U.N. Brief: Trump Says China Out to Get Him; Venezuela’s Besieged Leader Comes to Turtle Bay
The U.S. president presides over a defiant Security Council that still loves the Iran nuclear deal.
UNGA Day 4: Trump raises specter of Chinese plot against the United States, while Maduro does Manhattan. FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report this week on the 73rd U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Trump: China is Out to Get Me:
President Donald Trump accused Beijing of seeking to disrupt the U.S. midterm elections and steer votes in key battleground states toward Democratic candidates seeking to regain control of the House and Senate after years in the political wilderness.
“Regrettably, we found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration,” Trump said in a U.N. Security Council meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi seated across the table. “They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade. We are winning on trade. We are winning at every level,” he said, veering off course in a meeting that was supposed to be about proliferation concerns. See the full FP report here.
Venezuela Fireworks…Or Not?:
In a bit of a twist, Trump said on Wednesday he was willing to meet Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at the U.N. if it would help resolve the country’s spiraling economic and political crisis. But he also gave a cryptic warning that hinted at military intervention.
“All options are on the table, everyone,” said Trump. “The strong ones and the less than strong ones and you know what I mean by strong. Every option is on the table with respect to Venezuela.”
One could chalk this up to classic Trumpian ad-libbing, except for the fact that earlier this month the New York Timesreported Trump administration officials secretly met with rebel Venezuelan military officers to discuss plotting a coup. And just over a year ago, Trump set off alarm bells when he first said he wouldn’t rule out a “military option” on Venezuela.
Back in Washington, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis took on a decidedly different tone. When asked by a reporter if he was tasked with drafting up war plans for Venezuela, he replied: “Well in fact, we do have one, it’s called a hospital ship that we’re sending down there.”
Although Trump might not be aware of it, Mattis knows the United States doesn’t have a great track record of coup attempts and heavy-handed power broking in South America (just ask Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, or El Salvador to name a few). All this talk of military intervention may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Maduro as he whips up anti-imperialist rhetoric to shore up his teetering political support. But all the coup chatter wasn’t enough to stop him from visiting “evil America,” for a possible meeting with President Trump.
Maduro Does Manhattan:
A week ago, Venezuela’s president turned down a U.N. invitation to debate other world leaders on the grounds that he might be assassinated on New York’s streets.
But Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro made a surprise visit to New York City Wednesday, addressing the U.N. General Assembly, meeting with Iranian and Russian leaders, and speaking before a gathering at Riverside Church, a frequent destination for leftist Latin American politicians since Fidel Castro made an appearance there 18 years ago. He was accompanied by Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel.
“I am landing in New York to defend the truth of Venezuela, to bring the voice of our fatherland,” Maduro said on a video he posted on Twitter earlier Wednesday while en route to New York.
The visit comes at a time when Maduro is facing widespread international condemnation for leading his oil-rich nation into an era of grinding poverty, with widespread shortages of food, medicines, and runaway inflation that reached 460 percent by the end of August. A surge of starvation, malnutrition, and political repression has prompted the flight of more than 2.3 million Venezuelans—mostly to neighboring Colombia but also to Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador— making it the largest refugee crisis in the hemisphere, according to this report in the Washington Post.
Maduro may have been enticed to travel to the United Nations after President Donald Trump hinted that he might be willing to meet him. Trump told reporters Wednesday morning outside the U.N. General Assembly chamber that he “would certainly be open” to a meeting with Maduro. But later in the day, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said a face-to-face meeting was not in the cards.
The prospect of talks came just one day after the United States imposed sanctions on Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, and several other members of Maduro’s inner circle. On the same day, Vice President Mike Pence bashed Maduro’s regime and denounced the country’s deployment of troops near the border with Colombia.“The Maduro regime would do well not to test the resolve of the president of the United States or the American people,” Pence said.
Back in Washington, the administration and Capitol Hill seemed to be on the same page (for once). A bipartisan group of senators introduced sweeping legislation on Tuesday to provide $40 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Venezuela and expand sanctions on Venezuelan officials and government debt.
President Trump, meanwhile, suggested that Maduro needed to relinquish power.
“All nations of the world should resist socialism and the misery that it brings to everyone,” Trump said in his Tuesday speech to the U.N. General Assembly. “In that spirit, we ask the nations gathered here to join us in calling for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.”
For a Day, Trump Was President of the World, Sort of:
U.S. President Trump came as close as he likely will ever come to be recognized as president of the world.
As president of the the Security Council for a day, Trump got to preside over a gathering of the world’s major powers, including Britain, China, France, and Russia.
After gaveling the session into order, Trump put the council’s other 14 other members of on notice that the U.S. will punish any individual or company that does not abide by the U.S. sanctions. “The United States will pursue additional sanctions, tougher than ever before, to counter the entire range of Iran’s malign conduct,” Trump said. “Any individual or entity who fails to comply with these sanctions will face severe consequences.”
To grasp the audacity of Trump’s warning, think of it this way: The president of the U.N. Security Council just threatened to punish the nationals of other Security Council members if they abide by the terms of a U.N. Security Council resolution. Resolution 2231 endorsed the 2015 nuclear pact and called on all governments to support its implementation and refrain “from actions that undermine” it.
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most council members reaffirmed their support for the landmark Iran nuclear deal, which Trump once again dismissed a “horrible one-sided deal.” Though key allies, including Britain and France, say they share Washington’s concern that Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and its funding of Shiite militias throughout the Middle East are undermining the region’s stability.
[Read more: Is the Iran Deal Finally Dead?]
After the session, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that while U.S. sanctions are imposing hardship on the Iranian economy, Iran has drawn widespread support for its ongoing commitment to the nuclear deal.
“We are not isolated,” he said. “America was isolated today in the Security Council. Everyone opposed their move and expressed support” for the Iran nuclear deal.
U.S. fissures with its allies and other world powers are on full display at UNGA when it comes to Iran. While this UNGA may be the Iran deal’s last stand as crippling U.S. sanctions tighten the noose around Tehran, European powers, Russia, and China all agreed with Iran to set up a “special vehicle” allowing Iran to bypass U.S. sanctions to stick to the nuclear deal.
What exactly is a “special vehicle”? Samantha Sultoon, a former Treasury official with the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, has a good write-up on it here. “The proposed [special purpose vehicle] would essentially act as an accounting firm, tracking credits against imports and exports without the involvement of European commercial or central banks,” she writes. By using credit instead of cash, it keeps any funds from being transferred outside the EU which would trigger U.S. sanctions…at least in theory.
The jury is still out on whether it could work, but the move left the United States’ top diplomat fuming. “To continue to create mechanisms to fund the world’s largest state sponsor of terror is disastrous policy and I hope they will reconsider it,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News. He appeared confident that no special vehicle could help Iran escape the Trump administration’s wrath.
“Most importantly, European businesses are voting with their checkbooks,” Pompeo said. “They are leaving Iran in droves. These sanctions will be effective, they are effective, and come November 4th, they’ll be even more effective.”
Yes, We Can Have it Both Ways:
It has be been just weeks since the Trump administration decided to cut all its humanitarian aid to the Palestinian refugees.
But senior U.S. officials have yet to stop boasting that they are the world’s most generous benefactors of the Palestinians.
On Wednesday, Pompeo accused Iran of hypocrisy for criticizing U.S. treatment of the Palestinians, noting that Tehran has committed only $20,000 in humanitarian assistance, a fraction of the hundreds of millions the United States has given the Palestinians each year for decades.
In a press briefing Wednesday night with Brian Hook, the State Department’s lead official on Iran, the Washington Post’s John Hudson suggested that the Iranians might have a point now that the U.S. has zeroed out more than $500 million in assistance, including $350 million it has given each year to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, which cares for 5 million Palestinian refugees.
“We have given billions—if I remember correctly the number—over many, many years through UNRWA,” Hook said. “The Iranians, they have given $20,000. The money they do spend—they give $700 million a year to Lebanese Hezbollah, and I want to say they give $600, $700 million to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad groups.”
“They spend it supporting terrorism,” he added. “We spend it supporting the Palestinian people.”
“Well, hold on a second,” said the Associated Press’s Matthew Lee interjected.
“You guys have stopped funding UNRWA because you say that the are bad, they need reform, they support terrorism, they…foment and assist anti-Israel violence. You can’t have it both ways, Brian.”
“We can have it both ways,” Hook said.
Trump-Kim Summit, Round 2:
After some will-they, won’t-they speculation, Pompeo met with his North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho, in New York on Wednesday, and with that, the next phase of North Korea denuclearization talks begin. First up: Pompeo will travel to North Korea next month to lay the groundwork for another Trump-Kim summit, the State Department has announced.
In an interview on Wednesday with CBS News on the sidelines of UNGA, Pompeo appeared upbeat on the prospect of North Korean denuclearization—all while the bulk of North Korea experts are saying the opposite.
“The messages that we’ve been receiving from Chairman Kim have been very consistent. They are that he is intent on denuclearizing, he understands that, he understands the scope of that and what that means,” Pompeo told CBS.
Watch the Clock:
Rebecca Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told Foreign Policy she is concerned the Kim regime is dragging out negotiations, and Team Trump’s patience can only go so far. “I understand Trump officials want to convey that they’re willing to be patient. But time is not on our side so at some point I suspect we’ll start to see patience pretty quickly running out,” she said.
The Trump administration’s point man on North Korea nuclear negotiations, Stephen Biegun, is just a month into the job. He’ll likely face his first trial by fire with the upcoming Trump-Kim summit. As FP’s Robbie Gramer reports this week, Biegun is a highly-respected foreign policy pro—but he’s no magician. Given all the twists and turns in Trump’s approach to North Korea negotiations, he may face a task that’s doomed to fail unless he has a few miracles up his sleeve.
No word from the State Department on whether Biegun was in the meeting with Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart on Wednesday, but he is in New York for UNGA so it would be conspicuous if he wasn’t.
Trump Backs Two-State Solution:
President Trump promised to release his long-awaited Middle East peace plan sometime within the next two to four months, and proclaimed his preference for the establishment of a new Palestinian state.
Joined by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “I like a two-state solution. That’s what I think works best.” Previous U.S. presidents have backed the establishment of a Palestinian state for decades. But the Trump administration has been reluctant to publicly declare its support for a two-state solution to the crisis. For more detail, read this piece in the Washington Post by Anne Gearan and Ruth Eglash.
A Call to Lift the Refugee Cap:
After Trump defended his harsh refugee policy before world leaders at UNGA, two top Democratic voices in the foreign policy realm wrote an op-ed urging him to reverse course. “This repugnant decision turns our back on refugees precisely when U.S. leadership is most needed. It will do untold damage across the world, further undermine America’s strength and blemish our global reputation,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Sen. Bob Menendez, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote for USA Today.
NATO Comes to New York:
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was also at UNGA this week for a flurry of his own meetings and a speech on Wednesday at the September 11 memorial in New York.
In the speech, Stoltenberg gave a somber and evocative speech on the cost of terrorism and NATO solidarity with the United States, recalling when he was Norwegian prime minister in 2011 when a white supremacist gunman massacred 77 people at a youth summer camp—the deadliest attack on Norway since World War II.
September 11 carries special weight for NATO. The only time that NATO has ever invoked its collective defense clause—the bedrock of deterrence for the Cold War-era alliance that was meant to ward off the Soviet threat—was actually in response to the September 11 attacks. NATO still leads the international mission in Afghanistan, 17 years after the attacks.
Misery Loves Company?
If the U.N. is feeling the heat from Trump, NATO can relate. Trump has repeatedly berated NATO allies for not spending enough on defense during his nearly two years in office. While at UNGA, Stoltenberg took time to publicly defend his institution in an interview with Trump’s favorite network, Fox News. He said NATO members are responding to Trump’s charge that they aren’t ponying up on defense, pointing out that in the past two years, all countries in the 29-member alliance that covers the United States, Canada, and Europe, have boosted their defense spending to the tune of $40 billion as they stare down the threat from Russia and a roiling Middle East. “We are really moving in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go,” Stoltenberg said.
Despite Trump’s pressure on NATO and friction with European allies, Stoltenberg has (perhaps miraculously) managed to maintain a strong and friendly working relationship with the U.S. president over the course of his time in the White House. Can U.N. leaders take a page out of Stoltenberg’s book? That’s tough to say, but at the very least it helps that Stoltenberg doesn’t laugh at the president.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch