U.N. Brief

Despite Impeachment Probe in Washington, U.N. Business Carries on in New York

As Trump leaves UNGA, the meetings continue.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 73rd U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 25 in New York.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 73rd U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 25 in New York. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Welcome to U.N. Brief, Foreign Policy’s special pop-up newsletter with reporting and analysis from the 74th U.N. General Assembly in New York. All week, we’re bringing you daily news, analysis, infographics, and profiles of some of the most influential attendees.

What’s on tap for today: UNGA chugs along as an impeachment probe against Trump roils Washington, the next likely EU foreign policy chief edges into the spotlight in New York, the United States pulls the trigger on new sanctions, and more.

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It’s Still Business as Usual at UNGA

As a potentially historic impeachment inquiry begins in Washington, the UNGA bubble in New York City continues with a business-as-usual attitude. UNGA attendees who spoke to Foreign Policy give two reasons. First, foreign diplomats are now inured to the constant political drama coming out of Washington in the Trump era, and second—a friendly reminder for those in Washington—the United Nations’ global priorities don’t center around the Trump news cycle.

The impeachment probe hinges on Trump’s efforts to convince the Ukrainian president to “look into” Democratic presidential challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son’s ties to a Ukrainian business. According to a memo of a phone call between the two that the White House released on Wednesday, Trump urged President Volodymyr Zelensky to liaise with the U.S. attorney general and his own personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to dig into the matter. Trump also repeatedly bashed his former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, a seasoned career diplomat who spoke out on anti-corruption efforts. The scandal first emerged after a U.S. government employee filed an urgent whistleblower complaint related to the call with the president.

Trump met with Zelensky during UNGA on Wednesday, followed by a press conference where the Ukrainian president said the phone call with Trump in question was “very normal” and “nobody push me.”

Throwback. As Trump grapples with the political fallout from a U.S. government whistleblower that has spiraled into a full-blown impeachment inquiry, let’s wind the clock back two years: In his debut performance at the 2017 U.N. General Assembly, Trump urged the United Nations to enhance protections for U.N. whistleblowers to root out fraud, waste, and abuse at the international body. “We seek a United Nations that regains the trust of the people around the world. In order to achieve this, the United Nations must hold every level of management accountable, protect whistleblowers and focus on results rather than on process,” he said. (Hat tip Foreign Policy reader Irvin McCullough for flagging this.)


What’s on Tap Today?

Eyes on Yemen. Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, where conflict and economic malaise have fueled widespread hunger, with nearly 20 million on the brink of famine. Sweden, Kuwait, and the United Kingdom will host a ministerial meeting on the country with permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. The meeting comes as the U.N. pushes for peace after four years of conflict between a Saudi-led coalition supporting the provisional Yemeni government and Iran-backed Houthi rebels. “There is a window of opportunity to nudge the Yemeni and regional parties to the conflict towards a political process to end the war,” said Peter Salisbury, senior analyst for Yemen at the International Crisis Group. “But many things could go wrong in the meantime, so it’s an opportunity that needs to be seized sooner rather than later.”

Visa wars. The showdown between the United States and Iran has gone consular. The White House declared on Wednesday it would ban senior Iranian officials from the United States, even as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and over 80 Iranian officials are in New York to attend UNGA. The White House proclamation gives broad authority to the secretary of state to decide which Iranians are barred, and it comes after Rouhani dismissed the prospect of meeting with Trump.

UNGA speech marathon continues. Nearly 30 heads of state and other world leaders are slated to give speeches before the U.N. General Assembly today, including European Council President Donald Tusk, Democratic Republic of the Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. As usual with UNGA, schedules can change on a dime, so consult the latest schedule of speakers and events here.


Pop Quiz

In 2004, Spain suffered one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in European history when extremists carried out a coordinated bombing attack on commuter trains. Which group did the U.N. Security Council blame for the attack?

A) Al Qaeda
B) The Islamic State
C) ETA
D) A “lone wolf”
E) Boko Haram

Scroll down for the answer. 


Globalists and Multilateralists Unite

Germany and France will convene a ministerial meeting of the Alliance for Multilateralism, drawing some of America’s closest allies into a new coalition, to defend a rules-based order increasingly challenged by countries like Brazil, China, Russia and at times the United States.

Some states, including Japan and South Korea, worried that joining the alliance might be viewed by the Americans as a diplomatic sleight. Berlin and Paris have been working in recent weeks to convince the United States and other big powers to participate in the event, making it easier for others to join.

The concept of such an alliance was first floated by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in a July 2018 speech to university students in Tokyo. “If we pool our strengths,” Maas said, “perhaps we can become something like ‘rule shapers,’ who design and drive an international order that the world urgently needs.”

Maas and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian formally launched the initiative at the U.N. headquarters in April. But it has quietly been gaining momentum, with more than fifty ministers expected to attend the Thursday conference, including representatives from Canada, Chile, Mexico, and Singapore. The conference has a wide agenda, from the defense of international agreements, including the Paris climate pact and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, to the promotion of humanitarian law and free speech. The group will also seek to negotiate arms control pacts on lethal autonomous weapons systems.

The European hosts have apparently convinced Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States to send lower-level officials to the meeting, diplomatic sources tell Foreign Policy. China won’t be there.


Sanctions, Sanctions, Sanctions

As Trump and his team fanned across New York this week for a marathon of meetings, they’ve kept up the steady drumbeat of new sanctions against U.S. foes, from Iran to Venezuela and Chinese entities.

While top foreign ministers sought Wednesday to preserve the Iran nuclear deal at the U.N.Security Council, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was across town trying to rally support for further sanctions against companies and individuals doing business with Iran, including eleven Chinese nationals and firms.

Speaking at a meeting hosted by the United Against Nuclear Iran, Pompeo said: “The more Iran lashes out the greater our pressure will and should be. That path forward begins now with two new actions.”

The new sanctions, announced Wednesday by the U.S. Treasury Department, target Chinese shipping, oil, and banking companies. They are being imposed in retaliation for Iran’s alleged role in the September 14 drone and missile attacks against Saudi oil installations. “We are telling China, and all nations: know that we will sanction every violation,” Pompeo said.

Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that the U.S. pressure campaign is undermining any prospect for high-level negotiations that President Trump has sought with Iran.

“We will never negotiate with an enemy that seeks to make Iran surrender with the weapon of poverty, pressure, and sanctions,” Rouhani said. “On behalf of my nation and state, I would like to announce that our response to any negotiation under sanctions is negative.”

Iran has denied any role in the attack and Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi separatists have claimed responsibility. But the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Europeans allies  have dismissed those claims on the grounds that the Houthis lack the technological knowhow to have conducted what appeared to be a sophisticated precision strike.


Who’s Racking Up U.N. Debt?

Not every U.N. member pays their bills on time. Take a look at the countries that have racked up the most debt to the United Nations on its peacekeeping operations around the world.


What Else We’re Following

Lost in translation. The Russian foreign ministry says one of its most capable diplomatic interpreters almost didn’t get a visa to the United States for UNGA, until Japan intervened to help out. According to a statement from Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, when the Japanese learned of the interpreter being denied a U.S. visa, they successfully urged U.S. diplomats to reconsider the decision, so as not to disrupt bilateral talks between Russia and Japan at UNGA.

Changing of the guard at the EU’s Mission. The outgoing EU foreign policy leadership, including EU foreign policy high representative Federica Mogherini of Italy and the EU’s U.N. ambassador João Vale de Almeida, have a few weeks left on the job, but decided to take advantage of the U.N. summit to say farewell at a Tuesday night reception at the EU mission to the United Nations. Foreign Policy was in attendance. Mogherini said she felt like she spent the last few years trying to hold the 2015 landmark nuclear deal from collapsing by her teeth.

“I don’t know if this is only an Italian expression, but it gives you a sense of the pain, and of course the importance,” she said, of preserving the Iran deal. But before passing on the baton, she participated in one final Security Council meeting Wednesday that included all but one of the signatories of the nuclear deal. Afterward, Mogherini said there was no basis for sugar-coating the challenges in saving the nuclear deal. “I will not hide that it is increasingly difficult,” she told reporters. “I hope that rationality will prevail and that this meeting will contribute to preserving the agreement.”

A new EU ambassador to the U.N.? Mogherini said that she would step down in four weeks, and remain in Brussels. Almeida didn’t share his plans, but diplomatic sources say he is expected to become the European Union’s first ambassador to the United Kingdom—if and when Britain finally exits the European Union. Sweden’s ambassador to the United Nations, Olof Skoog, is expected to replace Almeida as the European Union’s new U.N. ambassador.


Profile: The EU’s Next Foreign-Policy Chief Makes a (Quiet) Splash

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell arrives at the Spanish Congress in Madrid on July 23.OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP/Getty Images

As Mogherini steps down, her likely successor is inching his way into the spotlight at UNGA, and with him could come an entirely new tone for EU foreign policy.

Josep Borrell, a 72-year old Spanish politician, now foreign minister, will take the reins from Mogherini in coming weeks pending confirmation by the European Parliament. He has spent UNGA week in New York, quietly preparing for his next job. He and European Council President-elect Charles Michel dined with Jared and Ivanka Kushner and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU, in hopes of a fresh start to strained U.S.-EU relations. He also attended the EU Mission to the U.N.’s cozy reception on Tuesday evening that turned into a farewell tour for Mogherini.

The aging diplomat’s short stature and wiry glasses bely a brash and savvy political insider who has been a fixture in Spanish and European politics for decades. Borrell presents a stark contrast to Mogherini, an even-tempered young Italian political star who became a polished diplomat when she was tapped for the EU foreign policy high representative job in 2014. Borrell, former president of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2007, is coming into the job with a much better idea from the outset of how to navigate Brussels’ confusing and bureaucratic power structure.

He can also throw undiplomatic jabs, and hasn’t been shy about criticizing and mocking Trump for his apparent disdain of the EU and facile ideas. “Does he know how big the Sahara is?” Borrell once asked, after Trump suggested building a wall across the Sahara desert to keep African migrants out of Europe.

If Mogherini never seemed to lose her cool in public, Borrell can’t say the same. He stormed out of an interview with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle after being pressed about Catalan independence, a hot-button political issue in Spain. (Borrell, a Catalan himself, is fiercely against independence for the Spanish region.)

If approved by parliament, Borrell will inherit a messy portfolio of foreign policy problems. The challenges include managing the EU’s fraught relationship with Washington under Trump, keeping the Iran deal on life support, and breathing new life into EU initiatives in the Balkans, where past EU efforts to reach a settlement between Serbia and Kosovo have stalled.

On Iran, Borrell will have to fight to maintain Brussels’ influence in talks as EU member states involved in the agreement appear to want more say. “In some ways, the EU role is receding on [Iran] and the member states, particularly France, will play a much more dominant role going forward,” said Heather Conley, a scholar on Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

On Serbia and Kosovo, Borrell’s home country could prove to be a hindrance. Spain is one of only a handful of countries in Europe that don’t recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. Under Borrell, Conley said, there is concern in the Balkans of whether Borrell could ensure the EU “plays the neutral, brokering role it has played in the past.”


Odds and Ends

There are worse jobs than being U.N. Secretary-General. In 1945, the U.N.’s first secretary-general, Trygve Lie of Norway, said he had the most impossible job in the world. It has since become something of a cliché among successive U.N. bosses that wrangling the world’s most contentious states is like flushing a fatberg out of the Manhattan sewer system. So, it came as something of a relief that U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres set the record straight, noting that he considers himself extremely privileged. “For someone that works in one of the least developed countries and works 50 hours per week and has a salary of $2 or $3 dollars per day, that job is worse than mine. No? So there are worse jobs than mine.”

WhatsApp is dead. Long live Signal. For years, Whatsapp has been the app of choice for U.N. officials spread around the world. Those days might be coming to a close. The U.N. chief technology officer has sent out a memo to U.N. staff telling them to sign up for Signal, another encrypted messaging app. The move appears to constitute a loss of trust in the confidentiality of communication since the  app was acquired by Facebook, which faces scrutiny over its privacy and data collection policies.

“Sharing sensitive UN information?,” reads a memo from the U.N. Office for Information and Communications Technology seen by Foreign Policy. “Signal will serve you better: The new UN standard for secure mobile communications. Install Signal Today.”

Climate Action fashion. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid folded her message on climate change into her UNGA wardrobe. She donned a cartographic dress with the continent of Antarctica on it as she spoke before the assembly and met foreign counterparts, saying on Twitter: “And the dress? Polar regions are the frontline of global warming b/c of their sensitivity and unique habitats. According to scientists, if we do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 there will be widespread Antarctic transformation.”

“United Nations of cars.” New York and Washington are chock full of diplomatic license plates, even outside of UNGA week. Take a dive into the cars that foreign diplomats use to shuttle around their embassies and consulates in the United States, courtesy of State Department data obtained by Quartz this year.

The State Department has an office that essentially acts as a DMV for records on foreign diplomats’ cars. Among the findings: Six countries have registered stretch limousines—Barbados, Egypt, India, Kuwait, Vietnam, and, of course, North Korea. Despite the emphasis on climate change and green energy at UNGA, only 9 of the 174 diplomatic missions in the United States have hybrid vehicles registered.

The countries that have the most cars in their fleet from expensive, high-end manufacturers (think Bentley, Mercedes Benz, and Jaguar) are Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Rwanda.


Trump Enforcers Seek U.N. Silence

The Trump administration’s political enforcers have been stepping up pressure on U.N. agencies to strip out references in  key  documents to politically-sensitive issues, from climate change to sexual reproductive health, several diplomatic sources tell Foreign Policy.

The move appears to represent yet another end run around other U.N. member states, who have successfully countered American efforts to remove what it considers offensive provisions from international agreements.

At least two U.N. agencies which rely heavily on U.S. financial contributions are complying to avoid drawing the ire of the administration.

The UN Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, recently excised a reference to “sexual reproductive health” from the 2020-2022 country program document for Angola, several diplomatic sources told Foreign Policy. The move has infuriated European, and other Western donors, who claim they were never consulted by UNICEF.

The move comes against a backdrop of U.S. efforts to remove references to sexual and reproductive health in international agreements on women’s rights and health. Earlier this month, the United States lost a battle to take out such language from a declaration by world leaders issued on Monday at a U.N. Universal Health Care summit.

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar rallied a conservative coalition of states, including Brazil, Russia and Saudi Arabia, to issue their own statements denouncing the including of such language in the declaration.

“We do not support references to ambiguous terms and expressions, such as sexual and reproductive health and rights in U.N. documents, because they can undermine the critical role of the family and prompote practices, like abortion, in circumstances that do not enjoy international consensu and which can be misinterpreted by U.N. agencies,” according to the  statement, which Azar read out on Monday.

“We therefore request that the U.N., including U.N. agencies, focus on concrete efforts that enjoy broad consensus among member states. To that end, only documents that have been adopted by all member states should be cited in U.N. resolutions,” the statement added.

The United States, which has had limited success in persuading other states from banishing reference to sexual and reproductive health and rights from other international agreements, is working behind the scenes to kill, or limit, U.N. programs that conflict with the administration’s stance, according to diplomats. For its part, UNICEF has sought to assure donors that the editing will have no impact on their program in Angola.

“The approved programme document outlines UNICEF’s continued focus on gender issues and women and girls’ right to health and wellbeing in Angola,” UNICEF’s spokespersons. Najwa Mekki told Foreign Policy. “It has a strong focus on work to address gender-based and sexual violence, to improve services to pregnant women before, during and after delivery, and to stop child marriage.”

Earlier this month, the Guardian published a story documenting efforts by a second UN Agency, the International Organization for Migration, to suppress any language in their documents that might offend the White House. The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, which is dominated by political appointees close to the White House, told the migration agency that documents related to its programs “must not be in conflict with current [U.S. government] political sensitivities,” according to an August 28 email sent by an IOM official to the agencies staff, the Guardian reported.

The State Department bureau, according to the email, threatened to cut funding if the agency refused to comply. The areas identified in the email included climate change, sustainable development goals, the global compact for migration, from which the State Department withdrew, and “anything that seems at odds with the administration’s take on U.S. domestic/foreign issues.”


And the Answer Is… 

C) ETA, or Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the Basque separatist group labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, Spain, and other European countries.

Under pressure from Spain’s conservative government, headed by Prime Minister José María Aznar, who was facing an imminent election, the U.N. Security Council initially pinned the blame on Basque terrorists. The resolution passed hours after the attack. Within days, investigators concluded Islamic militants inspired by al Qaeda were responsible for the deadly attacks that killed 193 and wounded some 2,000 people.


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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

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