A year after his bombastic debut at the United Nations as president of the United States, Donald Trump returns on Monday, Sept. 24, to lead a US effort to spur global action to stem the narcotics and opioid plagues. Could the US be asking the UN for help this time?
The morning meeting on drugs on Monday, in which Secretary-General António Guterres is also scheduled to speak, may be a soft landing in New York for Trump. On Tuesday morning, Sept. 25, he will address the opening session of the 73rd General Assembly, the centerpiece of his visit and his opportunity to vent about his enemies, his friends and the organizations he disparages. The audience will be politely hunkered down.
On Wednesday, Sept. 26, however, diplomats and commentators expect a potentially explosive scene in the Security Council when Trump will take the Council president’s chair, coincidentally held by the US for September. He could turn the occasion into a sustained attack on Iran and a defense of his decision to withdraw from an internationally backed nuclear deal with the Iranians.
On Sept. 4, Nikki Haley, Trump’s loyal ambassador and accomplice at the UN, told reporters in a televised briefing there that the Sept. 26 Council meeting would be solely about Iran. She acknowledged that under Council rules the meeting would give the Iranians the right to speak in their defense.
A personal confrontation between Trump and an Iranian official, possibly President Hassan Rouhani, and tense arguments with Europeans and other supporters of the Iranian deal apparently caused a scramble in the White House to change how to define the Council meeting. The scramble seems to confirm recent reports that high-ranking officials close to the president have been working behind the scenes to curb his worst instincts for his compulsive behavior and combative language — especially weeks before the US midterm elections.
Speaking to the media outside the Security Council chamber on Sept. 20 (see video below), Haley confirmed that the initial plan was to focus only on Iran in Trump’s appearance in the Council on Wednesday — which Haley predicted would be “the most watched Security Council meeting ever” — but recent events made it necessary to add to that agenda. She mentioned discussions on the possible use of chemical weapons in Idlib, Syria; the investigation into the poisoning of a former Russia agent and his daughter in Britain; and the issue of increased sanctions on North Korea.
The description of the Council meeting had therefore been broadened, apparently in the White House, conveniently circumventing a direct Iranian role. “In addition to addressing Iran’s destabilizing aggression and sponsorship of terrorism, the President will address a broader range of issues given the challenges facing the world at this time,” the US mission at the UN said, including “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.”
That change doesn’t guarantee there won’t be arguments over the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, formally titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which took five years to negotiate as the best hope for curtailing nuclear-weapons development by Iran. The deal is supported by all four other permanent Council members — Britain, China, France and Russia– and the European Union well as Japan. The US has also reimposed sanctions on Iran unilaterally, ignoring Council resolutions.
If Trump expects to change opinions on his Iran policy, which is strongly opposed by many critics among member nations and officials of the UN, he is likely to meet a stone wall from the agreement’s supporters, who are struggling to save the deal. Even President Vladimir Putin of Russia expressed his opposition to Trump’s policy publicly after meeting Trump in Helsinki on July 16.
The Reuters news agency reported recently that Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said early in September that Washington was “mistaken” if it thinks it can change any minds. He predicted that “the Americans won’t have an easy walk at this meeting.”
In addition, European firms that stop doing business with Iran because of reimposed US sanctions could be sanctioned by the European Union, a special adviser to the bloc’s top diplomat warned in August.
It would not be an overstatement to say that Trump’s reputation for erratic pronouncements, his often-voiced contempt for international institutions and bullying will make his presence a focus of much attention at UN headquarters. The UN has never known an American president quite like Trump.
Sacha Sergio Llorentty Soliz, the ambassador of Bolivia to the UN, a current Security Council member from a country frequently critical of the US, said in an interview with PassBlue that he didn’t want to speculate how Trump could be received, “But for us, regardless of what he says, what we’ve seen in the last year and a half is a complete disregard of international law, multilateralism and the use of the UN as a lemon so to speak: they squeeze it, get as much as they can and throw it away.”
Stephen Schlesinger, who wrote the classic history of the founding of the UN, “Act of Creation,” and a leading analyst of the organization’s story over seven decades since, is not optimistic about Trump’s visit.
“Trump’s appearance at the UN is going to be a bizarre and troubling spectacle for the organization — perhaps somewhat like Hugo Chavez’s strange and erratic performance at the UN when he claimed he smelled sulfur in the room in reference to George W. Bush,” Schlesinger said in an email exchange.
“By now, most member nations of the UN know that Donald Trump, the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, is a troubled man with a disordered mind,” he added. “He is a proven liar, a compulsive braggart and a thoroughly unpredictable chief executive. These are not the traits normally associated with the individual who runs one of the greatest democracies on the planet.”
“It is clear that Trump intends to focus all of his energies in his UN appearances on condemning Iran, using the presidency of the Security Council as his base of attack,” Schlesinger added. “He openly plans to step into a hornet’s nest of opposition from practically all the members of the Council.”
On US policies and actions in the Middle East — which Secretary-General Guterres has said disqualify the Trump administration from being an impartial mediator — Trump has aligned the US squarely behind the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including on Iran. The US has also cut off most aid to Palestinians and closed their office in Washington. These actions are being criticized from within the American Jewish population by the liberal pro-Israeli, pro-peace group J Street, which also opposed the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the relocation of the US Embassy there, moves overwhelmingly rejected by UN member nations in a vote in the General Assembly last December.
Media reports and polls testing what effect Trump foreign policies may have on his mostly conservative, largely rural voting base in the US are suggesting that voters in agricultural states, while mainly supportive of the president’s tough-guy approach, are concerned about loss of income from corn, soybeans and pork exports as Trump’s self-imposed tariff wars begin to backfire on them. The impact, or not, of this issue will be tested in the midterm American elections in early November, when members of Congress are up for election. He needs distractions.
“Most of all Trump’s address to the UN is about appealing to his conservative voter base,” Schlesinger wrote. “He will assert that his policies have reversed all of the weak-kneed actions of the Obama Administration; that he has rebuilt the US military; that he has re-established US primacy and prestige around the globe. But, for the UN, his delusional avows of ‘winning’ around the globe, most UN delegates will privately shake their heads at his nonsensical claims and just try to figure out how best to get through the next two years of his term without suffering too much further damage to themselves and to the UN.”
On the domestic American scene generally, there is increasing alarm about a very different issue: the opioid crisis that is killing more people every year. This is where Trump’s sideline event on Sept. 24 on drugs and crime fits into his UN headquarters agenda, and where the US is asking — indeed demanding — the world’s help.
The grandly titled “Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem,” the subject of the US event, has 33 co-sponsors from mostly Asian, African and Latin American nations, a number of which vote reliably with the US at the UN. The document they are promoting essentially if subtly accuses other countries and UN convention-monitoring bodies and drug agencies of not doing enough to stop the manufacture and transfer of drugs.
No mention is made in the call to action about the consumer market in the US that feeds much of the illicit manufacture and export abroad; there is only a glancing reference to reducing demand everywhere.
The demand the US will make at the UN echoes a three-pronged US national program unveiled by the White House in March, calling for improvements in education and prevention, treatment and recovery and law enforcement and interdiction, including across borders. Early this year, the US Department of Justice unveiled its first indictments against Chinese makers of Fentanyl, a powerful narcotic painkiller that, when abused, leads to addiction.
At the Sept. 24 UN meeting called by the Trump administration, according to the draft program circulated among UN diplomatic missions, there will be a few speeches and a group photograph: good for the Trump base. In the 45 minutes scheduled for the morning event, the US will commit, at least on paper, to global cooperation after more than a year of insulting, belittling and threatening international institutions. As of this writing, 113 nations have backed the Trump event, including Mexico. Canada signed on at the last minute, apparently.
One nongovernmental organization, Open Society Foundations, called the US initiative’s “most worrying aspect . . . is that it appears to be an effort to bypass the 2016 UNGA Special Session outcome document, and in particular to downgrade its attention given to human rights, development and public health.”
As Trump Week approaches, the 193 member nations of the UN and organization officials have no illusions about the US president’s unpredictably, irrationality and capacity to offend — changing his mind and his targets, at will. Last year, Kim Jong Un, the abusive dictator of North Korea, was “little rocket man” on a suicide mission and in peril of having his country wiped off the face of the earth. This year, Kim is an honorable man and trustworthy buddy, with a second summit being planned. (Kim is not scheduled to speak at the UN General Assembly.)
The US State Department just announced that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo intends to lead a UN Security Council meeting on North Korea on Sept. 27, to reinforce UN sanctions.
Repeating his America First mantra to the world in the General Assembly in 2017, Trump extended his fierce defense of national sovereignty for all counties but not to ones he did not like, freely threatening them. He left some government leaders and diplomats in the audience gasping.
This year, Trump will stress American sovereignty again, Haley told reporters on Sept 20. The president will defend US decisions to withdraw from international accords, such as the Paris agreement on climate change, and its refusal to join others, including the international compact on migration.
“Whether it’s the migration compact, whether it’s the Paris accord — all of these things that we felt were mandating things on the United States – those aren’t things we want to be involved in. . . . It is not saying that multilateralism can’t work, but it’s saying sovereignty is a priority over all of that,”she said.
The audience in the General Assembly this year will be on guard, more so because when Trump arrives in New York, he will be leaving behind a White House in administrative shambles, rocked by scandals and shadowed by an unprecedented investigation into possible acceptance of Russian aid in securing a win in the 2016 presidential election.
He could choose to air his litany of grievances with the rest of the world, but he wouldn’t find much sympathy.
Stéphanie Fillion contributed reporting to this article.
This article was updated.