Has President Trump Learned to Love the United Nations?
Donald Trump came into office decrying the U.N. and NATO, two organizations he now can't seem to live with out.
For a president who came into office promising to upend America’s relationship with the United Nations, Donald Trump and his administration seem fairly quickly to have settled into reality — namely that much as the United States needs NATO, so too does it need the United Nations, warts and all. None of this means the United Nations is out of the woods in terms of the serious threat it faces from the Trump administration — whether in terms of funding cut-offs or pulling out of various U.N. bodies, such as the Human Rights Council. But whether by default or design, the administration has ended up giving far more prominence to the world body than we might have anticipated.
Part of this has to do with the fact that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has to date played an outsized role as the main voice for the Trump administration on all foreign-policy issues, usurping ground that would normally (and more naturally) fall to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. For an administration that purports to eschew multilateralism, it is at the very least interesting that they have decided to use the bully pulpit of the Security Council chamber and the U.N. press corps as their main foreign-policy messaging vehicles.
To be fair, it’s not at all clear that this represents a conscious decision on the administration’s part; it could just as easily represent that Haley is far more savvy a press player than Tillerson seems to be, and has relished using the platform provided by the fairly small pond that New York represents. It’s also not always clear that Haley’s pronouncements represent Trump administration policy. She herself has explained her divergence from the president on Russia by saying that Trump has never told her not to be strong on Russia in the U.N. context; but the flip side could also be true — that neither the president nor anyone else has told Haley she should be stronger on Russia in New York than administration officials are in Washington. It could just be that she has been given some license to freelance, whether deliberately or because of lack of interest.
Haley stormed into New York on her first day on the job and threatened that it was a “new day” at the United Nations and that the United States would be “taking names” of those who disagreed with it. Instead, Ambassador Haley seems fairly quickly to have fallen into a normal rhythm at Turtle Bay, which, is an old-school diplomatic domain, where relationships and personal touches matter. Given what we have seen of Haley so far, it’s clear she is adept at playing that game — and that pays dividends in the U.N. milieu.
Her Security Council colleagues seemed uniformly positive about their trip to Washington in late April, and what we saw of their rapport with Haley certainly seemed warm and genuine. (I’m not talking here about the president’s patronizing question at the top of his event with Haley’s all-male colleagues about whether everyone “liked Nikki.”) Press accounts suggest that while Haley may talk tough in public — on issues like cutting U.N. peacekeeping missions — in actual negotiations with her diplomatic counterparts, she hasn’t driven a particularly hard bargain and has shown a willingness to compromise. Trump likewise showed in late April, by having lunch with Security Council ambassadors, that he too now understands the benefit of making a diplomatic effort in the U.N. context. President Barack Obama understood this well, and invited the Security Council for meetings in Washington twice during his presidency, while also using the convening power of the United Nations to chair meetings advancing numerous U.S. policy aims, from peacekeeping reform to addressing the refugee crisis and foreign terrorist fighters.
It’s not only that the Trump administration seems to have happened upon using the United Nations as its preeminent foreign-policy platform, but also that administration officials now seem to get that the United States needs the United Nations in order to advance its policy aims. Indeed, just in the past few weeks, the administration gave U.N. Secretary General António Guterres a meeting with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and a drop-by with Trump; invited the Security Council to lunch; and last Friday, sent Tillerson to New York for his inaugural visit to the United Nations to chair a Security Council session on North Korea and meet with Guterres.
Security Council ambassadors who lunched with the president on April 24 told reporters that Trump said publicly that he would push council members on the need for additional sanctions on North Korea and that the body had been a disappointment on Syria. But he also acknowledged the Security Council’s critical role on international peace and security and said he thought the United Nations had great potential that it needed to live up to, telling ambassadors that “you’re talking about the most important things ever.”
What are we to make of this seeming about-face? Mostly, that reality bites, even when it comes to the United Nations. With the Trump administration focused on ramping up pressure on North Korea, for example, they reached the inevitable conclusion that to be meaningful, new economic sanctions need to be multilateral, and that means going through the Security Council — thus Tillerson’s trip to New York. Likewise, on South Sudan, Haley has pled the U.S. case on sanctions and an arms embargo.
This is all tried and true multilateralism — and it reflects a realization that the United Nations will be useful and needed even for the Trump administration, at least some of the time. In the case of the U.S. airstrikes on Syria a few weeks ago, Trump gave the go-ahead even while the council was still deliberating, sending a clear signal that the United States doesn’t intend to wait for multilateral consensus when it wants to act unilaterally — and certainly doesn’t feel bound by it, at least in extremis. But rather than go it alone, we should expect to continue to see the administration try to push the Security Council to help advance U.S. interests on top foreign-policy issues. While the Security Council won’t always comply, it also can’t be ignored. Trump seemed to acknowledge the necessity of acting multilaterally, when he told the council ambassadors during their lunch: “And the United Nations will get together and solve conflicts. It won’t be two countries, it will be the United Nations mediating or arbitrating with those countries.“
Rhetorically and publicly, we should also expect to see Trump, Haley, and Tillerson continue to trash the United Nations when it’s politically expedient to do so — and to trot out familiar U.S. tropes about U.N. reform, accountability, high U.S. assessment rates, and tackling the endemic anti-Israel bias. All of these are worthy, bipartisan, and longstanding U.S. concerns. But again, reality quickly creeps in: Haley’s efforts to massively slash U.N. peacekeeping missions resulted in just a small haircut. And as I wrote at length, I hope that any judgments about the size and mandate of particular U.N. missions (or other funding cuts) are made after a considered, transparent and credible review and not before. But that shouldn’t diminish the importance of the United States continuing the leadership role it played during the Obama administration on pushing for peacekeeping and other reforms.
So has the United States under President Trump learned to love the United Nations? No, not yet. Haley and Tillerson continue to dangle the prospect that the United States may pull out of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which would be short-sighted and cede important ground to the likes of Russia and China. Other U.N. bodies could be vulnerable, depending on whether they run afoul of the Trump administration in some way. The Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement remain potential multilateral targets; if the administration follows through on Trump’s campaign pledges on either or both, it would have devastating effect. And although the United States made a $94 million contribution to the Yemen humanitarian appeal this week in Geneva, Washington so far has been absent from its normal leadership role in the humanitarian space — of cajoling other donors and sounding the alarm about funding needs — even in the face of four looming famines. Needless to say, we have largely ceded the ground on refugee issues and are, by virtue of the Trump team’s own actions, much more challenged in terms of advocating on human rights issues, even should the administration decide to remain in the HRC.
Moreover, Trump’s budget proposal would have catastrophic impact on poor and vulnerable people around the world and would starve the U.N. system of funds needed to continue to address conflict and crisis in hotspots around the world. Even if Congress ultimately protects certain portions of the U.N. budget, there is no question that some parts of the system may face deep cuts, and the United States may once again put itself into arrears on its dues. (Indeed, the FY 2017 omnibus bill Congress passed at the end of April includes around a 20 percent cut in U.S. contributions toward its peacekeeping dues, which is likely to put the United States into arrears this year.) But who knows?
Trump himself seemed to suggest to council ambassadors that he might, in the end, not cut U.N. funding if the United Nations started doing “a great job,” and admitted that although the United States pays an outsized share of the U.N. budget, ultimately that budget is “peanuts … we’re talking pennies compared to the kind of lives and money that you’ll be saving.” Of course, nowhere did he define how he might come to determine whether the United Nations is doing a great job — meaning the budget remains in a precarious spot, as I expect will the entire U.S. relationship with the United Nations. So it’s good one day, terrible the next. That’s not particularly comforting, but it seems we’re on better footing than when Haley blasted into New York promising out with the old and in with the new.
For now, it seems like we’re back to the old, with a bit of new packaging here and there. But given the president’s proclivity to shift positions from one day to the next, there’s no guarantee this analysis will hold for the next 100 days. That puts a lot of pressure on Haley and her U.N. diplomatic colleagues to do great things … whatever that means.
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