The U.N. Has Great Potential for Trump!

The president-elect doesn’t seem fond of Turtle Bay. But he’s going to need it more than he thinks.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley speaks during the 2016 National Lawyers Convention sponsored by the Federalist Society in Washington, DC on November 18, 2016. / AFP / Mandel Ngan        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley speaks during the 2016 National Lawyers Convention sponsored by the Federalist Society in Washington, DC on November 18, 2016. / AFP / Mandel Ngan (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

“After January 20th things will be different at the UN,” President-elect Donald Trump tweeted ominously after a historic Security Council vote to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank passed over a U.S. abstention last week. Trump had turned to Twitter days earlier to implore President Barack Obama to veto the resolution at the request of the Israelis. The split between incoming and outgoing U.S. presidents over the measure led to a few days of turmoil and a delay in the vote only to culminate in a highly public rebuke by the Security Council of Israel’s policy. It seems all but certain that the fleeting display of unity in New York over the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict will quickly be subsumed by an even more polarized posture once Trump takes office.

For the U.N. itself, the confrontational posture of the vote poses a graver risk that the incoming Trump administration’s heretofore inattention to the U.N. morphs into a posture of active disdain and outright conflict. A few days after the vote, the president-elect was still mulling over the world body, tweeting: “The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!” His Republican colleagues, meanwhile, including Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz were busy preparing proposals to suspend U.S. funding of the U.N. to punish the Security Council vote.

At the farewell parties and tributes marking an end to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s 10 years at the helm this month there was an unmistakable tinge of melancholy. The sense of impending loss has relatively little to do with Ban himself, who will be replaced by a proven and dynamic leader in former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres, who served well as the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees. The ennui was instead fueled by fears that the impending transfer of power from Barack Obama to Donald Trump will abruptly end a relatively golden era in relations between the United Nations and the United States — its host country, largest contributor, and most influential member state. U.N. hands remember well the punitive, derisive, and parsimonious approach that certain prior Republican administrations and officials, dating back to the Ronald Reagan era, have taken toward the international forum. In addition to causing friction between the world body and its biggest benefactor, those dark eras in U.S.-U.N. relations demoralized Turtle Bay, starved it of resources, and hobbled its effectiveness.

Incoming U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, the current governor of South Carolina, will come to the U.N. long on political skills but short on foreign-policy experience. As she studies up on her new role, she needs to decide whether to define success in terms of satisfying constituencies in Washington that aim to weaken and marginalize the U.N., or whether to strive to build a constructive working relationship that enhances the U.N.’s utility as a vehicle for advancing U.S. interests. Up until the Security Council’s vote, the U.N. has attracted little interest among Trump’s top foreign-policy picks. The one name floated who has demonstrated voluble antipathy toward Turtle Bay, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, was taken out of the running for Secretary of State (possibly on account of his moustache). Trump himself spurned a promised face-to-face meeting with the outgoing secretary-general. As the new prime mover in dealings with New York Haley’s choice of approach could shape the future of U.S.-U.N. relations as well as of perceptions of the Trump administration and Washington’s leadership throughout the world.

When Reagan took office and appointed Georgetown professor Jeane Kirkpatrick to serve as ambassador to the U.N., their shared approach was “diplomacy without apology” or, as Kirkpatrick put it, “tak[ing] off our ‘kick-me’ sign.” Washington’s tough talk to the Soviets and blunt rejection of anti-U.S. and anti-Israel polemics helped shift the balance of power at the U.N. in Washington’s direction, helping to unite the world body in a balanced response to Israel’s bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

But while the tough talk helped win Washington useful leverage, it was accompanied by tactics that would do lasting damage to U.S. standing and influence in New York. During Kirkpatrick’s tenure, Congress began withholding U.S. dues to the U.N. as a form of pressure to force management reforms. While relations improved during the George H.W. Bush years — with the United States rallying global support for the first Gulf War in the Security Council — congressionally legislated dues withholdings made ballooning arrearages a persistent irritant. In the ensuing years, the U.N. emerged as a favorite punching bag of conservatives in Washington and in the right-leaning media: Rumors circulated that the U.N. harbored a fleet of black helicopters plotting a U.S. takeover. In 1994, conservative policy analyst John Bolton (who later obtained a recess appointment to serve as U.N. ambassador under George W. Bush) famously said that the U.N. would be no worse off if the top 10 stories of its headquarters were lopped off. By the late 1990s, U.S. diplomats could scarcely take the microphone in U.N. meetings without being lectured about the need to pay dues “on time, in full, and without conditions.”

During the Clinton administration, a landmark agreement saw the United States paying off nearly $1 billion in past-due arrears after an intensive courtship, brokered by then-Ambassador Richard Holbrooke between the U.N. and its conservative opponents in Congress. The rapprochement included a historic speech by U.N.-bashing Sen. Jesse Helms to the U.N. Security Council. During the George W. Bush years things took a turn for the worse. Early on, the United States was voted off the U.N.’s Commission on Human Rights in a secret vote in which American allies frustrated with the administration’s attitudes toward international treaties and norms joined forces with others eager to silence Washington’s criticisms of the records of foreign governments. Thereafter, came Colin Powell’s ill-fated PowerPoint presentation to the Security Council evincing what was later proven to be false evidence of Iraqi nuclear weapons. Then came the administration’s subsequent failure to secure U.N. support for an Iraq invasion that was long bedeviled by shaky global support.

When Obama entered office he announced a “new era of engagement” premised on energetic diplomacy and full U.S. participation at the U.N. He appointed trusted foreign policy advisors (Susan Rice and then Samantha Power) to represent his administration at the U.N., ran for a seat on the U.N.’s newfangled Human Rights Council for the first time, utilized the global body to marshal consensus and punish Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs with harsh sanctions, worked to combat climate change and advance global development, and galvanized the State Department bureaucracy to vigorously oppose anti-Israel votes and actions. As Obama’s administration wanes, U.S. officials at the U.N. have been focused on addressing the worldwide refugee crisis and securing strides made to advance LGBT and women’s rights through U.N. mechanisms.

Despite Obama’s vigorous efforts, the U.N.’s track record remains decidedly mixed. Its most egregious recent failings — to prevent the ever-escalating Syrian war, stem the flood of refugees, prevent Russian annexation of Crimea, or act as an effective mediator between Israel and Palestine — are a function of the political fissures that divide its most powerful members. As U.S. relations with Russia have deteriorated, the Security Council has become a vessel for their stormy dealings, with outspoken criticisms, moral outrage, and stalemated debates reminiscent of the Cold War. When key countries are at loggerheads, those splits roil the waters in Turtle Bay.

Operationally, the U.N. suffers from the sclerosis that bedevils any large bureaucracy, and particularly one that must treat 198 member states on equal terms. It has also been prone to periodic scandals, most recently involving U.N. peacekeeping troops who have been implicated in committing rape and sexual abuse in various African hotspots and, in Haiti, spreading cholera. But the U.N.’s role and operational capabilities in the arenas of peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, refugee relief, and other areas are indispensable globally. Moreover, the world body handles an endless array of technical issues — ranging from air traffic control to intellectual property protection — without which the world would be a far more chaotic and contentious place.

As she prepares to take office, ambassador-designate Haley will face calls from conservative policy analysts to revert to the policies of the past. Momentum is building among Senate Republicans to adopt measures that would retaliate against the settlements vote. A Heritage Foundation briefing paper published in November called for the United States to withhold a portion of its dues that support U.N. peacekeeping operations, a step that would drag Washington back down the rabbit hole of U.N. arrears. The Heritage briefer also dusted off perennial proposals regarding tougher oversight, withdrawal from UNESCO (the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization from which the U.S. pulled out in 1984 only to rejoin during the George W. Bush administration) due to its members’ vote to admit the Palestinian Authority, defection from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and a retreat from the U.N. Human Rights Council — a classic Republican list of anti-U.N. prescriptions that could have been written circa 2002. Some conservatives have pushed even more drastic proposals, including a July 2016 bill — modeled on Brexit — that was introduced by six Republican House members, and which would mandate U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. and a cessation of all contributions in support of the international forum.

But reading between the lines, it’s also clear that (at least until this most recent Security Council vote) time had dulled some of the passion, at least for now. In a 1996 presidential debate, Sen. Bob Dole confronted Bill Clinton about the “liberal love affair with the United Nations” and went on to say that “coalition troops didn’t fight and die to hand off Iraq to U.N. bureaucrats.” But that’s the last time in memory the U.N. came up as an attack line in a presidential campaign. Even the Heritage briefer devotes its first paragraph to grudging praise for the Obama administration in pressing for reforms at the U.N. and urges Trump to stay the course on these efforts. As a talented and ambitious politician, Haley probably looks at her U.N. stint as an opportunity to gain foreign-policy chops for a future national campaign.   She should think ahead now to what she will want to be able to cite as successes during her tenure in New York, keeping three key considerations in mind.

1. The Trump administration will need the U.N. Though they may be loath to recognize it, the president-elect and his top official will quickly find that they need the U.N. as a negotiating forum, a source of international legitimacy and an expeditionary body ready to venture where the United States won’t go. The self-proclaimed master dealmaker, Trump will learn that many countries are more willing to come to the table under the light-blue flag than under the Stars and Stripes. The world body is seen as a neutral convener and honest broker. The Trump administration? Not so much. While Trump has for now sworn off international entanglements, should he be faced with an aggressive North Korean missile test, another major terror attack on U.S. soil or that of an ally that demands retaliation, he will quickly learn that the U.N.’s imprimatur will mobilize resources and political support, helping to fend off the global blowback that impaired the Iraq War.

Meanwhile, the U.N.’s 16 global peacekeeping operations and their 100,000 personnel are busy keeping hotspots like the Central African Republic, Mali, and Lebanon relatively quiet. Without the U.N., any of these could become another Syria-like quagmire for which Washington will, as always, bear a significant share of the blame because of its status as a global superpower. The U.N.’s humanitarian arms are even more far-reaching, working to address natural disasters and man-made catastrophes on every continent. When the next Haiti earthquake, Ebola outbreak, or Indonesian tsunami hits, a reeling world will look to the United States for leadership — and American officials will turn to the U.N. for coordination and the ability to sustain relief operations over time with levels of resources and personnel that Washington won’t maintain alone. With a president who has proclaimed “America First,” disavowed “nation-building,” and demanded that other countries pony up to provide for their own security, the U.N.’s role as intervenor-of-last-resort in global crises will expand, with the world body likely forced to step and stem chaos when Washington won’t. The U.N. is also a powerful engine for the Trump’s oft-mentioned aims of burden-sharing and cost control: where a U.N. peacekeeping mission is authorized Washington pays roughly 28 percent of the bill, less than it would under virtually any other coalition configuration.

2. The United Nations needs the United States. As U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Haley will play a signal role in ensuring that Turtle Bay gets Washington’s support — without which its effectiveness will be hobbled. Without focused advocacy to maintain authorizations and appropriations for U.S. contributions to the U.N.’s regular budget, peacekeeping operations, and voluntary funds, the functional equivalent of a global system of taxation to maintain a modicum of international peace and security will buckle. To be effective in her role, it will be incumbent on Haley to resist mounting pressure to suspend the U.N.’s funding. The price for her success may be some package of U.N. reforms, though she should ensure they are measures that will actually strengthen the world body rather than simply exact a pound of flesh on Washington’s behalf.

As Holbrooke used to say, blaming the U.N. itself for unwelcome results in the Security Council, a body of nation states, would be like blaming a Knicks loss on Madison Square Garden. We know Trump is no fan of taxes of any kind and prefers to pay the bare minimum. Advocating for the United States to fulfill its baseline obligations under the U.N.’s charter and resolutions, much less for Washington to pull its weight in mobilizing international operations to support refugees, disaster recovery, and things like famine relief will be a tall order. But if Haley declines to make the U.N.’s case in Washington, almost no one else will and the U.S. relationship with the world body will enter a deep freeze as the U.N.’s operational capabilities wither. If U.N. officials and fellow ambassadors observe that Haley is not ready to fight for the world body in Washington, they will have little incentive to cooperate with her in New York. She may not realize it yet, but the fight for U.N. funding is hers to lead.

3. It’s a two-way street. The best U.N. ambassadors represent their countries to the global body, and vice versa. Haley must be the voice of the United States in New York and, if informally, a voice for the U.N. in Washington. In so doing, she can work to head off the fiery confrontations that can occur in U.N. corridors. Occasionally, Washington tries deliberately to spotlight the intransigence of another country: by cornering the Russians, for example, into casting an isolated veto. But most of the time, the United States is in the business of marshaling consensus, a tireless task that requires careful planning, intensive internal and external negotiating, and relentless vote whipping. When the United States knows it will have to veto a resolution on Israel, for example, it will generally try to head off the tabling of a text so as to avoid the spectacle of standing alone. The vast bulk of U.N. diplomacy happens behind the scenes, with the United States working to amass approval for its priorities and head off resolutions unfriendly toward its allies and priorities. Doing so allows Washington to avoid being isolated and humiliated, burnishing perceptions that the United States enjoys a measure of control over world events. Getting desired results at the U.N. requires careful planning and dogged diplomacy: this includes marshaling U.S. embassies in capitals around the world to engage in diplomacy and apply pressure before key U.N. votes, as well as fine-tuned internal deliberations involving the White House and other federal agencies. A disengaged or dismissive approach toward the U.N. will result in the United States being isolated, which will only compound Washington’s frustration with what happens in New York.

For an Obama administration long annoyed with the intransigence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the late December abstention in the Security Council must have felt cathartic. But for a group of officials who have dedicated years to forging a constructive U.S.-U.N. relationship, feeding the fires of Republican resentment toward the world body on the eve of Trump’s ascent to power must have been bittersweet at best. For Democrats, Haley is among the few incoming Trump cabinet members whose background, temperament, and ideology seem relatively palatable. Dropped into the polarizing environs of Turtle Bay, Haley will need to summon all her political chops if she is to succeed in the eyes of both New York and Washington.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Suzanne Nossel is executive director of the Pen American Center and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

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