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Trump has spoken at the “sad!” UN for the first time—and managed not to badmouth it once

Trump has formed an unlikely alliance with Guterres, a Portuguese socialist.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Trump has formed an unlikely alliance with UN secretary general Guterres, a Portuguese socialist.
By Max de Haldevang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The United Nations’ collected diplomats and bureaucrats just breathed a sigh of relief.

The week leading up to US president Donald Trump’s first appearance at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) has been filled with speculation about which Trump we would see. Would it be the presidential Trump who stayed on-script while addressing a joint session of Congress and speaking to the people of Poland? Or would we see the off-kilter, “America First” Don who lambasted NATO at the Brussels summit?

Well, the first sign has been positive. US ambassador Nikki Haley and UN secretary general António Guterres scored a coup by getting Trump to attend a conference on UN reform today, rather than—as he did in December—calling the UN “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!” And when he spoke, Trump used his most statesmanlike tone to outline how he wants the UN to reform, at times sounding more respectful of the organization than Guterres himself.

He began by acknowledging the UN has helped advance “noble goals” in “so many ways.” “Yet, in recent years, the United Nations has not reached its full potential because of bureaucracy and mismanagement,” he continued, bemoaning the fact that a budget increase of 140% and a doubling of staff since 2000 has not produced “results in line with this investment.”

Trump went on to laud Guterres’s mission of sweeping changes to the UN system, while outlining the reforms the US would like to see, and which 128 countries have so far signed on to. They include:

  • Focusing “on results rather than processes.” (Guterres used exactly the same language.)
  • Ensuring that no member state “shoulders a disproportionate share of the burden, militarily or financially.” (Hint: he’s talking about the US.)
  • For peacekeeping missions to have “clearly defined goals and metrics for evaluating success.”
  • General red-tape cutting and systemic reform.

It was all strikingly normal and diplomatic. “He said all the right things,” said Paul Stares, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and expert on the UN. “If you read the transcript and asked someone without telling them who had actually spoken the words, I don’t think anybody would immediately guess they were Trump—it could just as easily have been Obama.”

In a bizarre twist of the regular order, Trump was in fact far less blunt and quotable than the usually soft-spoken Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal and UN high commissioner for refugees. “Someone out to undermine the UN will not have come up with a better way to do it than by imposing some of the rules we’ve created ourselves,” said Guterres. “I sometimes even ask myself if there was a conspiracy to make our rules exactly what they need to be for us not to be effective.”

Trump himself will, of course, play little or no part in actually delivering the reforms. But the budding alliance between the US delegation and Guterres will sooth the worries that have filled UN-watchers’ minds about America under Trump disengaging from, or potentially even leaving, the UN. Some are even gently applauding his reform mission: “The UN does need to clean up its house, so in that sense it’s useful that the conversation is happening,” one South Asian diplomat told Quartz.

This is just the first step, however: The big test is whether the mogul stays on message in his big speech to the General Assembly tomorrow morning (Sept. 19).

Devjyot Ghoshal contributed to this report.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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