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U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, delivered the Spring 2018 Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture to a sold-out audience in Page Auditorium on Thursday.

“The era of leading from behind is over. It is a new day for the U.S.,” she said. “When the U.S. fails to lead, we suffer and the world suffers,” she said.

Haley laid out the Trump administration’s approach to international relations in very black and white terms, and drew a distinction between domestic political opponents and “evil” foreign regimes. She also spent part of her talk encouraging students to pursue careers in public service.

The audience was supportive, greeting her with a standing ovation. Afterwards, she greeted a crowd of admirers and posed for photographs with students.

Haley sidestepped a question about her presidential ambition. “I’m just trying to survive this job,” she replied.

Prior to serving in the Trump Administration, Haley was the first female and first minority governor of South Carolina. She was elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2014. 

Politics and Evil

Woman Speaking
Nikki Haley and Peter Feaver

The biggest distinction between being a governor and being U.N. ambassador, Haley said, is that as governor, “the opposition are other officials, some from the other party, some from my own,” and everyone has the best interest of the state in mind.”

At the U.N., she butts heads with “actual tyrants,” she said. “In the last year, I have seen real evil,” she said, pointing to the practice of rape as a tool of war in the South Sudan, Syria’s use of chemical weapons and North Korea’s oppression of its citizens.

She believes her role is to speak for the American people and American values.

Haley drew sharp distinction between the current and previous administration on several issues, such as the decision to open relations with Cuba and the anti-nuclear deal with Iran. Her comments were more starkly critical of President Obama than in the past.

“The Iran deal was designed to be too big to fail,” she said.

But letting the agreement stand depends on overlooking the Iranian government’s suppression of its people, continued missile tests, and the lack of inspections. President Trump’s deadline of mid May to decertify the agreement sends a message to Iran, and to North Korea, that this administration won’t accept a bad agreement, she said.

Russia, Israel, China and North Korea

Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy, questioned whether the administration’s response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the U.K. was enough to hold Russia accountable.

“We haven’t done enough yet,” she said.

She pointed to the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats from the U.S. as a strong response and said the use of a military-grade chemical weapon in a civilian space on the soil of an ally is being taken very seriously. The U.K. expelled 23 diplomats and allies in NATO and the European Union followed suit. 

“Are we walking back into a Cold War?” Feaver asked.

“That depends on Russia,” she said, and whether the nation continues to use chemical weapons and meddle in elections.

Feaver also asked about the cost of the controversial U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem.

“The president did what the American people wanted in moving the embassy to the capital. Congress voted unanimously in favor of the move,” she said. When pressed, she said there was “no price paid,” and it was “our sovereign right to decide where to locate the embassy.” The location of the embassy doesn’t define the status of Jerusalem, “that’s for Israel and Palestine to decide,” she said.

Haley expressed surprise at the extent of anti-Israel feeling at the U.N., especially on the Human Rights Council, where “no one talks about Hamas, which is a terrorist group,” as the source of conflict in the region.

“We need China to help with North Korea. Is now a good time to have a trade war?” Feaver asked.

Citing China’s theft of U.S. intellectual property and the trade imbalance, Haley framed Trump’s tough talk on tariffs as part of larger negotiations.

“There are no tariffs in place, yet,” she said.

Inside the Administration

In light of the churn in top level positions in the Trump administration, and Rex Tillerson’s claim of being muzzled as Secretary of State, Feaver asked Haley if she felt that kind of pressure.

“No one is muzzled in this administration. The president listens to all sides,” she said.

John Bolton, the incoming head of the National Security Council, served as the U.N. Ambassador in the G.W. Bush administration. Feaver asked if Haley was worried about Bolton trying to exert influence on her from D.C.

“He wouldn’t do that,” she said.

“When I took this position, there were things I needed. It needed to be a cabinet position, I needed to be on the National Security Council, to be in the room when decisions were made. The President has stayed true to that,” she said.



The Sanford Lecture was made possible by support from the William R. Kenan Charitable Trust, and was presented by the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Program in American Grand Strategy. It is part of the yearlong centennial celebration of the late Terry Sanford, Duke’s president from 1970-1985, and is part of the 10th anniversary of the Program in American Grand Strategy.

Picture Credit: Megan Mendenhall