For now, at least, it looks like a winning argument. Trump was the victor in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. Sure, it was not quite the overwhelming victory his team would have liked, with the former South Carolina governor Haley now saying she intends to stay in the running until the summer. But after an earlier win in Iowa that took out Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, many analysts view the Trump campaign as nearly unstoppable.
If so, it would reverberate not only in November’s presidential election, but around the world. On Tuesday, the London-headquartered but globalist-friendly Financial Times wrote that it was a battle between “clashing visions of America’s place in the world,” with Haley a more “traditionally Hawkish Republican” and Trump exhibiting “more isolationist streak that has been gaining traction on the right of American politics.”
Haley has leaned into foreign policy to criticize Trump. She has accused the former president of having a “bromance” with Russian President Vladimir Putin and sending “love letters” to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un after the death of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier who was imprisoned by Kim’s regime.
But this isn’t a simple battle between a hawk and an isolationist. Under Trump, Haley served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for two years. She unexpectedly resigned from that position in October 2018 — but as The Washington Post’s Michael Kranish wrote last week in an assessment of her time in diplomacy, she waited years before coming out to criticize Trump’s record.
Her time at the United Nations was often spent publicly praising Trump’s foreign policy. In September 2018, just before leaving office, she offered an implausible defense of an address by Trump to the U.N. General Assembly that set spontaneous laughter among the assembled world leaders. “They loved how honest he is,” Haley told Fox News.
The divide between a Trump foreign policy and a Haley one is more subtle than either would admit. As she has admitted, Haley was as much a novice to foreign policy in 2016 as Trump was. “I don’t even know what the United Nations does! All I know is everyone hates it,” she told an intermediary to Trump, according to her memoir.
While Haley led aggressive policies against U.S. rivals like Syria and North Korea, she did so at a moment when Trump himself was playing the hawk — most obviously in the successful push for U.N. sanctions in 2018 that coincided with Trump’s threats to Kim, whom he dismissed as “Little Rocket Man.” By the time that relations between Washington and Pyongyang were warming, she was already heading out the door.
As Kranish writes, during her time at the United Nations, Haley led the charge to cut off U.S. funding to the U.N. agency that provides support for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. That move brought her into conflict with other administration officials including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who partially blocked it, but it proved popular with Trump and funding was cut after Tillerson was forced out.
For someone who often speaks about her achievements in the U.N. system, Haley isn’t much of a multilateralist, promising last year to defund the system as “much as possible.” She embraces some conspiratorial Trumpian rhetoric, describing the World Health Organization as “bought and paid for by the Chinese.”
While Haley hasn’t always aligned with Trumpian foreign policy, some would argue that often Trump didn’t either. Writing in the Daily Mail this week, former British prime minister Boris Johnson argued that a second Trump presidency could be “just what the world needs” precisely because Trump’s isolationist rhetoric was often at odds with his actions.
Johnson points toward the Trump-ordered strikes against the Syrian regime after it used chemical weapons or the targeted killing of Iranian commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, as evidence that Trump was willing to strike at Western enemies. When it comes to Ukraine, Johnson noted that military aid to the country significantly expanded during the Trump administration compared with the Obama administration.
Johnson’s views may be wildly optimistic, but there is also a throughline that connects much of Trump’s foreign policy with that of the Biden administration. It was President Biden, for example, who pulled the United States out of Afghanistan; his administration has kept the U.S. Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem and courted Arab autocracies like Saudi Arabia.
Where Trump breaks with his rivals is not his isolationism, but his embrace of autocracy. Biden has pushed a global democracy message, even if there are criticisms of how well this has worked. Haley has taken a parallel approach in her campaign, warning that Trump would “buddy up” with “dictators” like North Korea’s Kim, Russia’s Putin or China’s Xi Jinping.
Trump still doesn’t hide his affinity for strongman leaders. During a rally in Manchester, N.H., this past weekend, he praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an autocratic leader who amassed power through control of the media and changes to the constitution. “He is a very great leader, a very strong man,” Trump said. “Some people don’t like him because he’s too strong.”
Whatever impact this has on his foreign policy pales in comparison to the weight it carries at home. Trump still falsely claims that he won the 2020 election and has led revisionist claims about Jan. 6 defendants, calling them hostages and quoting Putin that the arrest of insurrectionists shows the “rottenness of the American political system, which cannot pretend to teach others about democracy.”
But Trump’s derision of democracy is Haley’s problem, too. It hobbles her claims that she would fight back against autocrats as president. She may criticize Trump’s fondness for dictators now, but she served under the man and only spoke out against his attacks on democracy after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol.
In a profile of Haley published in 2021, only a few months after that assault, Politico’s Tim Alberta asked a question about the former U.N. ambassador that still resonates today: “If she so badly misread Trump — a man whose habits and methods she had ample opportunity to study up close — then how can she be trusted to handle the likes of Vladimir Putin?”