UN General Assembly could be a moment of truth for the Trump administration
Donald Trump will make his second address to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday. There will be 140 other world leaders in attendance but the US president is likely to steal the show again, despite the growing disgruntlement with him at the supranational body.
The reason why most eyes are likely to be on Trump again this year is not just his speech on Tuesday, or the drugs policy summit he is hosting on Monday. Beyond this, Washington currently holds the chair of the Security Council, and remains by far the largest contributor to the UN budget.
With his speech on Tuesday, and his chance to chair a Security Council meeting on Wednesday, Trump will have significant agenda-setting power. Previous US presidents, including Barack Obama, have used this opportunity to push forward multilateral solutions. In 2015, Trump’s predecessor made a final pitch for a UN climate change agreement, which was finalized later in the year.
Trump, by contrast, has no major multilateral agendas to push. His big week in New York comes after a year in which Washington flagged its withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and from UNESCO, the UN’s educational and cultural agency; refused to sign the Global Compact for Migration; and made cutbacks to voluntary funding for the UN Population Fund.
While Trump was generally received politely last September, when he gave his first UN speech, there is now a growing backlash. In June, the International Organization for Migration rejected Ken Isaacs, Trump’s candidate to lead the agency, and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres this month said: “I think the soft power of the United States… is being reduced.”
Yet the interaction with the UN is only one example of what many see as the Trump administration shooting itself in the foot on foreign policy. During Trump’s first 18 months in the White House, other key US decisions — including withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate treaty — have undermined goodwill from allies and damaged the standing of the country in the world. The president might yet regret this during the remainder of his time in office, given the range of international challenges he faces.
The reason why most eyes are likely to be on Trump at this year’s UNGA is not just his speech on Tuesday...Washington currently holds the chair of the Security Council, and remains by far the largest contributor to the UN budget.
While the idea of soft power — the ability to achieve goals by attracting, engaging and co-opting others, rather than by coercing them — is sometimes misunderstood and criticized, history underlines the key role it has played as a means of obtaining outcomes that policy-makers have sought. For example, US administrations used soft power resources skillfully after World War II to encourage other countries to join a system of alliances, such as NATO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the UN itself. The Cold War was subsequently won by a strategy of containment and cultural vigor.
Yet Trump seems set on a different course, and his apparent disdain of international treaties and organizations that do not bend to his will is provoking a backlash. A Pew Global opinion poll last year, for instance, found that about three-quarters of the thousands of people surveyed internationally had little or no confidence in his global leadership and policies.
At a time when Washington is facing a series of complex foreign policy challenges, the Trump team would benefit from more engaged, strong and supportive allies. This is true in their attempts to move forward with the president’s promised peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, to combat the continuing threat from international terrorism, and to tackle the range of threats posed by revisionist powers such as Russia.
Yet a key problem Trump faces is that, while he enjoys significant popularity in a small number of countries, including Israel, many of his policy ideas, and occasionally his wild rhetoric, threaten to provoke a new, broader spike in anti-US sentiment. The tragedy is that this could undercut much of the work that has been undertaken in the past decade to enhance US soft power, potentially creating a disabling, rather than enabling, environment for covert and overt cooperation and information-sharing with US officials.
When he took office in 2009, Obama was confronted by a situation in which anti-US sentiment was at about its highest level since at least the Vietnam War. The key factor driving this was the international unpopularity of the preceding Bush administration’s policies, not least the war in Iraq. While Obama made much progress with his global public diplomacy efforts, the scale of the challenge he faced meant that he still left much to do for his successor.
It is in this context that Trump’s UN speech, and his first 18 months of foreign policy, is being judged by many internationally, with a large body of the global populace still nervous about what his presidency means.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics