U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley’s surprise resignation earlier this month led to a handful of predictable questions, including why was she resigning, why now, who would replace her, and of course, what Haley’s future plans might entail. The most discussed question was whether Haley was considering a run for the presidency in 2020, which she insisted she was not. Instead, she said that she would campaign for Donald Trump’s reelection while sitting next to the president in the Oval Office. Commentators also assessed how much—or how little—her resignation would affect the Trump administration’s foreign policy aims. Following Haley’s announcement, a consensus narrative emerged that while Haley’s colleagues and peers respected her, particularly her straightforward approach, many did not share that same respect for the Trump administration policies that she was tasked to implement.
Despite the outpouring of commentary over her resignation and its consequences, how Haley’s absence will affect U.S. policy towards Africa specifically has received scant attention. This is not an insignificant point, as neither Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, nor National Security Advisor John Bolton has shown much interest in U.S.-African affairs during their posts. In contrast, Haley took a forceful stand on key African issues, most notably ending the South Sudan civil war and addressing the political crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
U.S. Policy towards Africa under Haley
As U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Haley completed an important trip to Africa in 2017, visiting Ethiopia, as well as South Sudan and the DRC. The Ethiopian stop was predictable, as Haley met with then-Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to shore-up U.S. relations with the African Union, which is housed in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, and to stress the Trump administration’s commitment to partner states on the continent. Haley’s visit to South Sudan and the DRC were less obvious choices and far more meaningful. Haley’s background in business and state-level politics made it difficult to predict how she would serve as ambassador. That she was seized by two fraught and protracted conflicts in East and Central Africa surprised many. And that she selected these two countries to visit instead of the many easier options throughout the continent speaks to the importance that she and her office placed on addressing these often-overlooked crises.
South Sudan remains wracked by nearly five years of brutal armed conflict, endemic corruption, and political leaders largely indifferent to the suffering that the South Sudanese people have endured. Mass displacement and widespread hunger characterize the lives of much of the country’s population. When Haley visited South Sudan, she told President Salva Kiir in plain terms that the U.S. had lost its patience with his government’s inability to end the conflict. Haley then met with South Sudanese citizens displaced by the conflict, particularly women and girls, to gain a firsthand account of the violence and despair that they experienced due to the conflict.
A few months later, the U.S. implemented sanctions on several oil companies tied to the government’s financing of the conflict. These sanctions followed previous sanctions imposed on a handful of South Sudanese officials tied to mass atrocities or obstructing the peace process. The U.S. also imposed a unilateral arms embargo on South Sudan and then pushed through a comprehensive arms embargo at the U.N. Security Council. While these policies built on the work of the Obama administration, under Haley, the Trump administration was able to push harder and secure an arms embargo that the Obama administration could not.
The comprehensive arms embargo against South Sudan clearly was one of Haley’s signature foreign policy accomplishments. When announcing her resignation, Haley stated as much, calling the arms embargo “a long time coming.” Many policy experts viewed Haley’s decisiveness on this issue as a welcome departure from previous approaches that were more reluctant to take a hard line towards South Sudan’s leadership, as U.S. officials from previous administrations had invested considerable time and resources in these leaders. However, as a recent event at the Atlantic Council featuring South Sudan Vice President Taban Deng shows, these same leaders have exasperated U.S. officials with years and sometimes decades of experience working on South Sudan, some of whom now consider the country a failed state.
Haley’s visit to the DRC was equally important. President Joseph Kabila’s second term as president expired in 2016; however, he refused to step down, claiming that security concerns prevented him from doing so. Kabila assumed control of the government after his father’s assassination in 2001. He then won election in 2006 and 2011. Under Kabila’s rule, the DRC has experienced protracted armed conflict, widespread human rights abuses, and staggering levels of corruption tied to the looting of the state’s considerable natural resource wealth. Haley met privately with Kabila and urged him to step aside. Following this meeting, she continued to pressure Kabila, stating, “a relationship with the United States is dependent on how he acts going forward.” And like in South Sudan, Haley visited a camp of internally displaced people, meeting with victims of rape and gender-based violence, an experience that clearly moved her.
After her visit to the DRC, and following continued political pressure, Kabila announced that he would not seek a third term and that the country would finally hold elections delayed since 2016 this December. While Haley welcomed this decision, she continued to pressure Kabila’s government to stop abuses against his political opposition and to investigate the murder of two U.N. experts that occurred within the DRC. Like in South Sudan, this direct confrontation with an authoritarian leader received widespread praise.
Still, Haley’s record towards Africa is not without fault. Despite taking positive steps to pressure repressive governments in South Sudan and the DRC, Haley also championed a considerable reduction to the U.N. peacekeeping missions working in both countries. Before her trip to Africa, Haley published an op-ed for CNN that praised the U.N. for helping to avoid a famine in South Sudan, but also called the U.N. inefficient and criticized it for failing to find a political solution to the violence in South Sudan and the DRC. While such criticisms are not without merit, the timing of Haley’s remarks was off, particularly given the continued instability in both countries. These comments also belie the complexity of resolving either conflict, and shift the blame to the U.N., not the warring parties, for failing to find peace. Likewise, Haley’s embrace of strong-armed voting tactics at the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Security Council reinforced the Trump administration’s shortsighted approach to foreign policy, which undermines long-term U.S. foreign policy objectives and signals to countries that while they are free to make their own foreign policy choices, they risk desperately needed foreign assistance from the U.S if they do not fall in line with the U.S. perspective.
Most notably, in March, Haley’s office put forward a 53-page memo titled “America First Foreign Assistance Policy” that would punish poor and developing countries for voting against the United States at the U.N. and other international forums. This memo followed the administration’s decision to drastically cut foreign assistance for Palestinian refugees after Palestine sponsored U.N. resolutions that denounced the administration’s controversial, and possibly unlawful, recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Haley’s memo proposed to do the same for developing countries and at least two of the most significant proposed cuts would have targeted African countries, namely a $3 million jobs and livelihood program in Zimbabwe and a $5 million school construction program in Ghana, as both countries regularly vote opposite the U.S. at the U.N.
Haley also left a mixed legacy on human rights. Widely respected organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) gave Haley mixed reviews. For example, HRW noted that Haley “vigorously defended egregious Israeli abuses like the unlawful use of lethal force that killed over 150 protesters in Gaza,” but that she also made important progress on difficult issues such as the South Sudan arms embargo and pushing back against Kabila. Haley’s most controversial move was her poorly received plan to reform the U.N. Human Rights Council, which ultimately led to the U.S. leaving the Council. Arguing that the best way to reform the Council was from within, Amnesty and HRW were among 18 human rights groups that published a letter urging countries to oppose Haley’s initiative. The next day, a coalition of countries typically supportive of the United States met with U.S. officials to confirm that they would not back this plan.
Haley and her staff did not forget this slight, as demonstrated by a blistering rebuke to human rights organizations partially blaming them for the U.S. decision to leave the Council, as well as Haley’s office declining to invite Amnesty and HRW to a key U.S. briefing regarding U.S. plans before the U.N. General Assembly’s Third Committee, the committee that oversees human rights and humanitarian issues. Amnesty and HRW were among a handful of human rights groups that received an invitation to a similar meeting last year but did not receive an invitation this year. This with-us or against-us approach is particularly damaging for the many human rights groups working in Africa that usually can count on broad U.S. support, even if there is disagreement on particular issues. It also speaks poorly of the Trump administration’s ability to accept criticism.
U.S. Policy towards Africa after Haley
While Africa was not an administration priority during Haley’s two years as ambassador, Trump’s national security team is likely to show even less concern with the continent and its more than 1.2 billion people after Haley departs. Indeed, other than Haley’s trip to Africa, the most significant event from the administration might be First Lady Melania Trump’s recent four-country visit to the continent. Melania Trump traveled to Kenya, Malawi, Ghana, and Egypt, meeting government leaders and touring several USAID-funded facilities, including hospitals and schools. Of course, her praise of USAID programs working to improve health and education contrasts starkly with the president’s effort to gut USAID’s budget by at least 30 percent. Only bipartisan congressional support averted these cuts. In August, the Office of Management and Budget attempted to slash $3.5 billion from USAID, but strong congressional opposition forced the administration to abandon this plan. At the same time, during her trip, Melania Trump said that the purpose was to “show the world that we care.”
Although human rights and advocacy groups hope that this trip will spur a greater focus on supporting development and good governance from the administration, whether it resonated with ordinary Africans is questionable. Further, whether the First Lady has the influence to recalibrate the administration’s foreign policy is unclear, but probably unlikely.
Even with Haley, the administration’s approach towards Africa favored transactional diplomacy, as well as an overbearing focus on counterterrorism and security issues that crowded out much else. U.S. counterterrorism activities in Africa also have a different tenor under the Trump administration. For example, while the Obama administration extended military bases on the continent for intelligence gathering and drone strikes, Trump has rolled back important policy constraints designed to minimize civilian casualties and provided authorization for U.S. forces to engage in offensive attacks against al-Shabaab in Somalia when protecting U.S. partners.
Transactional diplomacy and an overreliance on military solutions fail for many of the same reasons. Both policies ignore the root causes that allow militants and extremists to win support and gain followers. Long-term economic development and good governance will never garner the same attention as drone strikes or counterterrorism operations, even though they are probably more likely to prevent violence and extremism over the long term. Likewise, transactional diplomacy favors authoritarian leaders that are only too happy to trade long-term benefits for their countries with short-term gains for themselves and unaccountable elites. Further, given the porous borders and transnational threats posed by militant groups within Africa, any effective policy requires a balance of military power, economic development, and good governance.
The administration’s perceived indifference to the continent will also continue to cause tensions with key African states. For example, the Trump administration has yet to secure an ambassador in South Africa or Tanzania, as well as Cote d’Ivoire, Chad, and Egypt. Such indifference, whether perceived or real, will empower authoritarian leaders already feeling assured that repressive tactics and human rights abuses will not engender a meaningful response from the administration. It will also further the business and investment advantages enjoyed by China, as well as other emerging economies, such as India and Brazil, even as the administration totes the business opportunities for U.S. firms working in Africa.
What Comes Next
At this point, Haley’s successor remains unknown. Current Goldman Sachs executive and former deputy national security advisor Dina Powell withdrew her name from consideration, citing the desire to be close to her two young children. Many had considered Powell the administration’s top selection to fill the vacancy, as she was seen as a moderating influence on the president’s rashest foreign policy impulses and would help offset the loss of the most recognized female official in the administration. Trump now appears to be reconsidering U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell for the job, after previously stating that Grenell is doing so well in Germany that he does not want to reassign him. Perhaps most importantly, Bolton, Pompeo, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly want to remove this post from a Cabinet-level position. Under this arrangement, the Ambassador would report to the Secretary of State and subsequently enjoy less autonomy and likely exert less influence. In contrast, Haley insisted on a Cabinet appointment before accepting the job.
Haley succeeded by knowing when to push back against the president, including denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin, and when to vigorously endorse his policies, such as backing Trump’s unwavering and reactionary support of Israel and his equally unwavering opposition to Iran. Haley also showed her support to the president by penning a Washington Post op-ed criticizing the author of the anonymous op-ed in the New York Times, describing the resistance from within approach as “an extra-constitutional method” that was “wrong on a fundamental level.” This politically astute, albeit opportunistic approach helped make Haley one of the most influential figures in the administration, even if her influence waned somewhat after Pompeo and Bolton joined the administration. Above all, Haley was shrewd. So, despite her disagreements with the president, she leaves the administration on good terms and with Trump’s public support.
Haley proved surprisingly committed to resolving two of the most pressing crises in Africa and outperformed the expectations of many when she accepted her nomination. The Trump administration would do well to replace Haley with a candidate who shows the same strong commitment to addressing these and other key issues in Africa.
Whether it will do so is another question.