President Trump takes to the world’s largest stage this week. And many onstage are worried.
Trump will deliver his first address Tuesday to the full United Nations General Assembly, an annual meeting that draws diplomats and leaders from 193 countries.
Neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Chinese President Xi Jinping are coming this year. That gives even more running room to a celebrity president who has shaken global institutions with his “America first” policy and whom diplomats politely describe as unpredictable.
“People are on tenterhooks,” said Stewart Patrick, an expert on global institutions and governance at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. “This is the most nationally minded president we’ve had in a long time … walking into the lion’s den.”
Trump’s aides said he will emphasize core U.S. interests on North Korea, Iran, Syria, terrorism and other key issues in a kind of diplomatic speed-dating, meetings that start Monday and run through Thursday.
“They are all very anxious to hear what he has to say,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said Friday at a White House briefing for reporters.
“I think there’s a lot of interest in how the U.S. is going to do, and they’re going to find out we are going to be solid, we’re going to be strong,” she said.
She added that Trump “slaps the right people [and] hugs the right people.”
H.R. McMaster, the White House national security advisor, said Trump will emphasize the theme of sovereignty in his bilateral and multilateral meetings.
“Sovereignty and accountability are the essential foundations of peace and prosperity,” McMaster said at the White House briefing.
Trump will meet the leaders of France and Israel on Monday. After his speech Tuesday morning, Trump will have lunch with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and other leaders.
On Wednesday, he will meet with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, the United Kingdom and the Palestinian Authority. On Thursday, he meets with the leaders of Turkey, Afghanistan and Ukraine, as well as South Korea and Japan. Mixed in is a dinner for Latin American leaders, a working lunch with African leaders and other activities.
Diplomats say they have learned not to overreact to some of Trump’s more inflammatory statements. Mexican officials, for example, have been at the bruising end of many of his tweet storms, but they continue to work with his administration.
“I think the world is still trying to take the measure of this president,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “For a number of leaders, this is going to be their first chance to see him, to judge him, to try to get on his good side…. How that goes off is unclear.”
If the U.S. government decides “that it doesn’t care about the U.N.,” he added, “the consequences for the U.N., which is running operations in dozens and dozens of countries with vulnerable people around the world, would be profound.”
The jittery anticipation of Trump’s first U.N. appearance stands in marked contrast to the prelude to President Obama’s maiden address in 2009. Received as something of a hero, he delivered an impassioned plea for international cooperation against global warming, which gelled seven years later into a historic climate accord — one that Trump has vowed to reject.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has sought to trim the State Department, initially planned to take a much smaller team of diplomats and subject experts to New York than his predecessors did. It is not yet clear how much smaller, given that the delegation has grown in recent days.
Haley, for her part, has talked tough about changing the United Nations. Early on, she announced she would be “taking names” of countries that did not cooperate with the U.S., and she has attacked what she sees as U.N. bias against Israel.
But she also has skillfully maneuvered in the stuffy halls of the U.N., finding common cause with the new secretary-general, who took office in January and who has worked closely with her on reforming the world body.
“It is a new day at the U.N.,” she said cheerily Friday. “It’s not just about talking. It’s about action.”
Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign, which advocates improving U.S. relations with the U.N., said he hopes Trump’s speech will be “more on the teleprompter side,” meaning scripted, and less on the “campaign stump speech side,” or impromptu.
For some in Trump’s electoral base, the U.N. is the bastion of evil globalism and it will be incumbent on him, in their view, to denounce the bloated, money-wasting bureaucracy that somehow threatens U.S. sovereignty. It was a common thread in his election campaign.
As a candidate, Trump repeatedly derided global institutions and international alliances, claiming allies and adversaries alike routinely took advantage of America’s generosity or gullibility.
Since taking office, he has wavered somewhat. Although he repeatedly condemned the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, for example, the three countries are in talks that are likely to keep the deal mostly intact.
Trump similarly challenged the NATO military alliance that has served as the bedrock of European defense, refusing to endorse its joint defense protocol. But he later did so.
He has threatened to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear disarmament deal with Iran. But the accord has the U.N. Security Council’s blessing, and the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency has consistently found that Tehran is complying with its obligations.
Although Trump and his aides all have argued that Iran is violating the “spirit” of the deal, the administration last week extended sanctions waivers that are part of the deal.
Trump has no plans to meet with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, who will be in New York this week. Rouhani and Obama spoke by phone on the sidelines of the 2013 General Assembly, the first such high-level contact since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, setting the stage for the talks that ultimately produced the nuclear deal.
North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests are expected to take up a major part of U.N. discussions this week. A delegation from Pyongyang is scheduled to attend, although the country’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong Un, is not in the group.
The 15-member Security Council, which includes the U.S., China and Russia, has twice in the last two months unanimously approved tough sanctions against North Korea in an effort — so far unsuccessful — to force it to back away from its relentless pursuit of nuclear weaponry.
In his address, Trump is expected to urge other countries to pay more into the U.N. budget, much as he did at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and call for streamlining operations. He will lead a meeting Monday on reforming the U.N., a cause he embraced as a candidate.
The United States is the largest contributor to the world organization. But it is about $1 billion in arrears, and the administration would like to trim the U.S. role sharply.
The Trump administration has proposed drastic cuts to U.N. peacekeeping missions, for which the U.S. currently funds about 28% of the $6.8-billion budget.
The administration is also considering trying to convert its mandatory financial obligations to voluntary contributions, a move that probably would cost the world body billions of dollars.
Under the U.N. Charter, member states are assessed dues based on their gross domestic product. They often pay additional money for specific programs, such as the World Food Program, which provides supplies in famine areas, or the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which coordinates refugee relief in Syria, Sudan and elsewhere.
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