A former ambassador to the United Nations herself, Ms. Albright also offered firsthand advice about how to handle the world body. “If funding for the United Nations is cut and you go and try to work on reform, you are not going to be listened to because you don’t have the leverage,” she said. “It happened to me.”
Ms. Rice, while more cautious addressing her fellow Republican, urged Ms. Haley to stress the value of international cooperation — not just the drawbacks. She pointed to the Trump administration’s recent decision to withdraw from Unesco, the United Nations cultural organization, citing its “anti-Israel bias.” Ms. Rice was President George W. Bush’s national security adviser in 2002 when the United States rejoined Unesco.
“You won’t get an argument from me” about pulling out again, Ms. Rice said. “But you have to affirm the things that have worked too, because if you lead with what doesn’t work, that’s all people hear at home and abroad. So I would just hope it could be recalibrated.”
The panel on Thursday was a discussion of American leadership sponsored by Mr. Bush’s presidential center. In the end, it was overshadowed by a speech by the former president that sounded like a rebuke of President Trump and the forces that brought him to power. Ms. Haley was the only senior Trump administration official at the conference and she left before Mr. Bush spoke.
The conference focused on defending democratic and free-market principles at a time when they appear under siege both in the United States and abroad. It brought together Republicans and Democrats in what seemed almost like a meeting of the exiled bipartisan order, sharing their anxiety about Mr. Trump’s leadership in the world.
Ms. Haley, a former governor of South Carolina with no significant foreign policy experience before being sent to the United Nations, has become one of the highest profile members of Mr. Trump’s team and a possible successor to Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, whose strained relationship with the president has made him something of a dead man walking.
At times during her tenure, Ms. Haley has spoken off the official administration script, expressing sentiments more in keeping with her predecessors from both parties. But at other times, she has been Mr. Trump’s explainer and defender to the world even as he pulls out of international agreements and seeks to slash the American diplomatic corps.
At this week’s conference, Ms. Haley, 45, sat between Ms. Rice, 62, and Ms. Albright, 80, and gave the impression of welcoming advice from mentors. She smiled and nodded at some points when one secretary or the other urged her to take a course different than the one favored by the administration.
Ms. Rice expressed confidence afterward that the encounter had been useful. “I thought it was a very good exchange,” she said in an email, “and it did show bipartisan support for the importance of American diplomacy and for proper resourcing of the tools to carry it out.”
Ms. Rice and Ms. Albright were particularly eager to press Ms. Haley to resist Mr. Trump’s proposals to slash the State Department budget by nearly 30 percent, eviscerating the diplomatic corps. Ms. Rice noted that fighting AIDS, supporting women’s groups and financing election monitoring go a long way toward advancing American interests.
“The difference between the budget for the Pentagon, over $600 billion, and for the State Department, under $50 billion at the moment, is crazy,” Ms. Albright said. “We do not have a lot of tools. It is necessary to have a functioning diplomatic service.”
Ms. Haley reassured the former secretaries, asserting that Mr. Trump did not necessarily mean for his proposed cuts to actually be enacted. “It was just his conversation point,” she said. “He was starting a conversation.”
She likewise played down the possibility that Mr. Trump would simply rip up trade agreements, saying he merely wanted to improve them. “There’s nothing wrong with going back and saying, ‘Can we make them better,’” Ms. Haley said. “I don’t see us tearing up any deals. If we were going to do that, we would have done that already.”
One area where the two secretaries were clearly preaching to the choir was Russia’s intervention in last year’s presidential election. Ms. Rice, a longtime Russia scholar, said the intervention was “highly sophisticated” and that she hoped “we are on top of what really happened” because it could happen again. “My own view is if they do this to us once, it’s their fault,” she said. “If they do this to us twice, it’s ours.”
Unlike her boss, who has dismissed the Russia intervention as a “hoax” perpetrated by Democrats and the news media, Ms. Haley agreed that it was serious. “The Russians, God bless them, they’re saying, ‘Why are Americans anti-Russian and why have we done the sanctions?’” she said. “Well, don’t interfere in our elections and we won’t be anti-Russian.”
“When a country can come interfere in another country’s elections, that is warfare,” she added. “This is their new weapon of choice and we have to make sure we get in front of it.”
Ms. Rice and Ms. Albright seemed satisfied. On this, at least, they were all on the same page.