Report

Before U.N. Summit, World Tells Trump His ‘America-First Fun’ Must End

Friends and rivals alike press administration to embrace multilateral diplomacy on climate change, Iran, and North Korea.

UN Secretary-General-designate Antonio Guterres speaks during the ceremony for the appointment of the Secretary-General during the 70th session of the General Assembly October 13, 2016 at the United Nations in New York.
The UN General Assembly on Thursday formally appointed Antonio Guterres as the new secretary-general of the United Nations, replacing Ban Ki-moon. The 193 member states adopted by acclamation a resolution appointing the former prime minister of Portugal for a five-year term beginning January 1.
 / AFP / Jewel SAMAD        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
UN Secretary-General-designate Antonio Guterres speaks during the ceremony for the appointment of the Secretary-General during the 70th session of the General Assembly October 13, 2016 at the United Nations in New York. The UN General Assembly on Thursday formally appointed Antonio Guterres as the new secretary-general of the United Nations, replacing Ban Ki-moon. The 193 member states adopted by acclamation a resolution appointing the former prime minister of Portugal for a five-year term beginning January 1. / AFP / Jewel SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

On the eve of the U.N. General Assembly debate, a diverse array of countries have made common cause to prod President Donald Trump to reverse course on his most controversial foreign policy initiatives — from bailing on the fight against climate change to threatening to tear up the Iran nuclear deal — and to instead embrace multilateral diplomacy.

“The world will have an overarching message for Trump this week: You have had your ‘America First’ fun, now get back to serious diplomacy,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “That applies to climate change, Iran, and North Korea.”

There could be reason to pay heed to the rest of the world: The divisions over Iran and climate change complicate efforts by the Trump administration to rally the world behind a tougher response to North Korea, which has tested powerful nuclear devices and long-range missiles.

On Sunday, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, warned on CNN that there are a “whole lot of military options” for dealing with Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations.

The threat of military action has rattled front line states like China and South Korea, which favor a diplomatic outcome to the crisis, and fear that a U.S. and North Korean war of words could trap them in a bloody conflict.

Foreign delegates say they have seen some modest signs of softening on the Trump administration’s policies towards Iran; U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is preparing to meet Wednesday with his Iranian counterpart at a big-power nuclear meeting. The president himself, meanwhile, has recently passed up an opportunity to reimpose Congressional sanctions on Iran.

But Trump is seen as highly unpredictable and few delegates were willing to bet that he would use his debut in the U.N. General Assembly hall to assure world leaders that he can work together with them.

For instance, the White House had doubled down on its opposition to climate change, refusing to attend a high-level meeting on climate change Monday hosted by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. The only Americans expected to attend a second meeting later in the week on climate will be American governors and mayors.

The White House batted down weekend reports in the Wall Street Journal and Agence France Presse that the president had decided to reverse his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

“The president’s ears are open if, at some point, [other governments] decide they can come forward with an agreement that addresses the president’s very legitimate concerns with Paris,” U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said on Fox News Sunday.

But it is the fate of another landmark 2015 accord that has allies particularly nervous. In a joint press conference with Rex Tillerson earlier this month, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made the case for preserving the Iran nuclear accord, noting North Korea’s development of ever more powerful nuclear weapons.

Johnson said that the United States is right to be alarmed by Iran’s ongoing support for several armed militias to help it expand its power in the region, and its development of its ballistic missile program despite a provision in the nuclear accord that asked them not to. But he stressed the merits of sticking to the 2015 accord, which limits Iran’s capability to develop nuclear weapons.

“The Iranians must behave and fulfill their side of the bargain, stopping to be interventionist and expansionist in the region,” Johnson said. “And on the other side we in the U.K. think it very important that Iran could be won over to a new way of thinking. They should see that there are economic benefits to the [nuclear pact] as well.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif dismissed the Trump administration’s hopes of securing a better deal as pure fantasy. “It’ about time for U.S. to stop spinning and begin complying [with the existing pact], just like Iran,” he tweeted.

Perhaps anticipating pushback at the U.N. General Assembly, the State Department left Iran and climate change off the list of five key priorities it will promote during the high-level session. Those are Syria, North Korea, counterterrorism, humanitarian relief, and U.N. reform, which Trump will highlight Monday when he hosts a summit.

When Thomas Shannon, a top State Department official, briefed foreign ambassadors earlier this month in Washington on American plans for this week’s General Assembly debate, Tunisia’s ambassador, Faycal Gouia, posed a pointed question about Washington’s lack of commitment to battling global warming.

“I listened to your five priorities for this next UNGA, but I did not hear anything about environmental issues, it is a concern of all the people of the world,” he said in the closed-door meeting, according to written notes of the session obtained by Foreign Policy. “What happens in Texas is an example of the risks that the United States and the entire world is enduring, because of climate change,” he said, in reference to Hurricane Harvey, which slammed Houston last month.

But White House is standing its ground. The United States signaled its intention to withdraw from the accord this summer — it will take four years to do so — isolating the American president on an issue that enjoys overwhelming international support.

Mustering international support is vital for other hot-button issues, such as dealing with North Korea. The United States enters the U.N. debate with considerable support for its diplomatic efforts to penalize North Korea with tough economic sanctions, including a ban on its garment exports, following a season of nuclear detonations and long-range ballistic missile launches.

But a military strike would severely test the depth of international support. China and Russia are seeking support for a diplomatic initiative that would require Pyongyang freeze its nuclear arms and ballistic missile program in exchange for Washington suspending military exercises with its allies in the region. German chancellor Angela Merkel has urged the United States and other key powers to launch negotiations similar to those that resulted in the Iranian nuclear deal.

“Military action could cause devastation on a scale that would take generations to overcome,” cautioned Guterres, echoing calls by other world leaders calls for negotiations. “The solution can only be political.”

Despite their disagreements with the United States, several diplomats expressed relief that Trump has decided to convene a high-level meeting on reforms to the United Nations itself — even if he rubbed some delegations the wrong way by refusing to let them speak. Only Trump, Haley, and Guterres have speaking slots.

“It’s extremely remarkable,” said one European diplomat, citing Trump’s criticism of multilateralism and the United Nations during his presidential campaign. “Many thought that President Trump may not come to the U.N. week, that he may not speak, that he may not show any interest in affairs of the United Nations.”

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said not only is Trump addressing the U.N. General Assembly, but he’s bringing a high-powered delegation, including Vice President Mike Pence, McMaster, and Defense Secretary James Mattis.

“He’s coming and hosting an event that has the purpose to support the secretary general of the United Nations’ reform policy. I find that quite remarkable.”

Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

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

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