UNITED NATIONS — Before and after he became president, Donald Trump made it pretty clear that he didn’t see much value in the United Nations. So when he named Nikki R. Haley as his choice for UN ambassador, many wondered whether he was simply shunting a tough critic into a trivial post.
In the past week, Haley made it increasingly clear that she has no intention of being sidelined. To the contrary, as diplomats at the United Nations saw it, she managed to elbow herself into a leading, outspoken role in the Trump administration.
On Wednesday, wielding pictures of dead Syrian children, she was the first senior official in the administration to warn that the United States could take unilateral action against Syria’s president for the chemical attack that killed more than 80 people in his country. The same day, she was named a full member of the coveted principals’ committee on Trump’s National Security Council, where crucial policy work is done.
In the UN Security Council, she pushed for a sharply worded resolution to remind the Syrian government to share flight logs of all air operations with international investigators.
She confronted Russia for blocking it, and on Thursday evening — in what diplomats described as tense, closed-door negotiations — Haley not only rejected a compromise, but made it clear she was not happy to be led by other countries in the direction of a compromise. Their attempt at diplomacy had changed her script of pushing Russia to veto.
Soon after she walked out of the Security Council’s chambers that evening, news emerged that the United States had, in fact, fired dozens of Tomahawk missiles at an air base in Syria.
Diplomacy is as much theatrics as it is dialogue. And Haley, 45, a former governor of South Carolina, has created at least the impression among her fellow ambassadors that she is carving out a space for herself in an administration where it isn’t always clear who is guiding contentious policy. The French ambassador, François Delattre, concluded Thursday evening that she was “clearly very influential in the Trump administration.”
On Friday, it was left to her to dangle yet another warning. She called the US strikes “fully justified,” though she offered no clear legal justification.
“The United States took a very measured step last night,” she said during a Security Council meeting. “We are prepared to do more. But we hope that will not be necessary.”
Haley’s office has not responded to repeated requests for interviews, but when asked onstage at the Women in the World conference in New York on Wednesday whether she liked her new job, she put it this way: “You can move the ball. It’s not just about talking.”
Is she actually setting foreign policy? That would be highly unusual for any envoy to the United Nations. But in these unusual days, vital positions in the State Department remain vacant, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson is far more distant from the public than his predecessors, and many US embassies are still without an ambassador.
That, say current and former US officials, seems to have given Haley — a neophyte in foreign affairs who works closely with a small band of trusted political aides — a great deal of visibility and, possibly, latitude.
“I think she has been, from the beginning, willing to be out front with policy statements before the White House or Secretary Tillerson,” said Michèle Flournoy, a Pentagon official in the Obama administration and now chief executive of the Center for a New American Security. “She right now has established herself as the more public voice of American diplomacy.”
She has been seemingly at odds with her boss on two things. She has expressed her distrust of Russia, insisting that sanctions should be maintained for its annexation of Crimea. And she maintained that the United States remained committed to a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even after the president vaguely suggested otherwise.
R. Nicholas Burns, a US diplomat and a trenchant critic of the president, called her “one of the most pragmatic and one of the most courageous voices in the administration.” He pointed to her insistence that sanctions on Russia should remain, even as Trump signaled his admiration for the Russian president.
“In this case, within the fluidity of this administration, she has been a refreshing tough voice,” Burns said. “I wouldn’t say formally she was making policy. She was articulating positions that were not repudiated by others in the administration, and in some cases they then followed her lead.”