Behind Trump’s Bluster, a More Nuanced Approach to the U.N.
U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly yesterday for the second time since taking office. Trump opened with what seemed more like a campaign stump speech than a foreign policy address, touting the domestic accomplishments of his administration in such hyperbolic terms that the audience chuckled. He went on to defend his actions in the global arena, with particular emphasis on his controversial decisions to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The rest of his address revisited similar themes from his U.N. speech last year, repeatedly highlighting the centrality of sovereignty to his administration’s worldview, while taking various U.N. bodies to task and vilifying U.S. adversaries and partners ranging from Iran and Venezuela to Germany and the OPEC nations. In one major shift, Trump singled out for praise North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, thanking him for his “courage” and lauding the nascent diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang over its nuclear program. A year ago, Trump famously taunted Kim with the nickname “Rocket Man” and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea in the event of any conflict. Trump closed his speech by citing Poland, India, Israel and Saudi Arabia as partner countries with distinct cultural heritages and the fierce independence that is necessary to defend them.
The speech was in line with Trump’s consistently expressed hostility to the U.N. and multilateralism more generally. He has threatened to dramatically reduce U.S. contributions to the organization’s budget and menaced member states that vote against U.S. interests with financial consequences. Since addressing the U.N. last year, he has withdrawn the U.S. from several U.N. bodies, including UNESCO and more recently the U.N. Human Rights Council. But if Trump’s rhetoric has been harsh and blunt, his administration’s approach to the U.N. has been more nuanced. This collection of five recent WPR articles offers comprehensive analysis and context to understand this headline news.
The United Nations weathered the first phase of the Trump era, starting out 2018 in better shape than seemed possible the year before. But U.S. relations with the U.N. could take a sharp and sudden turn for the worse quite soon. President Donald Trump took office promising to slash the U.N.’s budget and rip up international agreements. But he has often shied away from delivering on his direst threats. His ambassador in New York, Nikki Haley, has shaved significant sums off U.N. budgets but avoided more severe cuts that would halt the organization’s operations. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has adroitly worked with Haley to identify institutional reforms that match U.S. interests and fix genuine flaws in the U.N. system. As I noted in a paper for the Century Foundation last September, the U.S. president has oddly become a “catalyst for constructive U.N. reform.”
For months, the Trump administration threatened to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council. Finally, on June 19, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, jointly announced that the United States was leaving the body, charging that it was a “protector of human rights abusers, and a cesspool of political bias” against Israel. On one level, it should not come as a surprise that President Donald Trump chose to exit yet another U.N. organization—last year, he ditched UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural body, over what his administration also called its “anti-Israel bias.” Truth be told, the Human Rights Council has faced its share of criticism, both for its perceived prejudice against Israel, as well as for permitting egregious human rights violators to serve on its board. But like every decision the Trump administration has taken to disengage from the international system, its departure from the Human Rights Council comes at a steep cost.
The United States has found a new way to hurt the United Nations Security Council: Ignore it. Last week, I predicted that U.S. President Donald Trump was about to pull out of the Iranian nuclear bargain, setting the stage for a showdown in the council. This was half right. Trump quit the deal Tuesday. But his national security adviser, John Bolton, signaled that the U.S. does not plan to return to the U.N. to reimpose multilateral sanctions on Tehran. Instead, Washington will rely on unilateral secondary sanctions, which can cut non-American companies out of the U.S. market if they continue to trade with Iran. This is odd at first sight, as the nuclear accords were drafted so as to make restoring U.N. sanctions relatively straightforward. But by marginalizing the council, Trump has sent a harsh message about how he plans to wield U.S. power from now on.
When U.S. President Donald Trump delivered his fiery first speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017, one person in the audience watched with particular interest, bracing herself for what would come next. After all, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, knew it would be her job to deal with the fallout of her boss’s words, which, predictably, kicked up a storm of controversy. In a surprising twist during a presidency filled with surprises, Haley has become the face of American diplomacy in the age of Trump. It is Haley who has to take Trump’s coarse ideas and often-contradictory policy pronouncements and translate them to the world in a more palatable mix. And it is her task to prevent Trump’s harsh rhetoric from isolating the United States on matters for which it requires international cooperation. To a large degree, and considering the scale of the challenge, Haley has proven rather successful.
If you want to understand United Nations diplomacy, it helps to think of the institution as a sort of high-level anger management class. The U.N. may be a place for states to work together on common problems, but it is also a venue for governments to get cross with one another without causing too much damage. There are few easier ways for diplomats to postpone serious discussions of a contentious issue than passing a U.N. General Assembly resolution about it. The assembly annually condemns the U.S. embargo on Cuba, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the legacy of colonialism in pro forma resolutions. These symbolic acts have little bearing on how the countries involved interact outside the assembly chamber. Yet in the era of Donald Trump, the U.N.’s ritual displays of anger are gaining a new edge.
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