Report

Trump Reaches Out to U.N., Criticizes Waste, in Debut Appearance

The president's U.N. bashing was unusually restrained a day ahead of his much-anticipated address to the General Assembly.

France's president Emmanuel Macron (L) laughs with US President Donald Trump before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 18, 2017, in New York. / AFP PHOTO / ludovic MARIN        (Photo credit should read LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images)
France's president Emmanuel Macron (L) laughs with US President Donald Trump before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 18, 2017, in New York. / AFP PHOTO / ludovic MARIN (Photo credit should read LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump offered the United Nations his highest form of flattery, telling U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and other foreign leaders Monday that he recognized the U.N.’s potential value more than 15 years ago — when he decided to build a luxury residential high rise across the street.

“It was only for the reason that the United Nations was here that that turned out to be such a successful project,” Trump told a gathering that included dignitaries from 10 nations, including senior representatives from Britain, Senegal, and Uruguay.

Trump’s plug of the Trump World Tower building came in his first appearance at the United Nations, an organization he heartily criticized on the campaign trail. His comments came at the opening of high-level meeting he hosted in support of the U.N. chief’s proposals to reform the organization. He was accompanied by his U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, his national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, and John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff. Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, did not attend.

The event provided foreign delegations with their first glimpse of the American leader on the U.N. stage, and it offered a preview of his much-anticipated debut address to the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday morning.

For his part, Trump was on his best behavior, sticking closely to his written text, warmly patting the U.N. chief on the arm and praising his leadership. “You have been fantastic,” he said.

“We pledge to be partners in your work, and I’m confident that if we work together and champion truly bold reforms, the United Nations will emerge as a stronger, more effective, more just, and greater force for peace and harmony in the world,” Trump said.

The U.S. president also prodded the U.N. body to cut back on waste and bureaucracy, though some U.N. officials suspected he may have inflated numbers on the extent of the U.N.’s hiring practices, claiming that the U.N. workforce has doubled since 2000. In the past 10 years at least, U.N. staffing levels at headquarters have actually declined, from 10,085 listed in the 2008-2009 budget to 9,998 projected for the 2018-2019 budgets. U.N. staff levels around the globe have also fallen recently from 42,887 in 2012 to 40,131 in 2016. “It caused some head scratching,” said one official who closely tracks the U.N. budget.

And he revived a perennial pet peeve of American conservatives, complaining that as the largest donor, the United States covers too much of the U.N. financial burden. Washington is billed for about 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget and more than 28 percent of its peacekeeping budget.

“We must ensure that no one and no member states shoulders a disproportionate share of the burden, and that’s military or financial,” he said.

Guterres echoed the president’s reform concerns, saying: “Someone recently asked what keeps me up at night. My answer was simple: bureaucracy.”

“Someone out to undermine the U.N. could not have come up with a better way to do it than by imposing some of the rules we have created ourselves,” he added.

Shortly after the meeting, Trump traveled to the New York Palace Hotel for meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Trump said he is pushing “very hard” to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. “We are giving it an absolute go. I think there’s a good chance of it happening,” he said.

For foreign delegates, the criticism was far milder than they expected from a man who regularly denounced the United Nations and multilateral diplomacy in his presidential campaign.

But it was insufficient to paper over the deep divisions between the U.S. president and the rest of the U.N. membership over issues like climate change, Iran, and North Korea.

Speaking to reporters Monday morning, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, warned that a U.S. withdrawal from the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal would spark a nuclear arms race in the region.

“It is essential to prevent a spiral of proliferation that would encourage hardliners in Iran to pursue nuclear weapons,” he said.

The top French diplomat also appeared to take a veiled swipe at Trump, and his retreat from multilateral diplomacy.

“There is a worrying degradation of the international environment,” he said, citing the mushrooming of conflicts. “Despite globalization, cooperation has become less easy with increasing questioning of the role of the multilateral game and with a temptation of  withdrawal out of fear or selfishness.”

Photo credit: LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images

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

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