Tillerson Wants Fewer U.S. Diplomats, Fewer Meetings at U.N. Summit
The Secretary of State to scale back America's diplomatic presence at President Trump's U.N. General Assembly debut.
The State Department plans to scale back its diplomatic presence at this year's annual U.N. gathering of world leaders in September, a cost-saving initiative that delivers another powerful signal that America is deepening its retreat from international diplomacy, according to four well-placed diplomatic sources.
The State Department plans to scale back its diplomatic presence at this year’s annual U.N. gathering of world leaders in September, a cost-saving initiative that delivers another powerful signal that America is deepening its retreat from international diplomacy, according to four well-placed diplomatic sources.
For more than seven decades, American presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have attended the fall U.N. General Assembly general debate in New York to project their vision of American foreign policy to the world. They have been accompanied by a growing entourage of American diplomats, lawyers and technical experts who negotiate a wide range of issues, from nuclear arms treaties to climate change pacts and conflicts.
President Donald Trump does plan to address other world leaders at the U.N, General Assembly, and he will be accompanied by other top advisors, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka Trump, who stopped by U.N. headquarters Friday for a private lunch with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
But the ranks of professional diplomats, aides and officials that attend the event to promote American policy priorities on a range of issues will be thinned out. For now, it remains unclear precisely how large of a cut in U.S. staff is envisioned, but two officials said that the State Department is seeking to keep a ceiling down to about 300 people, including everyone from the President to support staff that schedule meetings and copy speeches back at the hotel.
Last year, 347 U.S. officials were counted by the U.N. in the official American delegation, which included then President Obama and his top diplomat, John Kerry. But the full delegation, including support staff and security, was far larger, according to former U.S. officials.
The State Department and the National Security Council had not responded to a request for comment. A spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations declined to comment.
While some critics fear that a truncated diplomatic presence will diminish U.S. influence on an important international stage, others, including Trump supporters and former political appointees in the Obama administration, think the American delegation could use some trimming.
Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Policy, said that a lighter presidential workload at the September summit might not be such a bad thing, particularly given Trump’s record of aggravating diplomatic disagreements with allies in recent foreign visits. But a larger diplomatic presence could help potentially diminish the damage.
“Trump demonstrated at the NATO and G20 meetings that he doesn’t really know how to behave on these occasions,” Gowan said. Tillerson and Haley “should be absolutely cocooning the president in staffers in the hope that they can keep him away from trouble.”
Despite the scaled-back expectations, President Trump is expected to stay in the area for longer than his predecessor, who generally spent two working days in New York. Obama and his aides used to stay a night at the Waldorf Astoria — at least until the purchase of the storied hotel by a Chinese insurance giant, Anbang Insurance Group. That prompted Obama and the American delegation to check out for good, fearing China might spy on them. They relocated to the New York Palace, which is owned by a South Korean conglomerate, Lotte Group.
Trump, who is expected to stay at his New Jersey golf club, had initially planned to spend ten days, receiving foreign leaders at his club. But sources said he is likely to cut back his visit to a few days.
Tillerson, meanwhile, is expected to spend far less time engaging in diplomatic spadework than his predecessors, who traditionally spend more than a week in New York meeting with foreign dignitaries in countless meetings.
The U.N. General Assembly debate opens this year on Tuesday Sept. 19 with an address by Trump, who will speak after the U.N. General Assembly President, the U.N. Secretary-General and the President of Brazil. While attention focuses on the speeches of kings, presidents and prime ministers, it also provides an opportunity for mid-level officials from the State Department and other federal agencies to participate in intensive rounds of speed diplomacy.
Most of the State Department bureaus key assistant secretaries generally bring along at least a dozen staffers. But this year they have been instructed to scale back, in some cases allowing only a single aide to accompany the acting chief of the the bureau on the trip.
The diplomatic culling is being enforced by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — the former ExxonMobil chief who has shown little interest in U.N. diplomacy during his first six months on the job. It comes at a time when the White House is seeking as much as a 30 percent cut in U.S. funding to the State Department, and even deeper cuts in U.N. operations.
The international preparations have set the stage for clashes over a range of priorities. Earlier this month, Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, proposed making the Syrian refugee crisis the centerpiece of the president’s debut before the world community.
Haley, who recently traveled to Jordan and Turkey to highlight the plight of Syrian refugees, has made the issue a signature priority during her tenure. Haley had already pressed the U.N. Secretary-General to participate in a high level meeting aimed to rally international assistance to those countries.
The plan–which resembles a strategy favored by Britain — would seek to create improved conditions for Syrian refugees in their region, reducing the need to resettle them in the West.
But the White House nixed the idea, which would have drawn attention to President Trump’s ban on travel for individuals from several Muslim countries wracked by conflict.
Instead, the White House identified five priorities it intends to highlight: reining in North Korea’s nuclear program, resolving the Syria crisis, rallying support for a tougher response to terrorism, reforming the United Nations, and addressing the refugee and hunger crisis.
While Syrian refugees will still be on the agenda, it will have to share stage time with a host of other humanitarian issues, including risks of famine in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. The famines have garnered increased interest in the White House since Ivanka Trump has taken a personal interest in addressing world hunger.
Trump will not attend any high-level meeting on refugees.
But the schedule remains in flux. White House planners are exploring the possibility of having the president attend a high-level meeting hosted by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on famine. They are also considering having Trump appear at a side meeting on U.N. reform, which could include the U.S. push to reform the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Foreign delegations, however, say they remain in the dark about the American plans for UNGA. “I haven’t heard from the U.S. mission any plans to organize a big event where they would need other heads of state,” said one diplomat from a major country. “I haven’t heard anything.”
Photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/Getty Image
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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