U.N. Brief: Trump Manages to Unite the U.N. — Against His Isolationist Vision

Trump and Rouhani dismiss prospects for face to face talks for now.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump on a screen as he addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25. (Eduardo MunozAlvarez/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump on a screen as he addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25. (Eduardo MunozAlvarez/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images)

FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report this week on the 73rd U.N. General Assembly in New York. Sign up here to get U.N. Brief in your inbox tomorrow and Friday mornings.

The laugh heard round the world:

President Donald Trump hit all the familiar notes—he bashed Iran, denounced globalization, and doubled down on the primacy of national sovereignty—in his second U.N. General Assembly speech.

Still, the most memorable moment in his address to world leaders may be when he drew unexpected laughter by claiming he had achieved more as president in two years than any president in U.S. history. For more on the speech look here.

But what was even more significant was the degree to which Trump succeeded in uniting world leaders from Paris to Tehran in repudiating the U.S. assault on multilateralism.

In a direct challenge to Trump’s speech, French President Emmanuel Macron rejected Trump’s resort to protectionism and isolationism, saying “only collective action allows for the upholding of the sovereignty and equality of the people in whose name we take action.”

[More: Trump Takes Aim at Iran, China, and the Global System in Big U.N. Speech]

“Nationalism always leads to defeat,” he said. “If courage is lacking in the defense of fundamental principles, international order becomes fragile and this can lead, as we have already seen twice, to global war. We saw that with our very own eyes.”

Macron also criticized the Trump administration for turning its back on global institutions, and for cutting off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the U.N. relief agency that assists Palestinian refugees.

“At a time when our collective system is falling apart, it is most in demand,” he added. “We shall support those working for peace and humanity.”

Tweet of the day:

Enjoying U.N. Brief? Sign up here to get it in your inbox tomorrow and Friday mornings.

U.N. chief trolls President Trump in UNGA speech:

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres delivered a broadside against the President Trump’s vision of world affairs—without even mentioning Trump by name.

Speaking shortly before the U.S. president, Guterres made an impassioned, if perhaps fruitless, appeal for world leaders to recommit themselves to the liberal order, arguing that resort to big power politics is undermining individual rights while “authoritarianism is on the rise.”

“Today, world order is increasingly chaotic. Power relations are less clear. Universal values are being eroded.”

“Today, world order is increasingly chaotic. Power relations are less clear. Universal values are being eroded. Democratic principles are under siege, and the rule of law is being undermined,” he told the gathering in his opening address. “Impunity is on the rise, as leaders and states push the boundaries, both at home and in the international arena.”

“Our world is suffering from a bad case of ‘trust deficit disorder.’ People are feeling troubled and insecure. Trust is at a breaking point. Trust in national institutions. Trust among states. Trust in the rules-based global order.”

Iran hits back:

Iran President Hassan Rouhani took to the U.N. General Assembly podium just hours after President Trump threatened fresh sanctions against Tehran, insisting that Iranians would never bow to America’s maximum pressure campaign.

“The Iranian people have demonstrated their unwavering resilience during the past forty years despite the difficulties and constraints caused by sanctions,” he said. “They can overcome this difficult pase as well.”

“The United States’ understanding of international relations is authoritarian. In its estimation, might makes right,” Rouhani said.

Rouhani appeared to shrug off the prospect of political talks with the United States, pointing out that “it is ironic that the U.S. government does not even conceal its plan for overthrowing the same government it invites to talks,” Rouhani said. For his part, Trump said he would not engage in talks with Iran’s leaders until they bowed to American economic pressure.

The Iranian leader echoed concerns by the U.N. chief and other Western leaders that multilateralism is entering a moment of existential crisis. But he laid the blame squarely on the United States, arguing the Washington “seems determined to render all international institutions ineffectual.” He cited Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which enjoys widespread international support.

“The United States’ understanding of international relations is authoritarian. In its estimation, might makes right,” Rouhani said.

What do world leaders eat:

Lunch started with a serving of cured gravlax over a bed of arugula, seasoned with pink peppercorns and toasted pepita peppers. For a main course, they dug into a Wagyu beef filet served with potatoes and asparagus. Delegates were offered their choice of an Italian white wine, or an Argentine red. Trump, a known teetotaler, settled for a Diet Coke.

Dessert was served with a 40-year old glass of Port.

Making America Pay Again:

António Guterres wrote an op-ed in FP highlighting the role U.N. peacekeepers play in resolving conflicts and helping countries get back on their feet after years of crisis. “Expectations of peacekeeping vastly outstrip both support and resources,” the secretary-general wrote. “Yes, we need more helicopters, we need mine-proof vehicles and night vision, and we need police and civilians with specialized skills to help us build sustainable peace. But we also need U.N. member states to send us personnel equipped and trained properly and with the mindset to use these capabilities effectively. And, above all, we need their sustained political commitment, a critical factor in the long-term success of our peacekeeping operations.”

“Above all, we need their sustained political commitment, a critical factor in the long-term success of our peacekeeping operations,” Guterres wrote.

Guterres didn’t mention it. But the United States has fallen behind on its payments to U.N. peacekeeping operations. In the past two years, the Trump administration has amassed about $500 million in arrears that it appears to have no intention of paying. The debt is the result of a decision by the Trump administration to unilaterally lower its share of assessed contributions from slightly over 28 percent to 25 percent. The Better World Fund, a private U.N. advocacy group that tracks U.S. spending on the United Nations, estimates that the U.S. peacekeeping debt is set to rise to $750 million by next year. And that’s not all. While the U.N. recently received a U.S. payment of $877 million for its share of the 2018 peacekeeping budget, it has yet to write a check for an additional $330 million it still owes the U.N., according to the Better World Fund. It remains unclear whether the money is in the mail.

Cloak and dagger:

Espionage is woven so deeply into the fabric of U.N. life that most diplomats presume prying eyes and ears are listening to their calls and reading their emails. At the founding U.N. conference in San Francisco in 1945, U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius read his foreign counterparts’ secret cables to capitals. Telegraph companies were required by the U.S. Army Signal Security Agency, the forerunner of the National Security Agency, to hand over hundreds of pages of secret diplomatic messages, Stephen C. Schlesinger, recalled in his book Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations.

Each year, the U.N. general assembly also swarms with intelligence operatives from around the world, quietly snooping around to pick up nuggets of information or new sources, current and former U.S. officials say. This year’s U.N. General Assembly debate is likely to be no different.

“For spies, [UNGA] is a little bit like bees with pollen,” said Mathew Burrows, a former senior analyst with the CIA who served as intelligence advisor to the late Richard Holbrooke when he was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Any time you have an event with world leaders who are talking privately…obviously it’s a huge target.”

Some U.S. diplomats traveling to UNGA received counterintelligence briefings, as is standard practice for travel to any high-profile conference or foreign country. Current and former officials were light on specifics, given the sensitivity of the subject, but in general these types of briefings cover “dos and don’ts” for U.S. officials rubbing elbows with foreign counterparts: don’t leave electronics laying around, don’t discuss any sensitive information outside of secure spaces, report to higher-ups when you think you’ve been approached by a foreign spook.

Despite all the precautions, an environment like UNGA is ripe for intelligence gathering, said Cindy Otis, another former CIA analyst. “Senior officials and diplomats talk openly in the hallways at forums like this, don’t keep track of their electronics, and misplace their notes all the time, and foreign intelligence services take advantage of that,” she said.

“It’s also an opportunity for intelligence services to try to build relationships with potential sources, even low-level staff who may very well wind up being more senior in the future,” she added.

Sign up here to get U.N. Brief delivered to your inbox tomorrow and Friday mornings.

The U.N. gets a new human rights champion

Michelle Bachelet, the former two-time Chilean president, is making her debut appearance as the U.N. chief’s human rights official at the U.N. General Assembly debate at a time when the promotion of human rights is in retreat.

Bachelet takes the helm of the organization during an era that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has described as gloomy for human rights worldwide. But Bachelet’s greatest challenge may be managing her relationship with a U.S. administration that has locked horns with the U.N. over human rights and funding issues.

The Trump administration reacted bitterly to criticism of its policies on refugees and the press by her predecessor, the Jordanian diplomat Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. In recent weeks, Trump administration officials have sought to withhold millions of dollars in funds to Bachelet’s office, according to Congressional aides.

Former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet in her office in Geneva on her first day as new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sept. 3. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration initially had misgivings about Bachelet’s appointment, preferring the South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha for the job. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, welcomed her appointment with a stern warning to “avoid the failures of the past”—a reference to what the U.S. sees as the Human Rights Council’s disproportionate focus on Israel.

But Bachelet is no pushover. A trained surgeon, her commitment to human rights was forged from early experience: Under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, she and her mother were interrogated and tortured, later fleeing the country to live in exile. Her father died after torture.

Her harrowing life experiences bring credibility to the role at a time when the U.N. is facing broad criticism that it is a bureaucracy full of pampered and effete diplomats, Bachelet’s proponents say.

“Her personal history … gives her an enormous amount of credibility,” said Stephen Pomper, former senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights in Obama’s National Security Council. “[It] means she brings personal insight into the job.”

In her first major public address earlier this month, she made waves by calling for a new quasi-judicial body to gather evidence on the massacres of the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar.

In her first major public address earlier this month, she made waves by calling for a new quasi-judicial body to gather evidence on the massacres of the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar, which could complement a preliminary examination by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. While the Trump administration is hostile to the Hague-based court, the U.S. has not weighed in on Bachelet’s proposal.

Bachelet’s progressive political stances may clash with the Trump administration’s socially conservative cabinet members, including Vice President Mike Pence and Haley.

Unanimously confirmed by the U.N. General Assembly, Bachelet served as Chile’s first female president, from 2006 to 2010, and from 2014 to 2018, as well as the first head of UN Women, the U.N. entity focused on women’s equality and empowerment. In Latin America, her presidency was viewed as the beginning of a wave of female heads of state across the region and a blow to pervasive machismo.

As her second term ended, she notably introduced a bill to legalize gay marriage and allow same-sex couples to adopt. She also pushed through legislation that introduced three narrow exemptions for abortion. Before the law was approved by the constitutional court, Chile was one of the last countries in South America to retain a complete ban abortion.

Bachelet made her UNGA debut by delivering a speech denouncing discriminatory killings of LGBTI individuals around the world.

“There’s a need for a moral voice at the UN,” said Ashish Pradhan, senior U.N. analyst at the International Crisis Group. “It seems like she’s willing to mix things up and be punchy when she needs to despite whoever is one the receiving end.”

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer