed by Iran, Haley said, the Houthis have fired missiles at civilians before. “Unless we act,” she warned, the latest one “won’t be the last.”
Haley’s remarks came during the most intense week of her yearlong tenure at Turtle Bay, at a time when most of the rest of the U.N. preferred not to discuss Iranian threats and instead wanted to jabber about Israel — in other words, to ignore literal missiles and instead lob figurative ones at President Trump for his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On December 18, as the 14 non-American members of the Security Council rushed to approve a resolution condemning Trump’s decision, Haley cast her first veto.
“It was an unfortunate moment but a proud moment, knowing we were in the right,” she said the next day, in an interview with National Review at her office across the street from U.N. headquarters. “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Everyone knows this. We have to acknowledge the truth. Once you get the truth out of the way, you can do so much.”
Ambrose Bierce once defined “diplomacy” as “the patriotic art of lying for one’s country.” Haley nevertheless has become America’s great truth-teller, flouting diplomatic conventions to speak plainly and with toughness about the provocations of Iran, the rights of Israel, U.S. sovereignty, and much more. Before Trump tapped her for the United Nations, she was the young and attractive Republican governor of South Carolina with a bright future in domestic politics.
A year later, she has transformed herself into a hero of many foreign-policy conservatives, even drawing comparisons to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, her predecessor who in 1975 famously denounced the U.N.’s efforts to equate Zionism with racism. Moynihan’s moment of moral clarity propelled him to the U.S. Senate, where he served four terms. Haley’s future is anybody’s guess: Will she succeed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state? Does she harbor presidential ambitions? It remains as bright as ever, even as it now appears headed in new and unexpected directions.
Haley’s parents are Sikhs from the Punjab. The birthplaces of her three siblings trace the family’s journey around the globe: India, Canada, and the United States, where her father took a job as a biology professor at Voorhees College in South Carolina. The future ambassador was born in nearby Bamberg in 1972 as Nimrata Randhawa. She soon became known to everyone as “Nikki,” a childhood nickname that means “little one.” Accounts of her youth often mention her participation as a four-year-old in the Wee Miss Bamberg pageant. Traditionally, the town had picked two winners, one black and one white. The judges didn’t know what to do with Nikki, whose father wore a turban and her mother a sari. So they disqualified her.
Haley has observed that reporters enjoy this anecdote because it helps them show the backwardness of her rural southern home. She sees it differently: “The same town that disqualified me was the one that accepted me into a Girl Scouts troop, helped my dad get a job in a community college, and helped my mom get a job as a sixth-grade social studies teacher,” she wrote in Can’t Is Not an Option, her 2012 autobiography. “My family and I have some disheartening stories, but every family does. What matters isn’t the stories themselves; it’s how the stories end.”
Her own story continued with school and the family business: a clothing company founded by her mother. As a teenager, she kept the books. “I noticed how hard it was to make a dollar and how easy it was for government to take it away,” she wrote in her autobiography. “We were struggling just to survive, and government was making it harder, not easier.” She went to Clemson University, earned an accounting degree, and met her husband, Michael Haley. Somewhere along the way, she picked up a soft southern twang. These days, in New York City, she usually wears a standard-issue U.S.-flag pin on her lapel as well as a symbol of South Carolina on a necklace. “I want to remember where I’m from,” she says of her palmetto-tree pendant.
As a young wife, Haley began to attend meetings of businesswomen — and found herself recruited to run for the state legislature. In 2004, she challenged an entrenched incumbent in a Republican primary, beating him in a runoff. She served three terms in the statehouse, where she adopted a signature issue: roll-call voting. Her colleagues preferred to pass legislation by unrecorded voice votes, making it impossible for their constituents to keep track of their records. Haley believed this anonymity contributed to wasteful spending and bloated government. By taking up this cause — she persisted, and eventually she prevailed — Haley became a favorite of tea-party activists and ran a winning campaign for governor in 2010.
Even now, her words carry echoes of her tea-party past. “That’s a city over there with a lot of bureaucrats,” she says, gesturing out her office window toward the U.N.’s 39-story Secretariat Building. “They still have elevator operators.” (This is true: I encountered one later that day.) “That drives me crazy as an accountant.” The United States currently supplies the U.N. with around $10 billion per year, or about one-fifth of the U.N.’s total annual revenues.
Seven years ago, Haley became the country’s second Indian-American governor (following Bobby Jindal of Louisiana). Vogue profiled her. GOP presidential candidates sought her endorsement. Meanwhile, she battled with state lawmakers who overrode dozens of her vetoes of spending bills. She won reelection in 2014, and then widespread praise the following year for her delicate handling of the aftermath of the racist church shooting in Charleston, S.C., including the removal of the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds — an emotional issue that had festered in state politics for years. At the start of 2016, national Republicans tapped her to deliver their response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. A year later, the Senate approved her as President Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Her nomination came as a surprise: Prior to it, she had demonstrated little interest and even less expertise in foreign policy. Her book includes almost no discussion of it. A single mention of Iraq refers to her brother’s service in the Army during Desert Storm. “International diplomacy is a new area for me,” she confessed at her confirmation hearings. “Like most government agencies, the United Nations could benefit from a fresh set of eyes. I will take an outsider’s look at the institution.” Then she added a gentle criticism of the Obama administration’s approach: “At the U.N., as elsewhere, the United States is the indispensable voice of freedom. It is time that we once again find that voice.”
Just a few weeks earlier, that voice had fallen silent: President Obama’s ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, refused to veto a Security Council resolution that denounced Israel for its policies in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The abstention broke a longstanding, bipartisan practice of defending Israel against the U.N.’s ceaseless assaults, and it looked like a petty parting shot at Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Obama had clashed. “It should hurt the conscience of Americans that we didn’t stand up for an ally,” says Haley today. “If we can’t be there for Israel, and let it get bullied once again in such a forum, it doesn’t speak well for anything else we do around the world.”
Over the past twelve months, Haley has earned a reputation for sharp rhetoric. “Your voice is your strength,” she says. “I put a lot of weight into what I say and how I say it.” At her first Security Council meeting last February, she condemned Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine as well as its takeover of Crimea. She also has focused on North Korea. “Imagine being a North Korean soldier, so desperate and so ravaged by hunger and disease that you would take five bullets from your fellow soldiers in order to escape across the DMZ,” she said on December 22, referring to the video that had riveted the world a month earlier. Although the U.N. has not revoked North Korea’s membership, as Haley urged, it has continued to tighten sanctions.
On February 16, when she was still new on the job, Haley attended a Security Council meeting on the Middle East. She came out annoyed. “The first thing I want to do is talk about what we just saw in there,” she said at a press conference afterward. She mentioned all the things the Security Council didn’t discuss: Hezbollah’s arms build-up in Lebanon, the menace of ISIS, and Iran’s support of terrorism. “No, instead, the meeting focused on criticizing Israel, the one true democracy in the Middle East,” she said. “I’m here to say the United States will not turn a blind eye to this anymore. I am here to underscore the ironclad support of the United States for Israel. I’m here to emphasize the United States is determined to stand up to the U.N.’s anti-Israel bias.”
Although the U.N. has not revoked North Korea’s membership, as Haley urged, it has continued to tighten sanctions.
In October, the United States quit UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural agency, after it declared parts of Hebron to be Palestinian territory. Next up may be the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, whose members include the likes of Cuba and Venezuela. “We’re not going to be a part of a council that doesn’t represent its name,” Haley says. In June, on a visit to Geneva, she cited this hypocrisy and others, including the council’s mere seven resolutions on Iranian human-rights abuses, compared with more than 70 that have singled out Israel. “It reinforces our growing suspicion that the Human Rights Council is not a good investment of our time, money, and national prestige,” she said. Then she demanded that the body reform the way it elects members and abandon its “relentless, pathological campaign against a country that actually has a strong human-rights record.” So far, nothing about the council has changed, but Haley says talks are ongoing: “We said we’d put in a good year.”
Haley had hoped to wrap up 2017 by putting a spotlight on Iran. On December 14, she traveled to Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., home of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to present evidence that Iran has violated arms-export agreements. “In this warehouse is concrete evidence of illegal Iranian weapons proliferation, gathered from direct military attacks on our partners in the region,” she said, standing before an assortment of weapons relics, including a large piece of a missile that officials say Houthis in Yemen had fired at Saudi Arabia on November 4. (The Saudis say they shot it down.) “The missile’s intended target was the civilian airport in Riyadh, through which tens of thousands of passengers travel each day,” she said. “Just imagine if this missile had been launched at Dulles Airport or JFK or the airports in Paris, London, or Berlin.” The militants received it from Iran, she said, pointing to several distinguishing marks. “The weapons might as well have had ‘Made in Iran’ stickers all over [them].”
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, hit back on Twitter. He posted a photo of Haley alongside a separate picture of former secretary of state Colin Powell, taken at Powell’s appearance at the U.N. in 2003, when Powell accused Saddam Hussein’s Iraq of owning weapons of mass destruction that it did not in fact possess. “When I was based at the UN, I saw this show and what it begat,” Zarif tweeted.
“I saw that,” says Haley. “We are trying to expose violations. This is not about going to war. We’re trying to get in front of a situation. There are lots of examples of what can happen when we don’t: North Korea, Syria.”
The New York Times joined the counterattack: “U.S. Accuses Iran of U.N. Violation, but Evidence Falls Short,” it said in a headline. Times reporters John Ismay and Helene Cooper noted the possibility that Iran had transferred the weapons before the Security Council adopted Resolution 2231 in 2015, which endorsed the Obama administration’s deal with Iran concerning its nuclear program. Officials at the Departments of Defense and State, however, consider this unlikely and also note that the U.N. has banned Iran from shipping weapons since 2007.
“There will be naysayers who want to protect the nuclear deal,” says Haley. What she means is that many diplomats and their media enablers are reluctant to criticize Iran’s export of weapons or its support of terrorism for fear that these revelations might endanger the international agreement that allows Iran to develop its nuclear program for supposedly peaceful purposes.
When Haley presented her case against Iran to the Security Council on December 19 — citing the Houthis’ brand-new missile attack from earlier the same day — several of her foreign colleagues expressed concern over Iran’s behavior, but all of them offered seemingly ritual praise for the nuclear deal. British ambassador Matthew Rycroft, in a typical statement, called it “one of the greatest diplomatic successes of recent memory.” The meeting adjourned without any consideration of Haley’s calls to strengthen Resolution 2231 or even, as she had urged, to “explore sanctions on Iran in response to its clear violations of the Yemen arms embargo.”
Instead, Haley’s U.N. colleagues were too busy with what already had become the theme of the week: lambasting the United States for deciding to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, as Congress had mandated in 1995 but presidents had delayed until now. As the Security Council ganged up, Haley held her ground: “The United States will not be told by any country where we can put our embassy,” she said, citing the “basic truth” that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. She also explained that President Trump’s announcement involved no judgments about Jerusalem’s final boundaries in the event of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. The Security Council nevertheless pushed ahead with a vote. The United States is one of five nations with the power to veto a Security Council resolution — and on December 18, Haley issued her first. “The fact that this veto is being done in defense of American sovereignty and in defense of America’s role in the Middle East peace process is not a source of embarrassment for us,” said Haley. “It should be an embarrassment to the remainder of the Security Council.”
As the Security Council ganged up, Haley held her ground.
Her veto blocked the Security Council, but it couldn’t prevent the U.N. General Assembly three days later from passing its own condemnation in a body where America’s vote carries as much weight as Estonia’s. “At the UN we’re always asked to do more & give more,” Haley tweeted from her phone beforehand. “So, when we make a decision, at the will of the American ppl, abt where to locate OUR embassy, we don’t expect those we’ve helped to target us. On Thurs there’ll be a vote criticizing our choice. The US will be taking names.” This vow, CNN grumbled in a website headline, “upsets diplomatic norms at the UN.”
It sure did, and Haley kept on upsetting them. On the day of the vote — almost exactly a year after the Obama administration abstained on the Security Council’s anti-Israeli resolution — she scolded the chamber. “To its shame, the United Nations has long been a hostile place for the state of Israel,” she said, visibly angry. “I’ve often wondered why, in the face of such hostility, Israel has chosen to remain a member of this body. And then I remember that Israel has chosen to remain in this institution because it’s important to stand up for yourself.”
In the dispute over the American embassy, she resolved that the United States would stand up for itself, even if that meant standing alone. “This vote will make a difference on how Americans look at the U.N. and on how we look at countries who disrespect us,” she said in her speech to the U.N. General Assembly. In the kind of roll-call vote that Haley once fought for as a lowly state lawmaker, the tally went this way: One hundred twenty-eight countries chose to condemn the United States, 35 abstained, and only eight other countries voted in its defense. Much of the press interpreted the result as a humiliating rebuke of the United States. Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, suggested, correctly, that Haley’s rhetoric had prompted the large number of abstentions.
Before it was over, Haley made a promise: “This vote will be remembered.” So will her bracing candor as America’s iron lady at the U.N.