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Trump Snubs Ban Ki-moon after Promising a Face-to-Face Meeting

The U.N. secretary-general thought he had a pledge for some face time with the new American leader. WRONG!

DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 14:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the American Airlines Center on September 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. More than 20,000 tickets have been distributed for the event.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 14: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the American Airlines Center on September 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas. More than 20,000 tickets have been distributed for the event. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

President-elect Donald Trump has backtracked on a post-election pledge to hold face-to-face talks with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, according to U.N. officials, dealing a snub to a solidly pro-American U.N. chief who could become president of South Korea, a key American ally.

The apparent brush-off was viewed by some U.N.-based diplomats as a worrying sign that a Trump presidency will devote far less attention to the world body than his predecessor.

Trump has already sent mixed messages about his views toward the United Nations. He selected a rising star in the Republican Party, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, to serve as his envoy to the United Nations. In contrast to other post-Cold War Republican administrations, Trump will grant her cabinet rank. But Haley, who sharply criticized Trump during his presidential campaign, is not a member of his inner circle, raising questions about how much influence she would wield. She also has virtually no experience in international diplomacy.

Ban phoned Trump three days after the Nov. 8 election to offer congratulations and to seek support for a raft of U.N. priorities, including a landmark U.N.-backed climate change pact struck in Paris this year. Trump spoke little during the conversation, according to U.N.-based diplomats. During the presidential campaign, Trump opposed the pact, dismissing global warming as a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese.

But Ban hoped he could help persuade Trump to reconsider his opposition to the international climate treaty, which entered into force in early November. In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, conducted after his high-level exchange with Trump, Ban said, “I think he said he was open-minded.”

Trump also pledged to follow up with a private meeting with Ban, whose First Avenue office is within walking distance from Trump’s Fifth Avenue residence. But the Trump transition team quickly made clear that Trump was not going to open his gilded doors at Trump Tower to the outgoing world leader. The president-elect, the transition team said, would not be meeting with any world leaders until after the inauguration, at which point Ban will likely have returned to Seoul, where he will weigh whether to enter his own country’s presidential race.

“We tried to arrange for a personal meeting, as it was agreed during the phone call,” recalled one senior U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But then they said president-elect will not personally see any foreign diplomats before [the Jan. 20 inauguration].”

A second U.N. official suggested that Ban may have misunderstood Trump. The official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, likened Trump’s invitation to someone who casually suggests “‘Let’s have lunch’ — not a real commitment, not exactly a brush-off, basically a placeholder.”

A third U.N. official sought to downplay the suggestion that Ban felt snubbed. The official noted that Trump has stopped meeting with any international dignitaries since a Nov. 17 talk with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Trump’s communications team did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment Friday.

For Ban, the prospect of a sit-down with Trump could have proved valuable as he weighs his political future, offering an opportunity to forge a personal relationship with the new leader of the United States  South Korea’s most important ally and protector. Ban is expected to mount a campaign for the South Korean presidency after his term as secretary-general expires on Dec. 31.

Trump has unnerved Asian allies, including South Korea and Japan, by hinting during the campaign that he might draw down U.S. military forces in the region and demand that Seoul and Tokyo pay more for their own defense. Trump has since sought to assure them that the United States would honor its treaty obligations.

In the days following his election, Trump casually invited foreign leaders to visit or call him. He reportedly told British Prime Minister Theresa May: “If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know.” Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial Philippine president, said he also received invitations to visit Trump in New York and Washington.

Duterte, meanwhile, threatened to burn down the U.N.’s New York headquarters after it criticized his brutal crackdown on alleged drug dealers and criminals. He also called Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, an “idiot” and “a son of a bitch” for suggesting Duterte be investigated for his claim to have personally killed suspected criminals when he was mayor of Davao City, in the southern Philippines.

In hosting his first “unofficial” meeting with a foreign leader, Abe, Trump fueled criticism that he was wading blindly into the turbulent waters of international diplomacy. The Nov. 17 meeting at Trump Tower was conducted without the input of State Department diplomats.

Since then, Trump has not held any private meetings with foreign leaders. But he has engaged in active telephone diplomacy, infuriating China by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president. Trump spoke by phone with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Thursday — the same day Egypt was scheduled to call for a vote on a Security Council resolution denouncing Israel’s Jewish settlements as illegal and demanding a halt to their construction.

The Egyptians have mustered overwhelming support for the resolution. But earlier in the day, Trump wrote on Twitter and Facebook that the resolution “should be vetoed…. This puts Israel in a very poor negotiating position and is extremely unfair to all Israelis.”

Trump’s remarks came after Israeli officials contacted his advisors, according to the New York Times, seeking help in blocking the proposal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also pressured Sisi to withdraw the resolution. Shortly afterward, Egypt delayed its plan to put the resolution to a vote. Four other co-sponsors of the resolution — New Zealand, Malaysia, Venezuela, and Senegal — have called for a vote Friday afternoon.

It remains unclear whether the Obama administration will veto the resolution or abstain, allowing the measure to become international law. While the United States has long characterized settlements as an “illegitimate” threat to the Middle East peace process, it has previously opposed a Security Council role in defining the terms of a future peace deal. Trump, meanwhile, recently nominated an avid supporter of a Jewish settlements, David Friedman, as his choice for the next U.S. ambassador to Israel.

In the interview with FP, Ban said he had a “good telephone call” with Trump. On Trump’s views on climate change, Ban said, “I’m hopeful that as a successful business leader, a global business leader, he will understand that business communities are … changing and retooling their way of doing business” in a way that contains greenhouse gases.

Beyond climate change, Ban said he raised “many, many” other U.N. issues in the call. Trump, he said, was “basically in a listening mode.”

Photo credit: TOM PENNINGTON/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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