Report

Fearing Trump, U.N. Embraces the Art of the Deal

Diplomats are racing to ink international agreements — from migration to the Middle East — that a President Trump would deem: “Terrible! Bad!”

WASHINGTON - JULY 21:  Donald Trump, president of the Trump Organization, displays a picture of the New York City skyline showing his Trump World Tower (R) near the United Nations as he testifies before the Federal Financial Management, Government Information, and International Security Subcommittee Capitol Hill July 21, 2005 in Washington, DC. The hearing was held on the topic of "U.S. Financial Involvement in Renovation of UN Headquarters."  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JULY 21: Donald Trump, president of the Trump Organization, displays a picture of the New York City skyline showing his Trump World Tower (R) near the United Nations as he testifies before the Federal Financial Management, Government Information, and International Security Subcommittee Capitol Hill July 21, 2005 in Washington, DC. The hearing was held on the topic of "U.S. Financial Involvement in Renovation of UN Headquarters." (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, while anything but a sure bet, has set U.N. diplomats on a race to conclude a set of deals from migration to the Middle East peace process before U.S. President Barack Obama steps down in January 2017.

The push to secure diplomatic pacts in the waning months of the Obama presidency reflects mounting uncertainty about the prospects for international cooperation at the United Nations if Trump’s presidential bid succeeds. While many U.N. diplomats are rooting for Hillary Clinton to win the election in November, Trump’s improbable rise to the front of the Republican pack has made many doubt their own ability to handicap what has developed into one of the most unpredictable of American presidential races.

European governments, in particular, see the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements or sketching a political road map for a Palestinian state as the major prize. They are also seeking U.S. support at a summit on migration that will be held at U.N. headquarters in September.

“Everything that we can do in 2016 we should do in 2016 because we know what we’re dealing with,” said a senior U.N. diplomat who favors Security Council action in the coming months on an Israel-Palestine resolution. “In the Obama administration, we have … the most pro-U.N. administration that any of us can remember.”

The remarks come days after Trump lashed out at the U.N. during an address before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying organization, raising fresh fears about the possible resurgence of dormant anti-U.N. sentiment in Washington.

“The United Nations is not a friend of democracy,” Trump said. “It’s not a friend even to the United States of America where, as you know, it has its home, and it surely is not a friend to Israel.”

Trump’s foreign-policy agenda, such as it is, has been defined by pledges essentially to scupper the post-World War II international order and America’s place in it. It has included repeated attacks against U.S. treaty allies, like Japan and South Korea; trenchant criticisms of the NATO that Washington helped build; vows to start trade wars with America’s largest trading partners; a promise to bring back harsh interrogation techniques widely considered torture; and an anti-terrorism policy with features (such as targeting terrorists’ families) that would contravene international law. Part and parcel of that are attacks on the U.N., long a bogeyman for many conservatives, yet one of the foundation stones of the U.S.-led postwar order. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, after all, who referred to the wartime allies as “the United Nations.”

After months of delays, last week Trump finally ticked off a roster of low-profile foreign-policy advisors in an interview with the Washington Post — including a little-known energy advisor who cited participation in the 2012 Geneva International Model U.N. as a key foreign-policy achievement.

But diplomats here, like foreign-policy hands in Washington, note that the advisors are unknown quantities and that Trump’s positions on key foreign-policy issues, including the Middle East peace process, change seemingly from speech to speech and tweet to tweet.

“The future is a question mark,” said a Latin American diplomat, adding that Trump’s views on foreign policy remain opaque and that he frequently takes contradictory statements on key issues. “We don’t what he wants. We don’t know his team. We don’t know what he stands for.”

The diplomat was one of several foreign envoys who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity out of concern that they might be seen as interfering in the American political campaign. However, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Prince Zeid Raad Al Hussein of Jordan, denounced Trump’s calls for a ban on Muslims entering the United States as “grossly irresponsible.”

“The United States is a republic founded on the dignity of the individual, the rights of the individual,” Zeid, who previously served as Amman’s ambassador to the U.N. and the United States, told a small group of reporters in December. “The danger of classification and categorization … dehumanizes. It can lead to victimization of the innocent.”

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declined to directly respond to Trump’s criticism of the United Nations. But the official defended the world body’s record of support for the United States and Israel.

“The United Nations includes all the world’s democracies among its member states, notably the United States, which has been a strong partner of the United Nations ever since it played a leading role in the creation of the U.N.,” spokesman Farhan Haq told FP. “And the U.N.’s strong support for Israel, from the resolutions that supported the founding of the state of Israel, has continued to the present day.”

The Obama administration has a number of opportunities remaining to leave its stamp on the organization, including by playing a lead role in selecting a new secretary-general to succeed Ban Ki-moon, who will complete his term at the end of December. The United States is also leading efforts to secure support this summer for a U.N. General Assembly resolution strengthening the U.N.’s commitment to fighting violent extremism. The White House may also decide to champion the adoption of a first-ever General Assembly resolution promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.

In his AIPAC speech, Trump lambasted the U.N. for its “utter weakness and incompetence” and voiced alarm about discussions “to bring a Security Council resolution on terms of an eventual agreement between Israel and Palestine.”

“Let me be clear: An agreement imposed by the United Nations would be a total and complete disaster,” he said. “The United States must oppose this resolution and use the power of our veto, which I will use as president 100 percent.”

Trump isn’t alone in his wariness of a U.N. resolution imposing a peace plan. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton also vowed in her own address to AIPAC to “vigorously oppose any attempt by outside parties to impose a solution, including by the U.N. Security Council.” But Clinton didn’t rule out U.N. action to pressure Israel to halt its expansion of settlements on Palestinian lands, a perennial source of tension between Israel and the United States dating back decades. And Clinton steered clear of bashing the United Nations.

“It’s significant if the ‘nearly nominee’ of a major party has those views about the United Nations,” said the senior U.N. diplomat. “We were talking about it to each other and thinking about what it means.”

If anything, said another diplomat, Trump’s momentum has “accelerated” the pace of diplomatic work around the U.N. “We either move the ball forward on a number of issues and see what we get or we wait until Jan. 20, when we are faced with — assuming Trump gets elected — a big question mark.”

Like so many of his views, Trump’s attitude toward Turtle Bay has evolved over time, apparently depending on his needs of the moment.

When he was seeking then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s blessing in 2005 for the contract to oversee the renovation of U.N. headquarters, he gushed with praise.

“I am a big fan, a very big fan, of the United Nations and all it stands for,” Trump said at the time.

Photo credit: JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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