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As U.S. ambassador to U.N., Nikki Haley would face world’s most intractable conflicts

As the former South Carolina governor, she has little foreign policy experience but has pledged "fresh eyes" and firm U.S. leadership in the U.N. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is a daughter of Indian immigrants and has no experience in international affairs, has been chosen by President-elect Donald Trump to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a key forum for articulating and advancing U.S. foreign policy.

Haley, 44, a former state lawmaker who has been governor for six years, has not served in the federal government before, and her overseas work has been limited to international trade missions on behalf of her state. But she would be considered a moderating voice among Trump's national security picks, and someone who would bring polished political and communications skills to the world body.

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It is unusual for an incoming administration to name a U.N. ambassador so early, especially before the nominee for secretary of state is decided. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama did not name ambassadors until after their inaugurations. By naming Haley so quickly, Trump seems to be signaling that he considers the post an important podium for his foreign policy agenda.

Haley, who has a compelling family story of immigration and success, is the first woman and the first minority to accept a nomination for a Cabinet-level position in the incoming administration; her taking up the position is dependent on Senate confirmation.

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While the secretary of state helps formulate U.S. foreign policy, the ambassador to the United Nations explains American positions and helps corral support for them among the 193 members of the General Assembly and in the Security Council, where the United States has veto power. In the latter role, the ambassador sometimes engages in acrimonious debate with the ambassador from Russia — a country that also holds veto power.

Nikki Haley went from tea party star to a leader of the New South

Samantha Power, the current U.S. ambassador, was instrumental in cobbling together enough Security Council votes to pass harsh sanctions against North Korea after it conducted ballistic missile tests in pursuit of nuclear warheads. Power served on the National Security Council before becoming ambassador. But on other issues, in particular the civil war in Syria, the Security Council has been paralyzed by divisions between the United States and Russia.

If confirmed, Haley would immediately face a host of pressing issues, including some of the most complicated and intractable global conflicts.

Esther Brimmer, a George Washington University professor and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Haley’s early appointment could give her time to hit the ground running.

“I hope the administration recognizes the complexity of the issues that come before the U.N.,” she said. “Everything on the plate is crucial and difficult. The U.S. ambassador has to work closely on those issues with its allies, as well as its adversaries.”

Perhaps the foremost crisis is the catastrophe in Syria. The Obama administration has expressed outrage but has not stopped Russian warplanes from helping Syrian forces conduct an air campaign against the rebel-held areas of Aleppo, which has a large civilian population. The Russian and Syrian bombing has prevented the delivery of humanitarian aid. U.N.-sponsored peace talks also have stalled in the absence of a cease-fire, as the civil war grinds on for a fifth year.

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Dr. Scott Gottlieb is seen in this American Enterprise Institute photo released in Washington, DC, U.S., March 10, 2017. Courtesy The American Enterprise Institute/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. (Handout)

Haley would be tasked with the U.S. defense of Israel in an international body that some say has grown increasingly hostile to the Jewish state and exasperated with the inability of Israelis and Palestinians to reach a peace settlement. The United States usually vetoes resolutions critical of Israel that regularly come before the Security Council.

The United Nations has an often unwieldy bureaucracy, and Trump has signaled that he would consider pressing for some cutbacks. Haley would figure prominently in any efforts to introduce changes.

Haley’s appointment drew praise from U.N. watchers who said her experience as a governor should help her in the demanding dealmaking required of a U.N. ambassador.

“Having served as a governor, she will be able to spot instances where the U.N. is seeking to curb the sovereign interests of our country,” said Leonard Leo, former U.S. delegate to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. “She is committed to human dignity and will be able to push back on U.N. agendas that elevate abortion over the real human and civil rights atrocities that occur in dictatorships around the world. And she will be a friend to Israel and our own national security interests.”

Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign and a vice president of the nonprofit United Nations Foundation, noted that governors and other politicians have been among previous ambassadors.

“If you think what it takes to get something done at the U.N., it requires building a broad political coalition,” he said. “Governors have experience in doing that.”

Jim DeMint, a former Republican senator from South Carolina who now is president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, predicted that Haley would act with grace and wisdom.

“She will fight for reform and accountability at the United Nations while advancing American interests,” he said in a statement. “This choice signals President-elect Trump is willing to look past election disagreements and to surround himself with strong, serious leaders who will not be satisfied with the status quo.”

Haley’s known foreign policy views adhere to the Republican mainstream. She was among 15 Republican governors who signed a letter to Obama last year opposing the Iran nuclear agreement, which was endorsed by the U.N. Security Council on which she could soon sit.

As governor, Haley has led state delegations on international trips to drum up jobs for South Carolina. On one trip to Europe in 2011, her costly efforts drew criticism at home for not delivering new business despite the expense. During the week-long trip, Haley and more than two dozen others in her traveling party rang up $127,000 in expenses staying at five-star hotels and dining at fancy restaurants.

Haley came to national prominence after a young white man was charged with killing nine African Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015. In the aftermath, she was at the forefront of efforts to persuade state lawmakers to remove the Confederate battle flag from its prominent position on the grounds of the state capitol.

Haley backed Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) in the Republican presidential primaries, and her selection shows an effort by Trump to reach beyond his circle of loyalists. Haley was harshly critical of Trump’s campaign proposal to impose a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.