For anyone who has paid even a sliver of attention to Donald Trump’s administration, it goes without saying that he’s not exactly a president who has much respect for the United Nations. An anti-UN bias is of course nothing knew with a Republican president; George W.Bush, for example, had a certain disdain for the body’s procedures and processes, most acutely in the lead-up to the Iraq war, when Washington started bombing Saddam Hussein’s palaces (based on bogus intelligence about the production and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction) without acquiring a Security Council mandate.
Trump, however, has taken it one step further with his braggadocio style, his hiring choices, and his unique use of the presidential bully pulpit. Before being inaugurated, Trump tweeted that it was “so sad!” that the UN was blowing its potential on useless meetings that never seemed to produce a decision. Since he was sworn in, Trump’s national security team has attempted to force uncomfortable financial reforms onto the UN system that many other countries would view as unwise in the current global environment. Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, wrote in the administration’s budget blueprint this spring that the US would be seeking to cut the amount of money it gives to UN operations and that “the US would not contribute more than 25% for UN peacekeeping costs.”
Nikki Haley, America’s ambassador to the UN, has taken UN cost-cutting on as one of her core missions. During her confirmation hearing last January, Haley described the UN as “an institution that is often at odds with American national interests and American taxpayers.” Peacekeeping budgets are too high; accountability for UN bureaucrats is too low; the system in incredibly hostile to Israel; and the Security Council is too consumed with infighting among the world’s major powers that even simple resolutions against human rights abuses in Syria or arms embargoes in South Sudan are blocked. While Haley can’t do much about the Security Council gridlock, she has succeeded in slashing $570 million in peacekeeping costs.
While Haley’s boss, secretary of State Rex Tillerson, isn’t as loving of the camera as the ambassador, he has also come to the conclusion that the UN is a bloated body that seems to function more as a place where career diplomats can talk about the virtues of diplomacy rather than an institution preserving international peace. Earlier in the year, Tillerson threatened to withdraw the US from the Human Rights Council if it didn’t make considerable reforms to how it conducts its business and which issues it works on. Reports that the secretary of State will be downsizing the US delegation in this year’s annual meeting and debate of the UN General Assembly, although explained as a way to decrease costs, can also be interpreted as a subtle message to the UN brass that Washington will be pursuing its national security priorities regardless of how unpopular they may be to UN officials used to American financial largess (the US pays 22% of the UN’s regular budget and over 28% of the peacekeeping costs).
With all of the differences over tact, finances, and missions, the the UN General Assembly meetings this week could get a bit awkward for Trump, Tillerson, Haley, and the assistant and deputy assistant secretaries who will be flying to New York. The environment won’t be as bad as the session in September 2003, when President Bush addressed a General Assembly that was composed of many nations (and UN secretary general Kofi Annan) still angry and upset about Washington’s decision to invade Iraq without Security Council authorization. But we shouldn’t be surprised if interactions between US officials and UN technocrats are frosty or get testy behind closed doors.
Despite anti-UN animosity within the White House and the State Department, it would not be a smart play for the Trump administration to squander the opportunities that may arise during the annual session. The General Assembly speeches by national leaders and the committee meetings about specific issues on the agenda are only several parts of the larger event. The side meetings and informal conversations that occur before, during, and after the main events can be even more important than giving a arising or inspirational address. It’s during these frank discussions when bilateral relationships can be improved or stabilized and where mutual understandings between political leaders can be established.
Indeed, substantive and deadly serious business gets conducted throughout these side-door discussions. The diplomatic process that eventually produced the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement began two years prior, when Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif talked with one another in a conference room on the sidelines of the General Assembly meeting. Those talks would lead to the first direct phone call between a US and Iranian president in more than thirty years. And it would later turn out that the Kerry-Zarif dialogue was more valuable than they would have anticipated at the time; both leaders would go on to speak regularly with one another over the ensuing three years, and the personal relationship both men managed to build up would go on to help cement a prisoner exchange agreement in January 2016.
While we shouldn’t expect much interaction with US and Iranian diplomats this week, one would hope that Trump, Tillerson, Haley, and their entourage will carve out some time for the Russians. Vladimir Putin won’t be in New York this year, so Trump won’t have the opportunity to meet with the Russian president face-to-face again. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, however, will be on the UN floor shaking hands. If a meeting between Tillerson and Lavrov isn’t on the books, it should be squeezed in; there is a list of items to discuss, including a recent proposal from Putin about the possibility of sending UN peacekeepers to accompany ceasefire monitors in Eastern Ukraine. With the conflict in the Donbas at a stalemate and with the Minsk accords nothing more than a piece of paper at this point, the US delegation should explore with the Russians exactly what the peacekeeping mission would look like; what the mandate would be; and which countries would contribute troops.
If we know anything about Trump, it’s that he likes to make news. In place of insulting the UN and going through the motions, the Trump administration should use the General Assembly festivities as a venue to rebuild relationships that are suffering.