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LONDON — President Donald Trump marked a year at the helm of the United States on Jan. 20. Secretary-General António Guterres marked a year at the helm of the United Nations on Jan. 1. How has their first year gone relative to the UN?
The short answer is: not as badly as you might expect, particularly given Trump’s ominous warnings before taking office that “things will be different” at the world body after Trump was inaugurated. Trump and Guterres are said to have a productive relationship and his ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, initially developed a reputation as a pragmatist, although later missteps over the Iran nuclear deal and Israel — on Jerusalem — have soured opinions.
These were some of the high — and low — lights of 2017.
Global norms. Trump is not a normal president. Nor, as we argued the day he was elected, should we normalize him. Indeed, in his first year in office, UNA-UK, despite being a British organization that tries to avoid commenting on US affairs, felt obliged to issue four statements that started with the words “UNA-UK regrets President Trump’s decision to. . . . ,” given the outsize influence the US has on UN and international affairs. Two of the statements were released in the same week.
From decertifying the Iran deal to pulling out of the Paris climate agreement to his clearly racist alleged statements that migration from predominantly white and Asian countries is preferable to migration from Africa and Haiti, what has been notable about Trump’s most aberrant behavior is that it hurt him and the US far more than it hurt global norms.
The world — as well as American states, communities and businesses — has rallied around the Paris Agreement, leaving the US the only nonsignatory. Support for the Iran deal has been considerable, including from all other parties to the deal, including Britain, which considers itself to be one of America’s closest allies. The UN General Assembly vote on the decision by the US to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel resulted in 128-9 despite (or perhaps because) of Haley’s misguided attempt to make the issue a global referendum on US foreign policy.
Time and again, the pattern has been the same: Trump violates a widely accepted standard and the US gets a bit weaker, other countries seek to fill the vacuum and the standard itself is left largely unruffled. This only catalyzes the processes underway, whereby the sun sets on US hegemony and we move toward a more multipolar and more Southern global politics.
UN reform. Nevertheless, the US remains powerful, so for a reforming UN secretary-general, working with the current administration is vital. In this regard, the threat of US cuts might prove helpful. Trump arrived in office determined to make changes at the UN but without a vision for what the changes would look like or a plan for doing so. Fortunately, Guterres did have a plan, so Trump appeared happy to adopt the Guterres agenda.
Perhaps the high point of the year was the UN General Assembly meeting in September, where Trump and Guterres sat side by side jointly announcing a shared reform agenda (written by the latter) on the opening of the annual session, while still making tub-thumping appeals to their constituencies the next day.
But how can the secretary-general, the upholder of global standards and norms, work with someone who is so adamant that these standards and norms need challenging or to be dropped? It is not easy. So far, Guterres has been well aided by having, in his High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, a powerful, outspoken advocate for the UN’s values. His firm stand carves out a space within which Guterres can conduct effective diplomacy. Zeid will retire in September, and unless he is replaced by someone equally credible and outspoken, the secretary-general will find this balance harder to maintain.
Budgets. Both Trump and Haley arrived at the UN determined to slash and burn the organization’s budget. Figures in the billions were quoted. Peacekeeping seemed particularly exposed. However, since then, Haley has demonstrated an ability to listen to a reasoned argument and realized the devastating long-term impacts that too-precipitous a cut would have — not least to the US. Cuts to peacekeeping were painfully made but they were more modest than feared, and, contrary to some reporting, there was no reduction in the US contribution to the UN’s core budget, which received a slight, negotiated trim.
However, there have been big cuts to the US’s voluntary funding of the UN’s funds and agencies, particularly the work on family planning and the freeze, which might become permanent cuts, to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, Unrwa. These cuts will cause suffering and contribute in the long run to increasing the inability to meet humanitarian needs. The problems that Unrwa solves won’t go away; and a failure to deal with them now will result in higher costs to later administrations when the humanitarian situation becomes not only intolerable but also a security threat.
Nevertheless, voluntary funding is precisely that: voluntary, and the US has every right to give or to not give. Much more seriously, it is now thought that the US will place a cap on its contributions to UN peacekeeping over the next financial year at 25 percent of the budget total (the US currently contributes about 28.5 percent of the total). This would place the US in arrears, although it would take decades for these arrears to accrue to the point where the US would be sanctioned. It would, however, leave a hole of $289 million in the UN’s peacekeeping budget and do proportionate damage to American global credibility.
The Security Council. The Security Council suffered from frequent paralysis before Trump’s taking office, so it would be unfair to judge him for failing to have unjammed the process. While the expected détente with Russia has yet to materialize, the Council forged consensus on such important steps as pressuring North Korea and negotiating humanitarian access to Syria. Nor should the US take more than its portion of the blame for the Council’s failures: the unraveling of the Joint Investigative Mechanism into chemical weapons use in Syria; continued inaction in Yemen; near-silence regarding atrocity crimes in Myanmar.
Until the controversies over the Jerusalem embassy and the Iranian nuclear deal, you could even make the case that things in the Security Council were going well. Yet in December, an unwelcome new dynamic characterized US diplomacy and an unwelcome side to Haley emerged: personal, vindictive, performative and undiplomatic and behavior having far more to do with future Republican primaries than either with geopolitics or the issues at hand. It proved to be diplomatic language for Iowa not Israel.
Couple Haley’s dark side with the ever-present risk of the US stepping farther from international diplomacy or becoming even more erratic, then other countries must make a concerted effort to maintain a broad international front to support basic global standards and norms. This could be a very long year.