This morning, North Korea announced that it interpreted a tweet from President Donald Trump as a declaration of war. That jolt comes at a time when there is growing uncertainty about America’s diplomatic roster–and, particularly, whether U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley might replace former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.
There are many signs that Tillerson’s position within the Trump administration is tenuous, but on North Korea in particular, there’s a space between Tillerson and Trump that Haley has seemed happy to fill. While Tillerson has repeatedly called for peaceful negotiations—without much obvious progress towards them—Haley has been rallying support for harsh new sanctions against North Korea, while frequently echoing Trump’s heated threats.
Weeks after the U.N. sanctions passed, Tillerson said that North Korea’s relative silence meant they were ready for negotiations, a stance reiterated in a mid-August Wall Street Journal op-ed. Even by late August, after several fresh North Korean missile tests, Tillerson was still emphasizing the quest for peaceful talks.
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Haley, meanwhile, has more vigorously backed the President’s militant rhetoric, and even added flourishes of her own. In an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council in early September, she was stern, warning that “our country’s patience is not unlimited” and saying that Kim Jong Un was “begging for war.” More recently, she cosigned one of Trump’s most notorious threats, assuring CNN that Trump’s promise of “fire and fury” was not empty.
In the same interview, she also said that, if diplomatic efforts fail, “I’m perfectly happy kicking this over to General Mattis, because he has plenty of military options.” Few seem to have noted the curious implication that the decision is somehow hers to make.
Haley’s role is in many ways inherently more public, and therefore bombastic, than Tillerson’s. But she has also taken on more behind-the-scenes responsibility than previous ambassadors, such as attending meetings alongside Trump and Tillerson at this month’s U.N. General Assembly. That has renewed rumors that Haley might take over Tillerson’s job, but both Tillerson and Haley have denied any desire for change.
What that means given current tensions with North Korea is hard to discern, though. Tillerson’s calmer approach makes him a “good cop” alternative to the vitriol and threats coming from Haley and Trump, leaving a path to de-escalate a situation that’s clearly near a breaking point. But there’s almost no sign of progress towards the peace talks he has continually called for. If Tillerson isn’t on his way out the door, he certainly isn’t doing much to rebut long-running and widespread claims that he’s a “lame duck” Secretary of State with little power or influence.
Haley can’t entirely fill that void from her current office—but she has shown herself more than willing to try.
Correction, Sept. 25, 2017: An earlier version of this article misstated Haley’s chain of command. As a member of the President’s cabinet, she reports to Trump, not Tillerson.