Panel discussion explores leadership, politics of Nikki Haley

The Sept. 24 panel of Elon faculty members with expertise in political science, international relations and foreign policy offered insight into Haley's actions as governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in advance of her visit to Elon on Friday.

A panel of Elon experts on Tuesday provided a look at the political and human rights legacy of Nikki Haley from her time as South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for the crowd that filled the McBride Gathering Space in the Numen Lumen Pavilion.

The discussion, which featured questions from students and faculty members in the audience, came as Elon prepares to host Haley on Friday during Fall Convocation. Haley deliver remarks and participate in a discussion with Dr. Aldona Wos, a physician who served as ambassador to Estonia and headed the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The question-and-answer portion will feature questions submitted by Elon students.

Associate Professor Jason Kirk, second from left, speaks during the panel discussion about the career of Nikki Haley.

Organizers said Tuesday’s discussion was created to offer context for the visit to campus by a high-profile politician and diplomat who has faced both praise and criticism during her time at the United Nations. The panel included Assistant Professor Baris Kesgin and Associate Professor Safia Swimelar, who served as moderators, and panelists Associate Professor Jason Kirk, Assistant Professor Carrie Eaves, Assistant Professor Kaye Usry and Assistant Professor Sandy Marshall.

Eaves explained that in 2010, Haley was not standing out among the field of contenders for South Carolina governor until she received the endorsement of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. “That endorsement along with the Tea Party wave helped her secure that nomination and her election as governor,” Eaves explained.

As the first woman and first minority to serve as governor of South Carolina, Haley began to attract national attention, Kirk said, and further increased her stature with her advocacy in 2015 for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the S.C. State House. That movement followed the mass shooting by a white supremacist that killed nine at a Charleston church earlier that year.

After the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, Haley was considered for the spot of U.S. Secretary of State, but took herself out of consideration. She would later accept an offer to become U.N. ambassador, but as Kirk explained, only after dictating three conditions — that she be a member of the Cabinet, that she be a member of the National Security Council, and that she be able to speak her mind.

“She said she always had done that, and she expected to be able to continue to do that in the job,” Kirk said.

Usry noted that in many ways, Haley has staked out a position as a strong political leader, noting her response to a White House official questioning whether she had been confused and gotten her facts wrong when talking about an issue with Russia. Haley reportedly said, “With all due respect, I don’t get confused,” a statement she draws from for the title of her forthcoming book, “With All Due Respect.”

“Nikki Haley is one of the very few women who are big faces in the (Republican) party,” Usry said. “She has demonstrated tremendous political savvy in navigating these challenges.”

However, Haley has also faced criticisms, in particular over her human rights record. Haley has touted her human rights record as ambassador, noting that she has challenged human rights violators and stood up to oppressive regimes such as Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and Russia. A number of panelists Tuesday noted that her record has been uneven, in particular related to alleged human rights violations by Israel against Palestine. She has also been criticized for not challenging the treatment of immigrants, particularly those who are children, at the southern border of the United States.

“Part of her effort to have a distinctive voice was to take a strong stance on human rights, but in a way that often and ultimately put her in opposition to some of the major human rights groups,” Kirk said.

Marshall noted Haley’s decision to defund relief organizations and to leave the U.N. Human Rights Council, alleging and anti-Israel bias by the council. Marshall also said many questioned her defense of Israel after the country was roundly criticized for violence by its troops in the Gaza Strip after the U.S. opened a new embassy in Jerusalem prompted protests. That violence left more than 60 Palestinians dead.

“I applaud her for standing up in the United Nations and showing pictures of children who had been gassed in Syria,” Marshall said. “What I wish she would do is in addition, show children in cages at our own border and dead Palestinian children — to care about those, as well as Syrian children.”

Panelists noted that Haley has been one of the few members of the Trump administration who has been able to dictate their own departure, and to also enjoy relatively high approval ratings among independents and Democrats as well as Republicans. Eaves noted that Haley was stationed at the U.N. headquarters in New York, which allowed her to not get caught up in the daily drama in Washington, D.C.

Kirk said that Haley was also very visible during her time as ambassador, which increased the American public’s familiarity with her. “She was positioned and positioned herself as this unique voice in the administration,” Kirk said.

The panel discussion was sponsored by the Council on Civic Engagement, the International and Global Studies program, the Department of Political Science and Policy Studies, and the Peace and Conflict Studies program.