UNITED NATIONS (CN) — This year’s United Nations General Assembly has brought together in New York hundreds of leaders including the body’s leadership and more than 90 heads of state. President Donald Trump per usual is leaving all of them in suspense.
From global efforts to combat climate change to adequately financing the U.N.’s basic functions, Trump has played coy about his intentions.
Even hours before his New York arrival on Sunday, Trump sent mixed signals about his plan for the Paris agreement, and he still has not announced whether he would follow through on threats earlier this year to ax nearly 44 percent of U.S. funding for international organizations.
In the words of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ spokesman, such cuts would render U.N. peacekeeping, development and humanitarian missions “impossible.” Trump spent most of his presidential campaign denouncing the United Nations as a “bad deal,” and yet his top adviser recently lauded the institution’s “tremendous potential.”
The path that Trump offers the United Nations this year is in some ways starker than that of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who strutted on the world stage wearing an empty holster, saying he offered “an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter’s gun in the other.”
Trump also carries a fearsome, metaphorical weapon: control over the purse strings of the organization’s largest funding source.
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, predicts minimal shakeup.
“The thing about Trump is that he often pulls back on things he said,” Greenberg said in a phone interview.
On the diplomatic arena, this trend recently played out in Cuba, where Trump’s bellicose rhetoric masked a modest policy shift that left most of President Barack Obama’s normalization intact.
U.S. and U.N. officials already have signaled compromise may be coming on the most urgent issues as general debate kicks off at General Assembly’s 72nd session.
One Fewer Opportunity to Be Upstaged
Some of the uncertainty on U.N. reform will be relieved after Trump and Guterres emerge from their meeting on Monday morning.
Recent statements by Trump’s national security adviser suggest that the outcome here is already preordained.
“The president will express support of Secretary-General Guterres’ reform efforts,” Gen. H.R. McMaster told reporters on Friday. “The United Nations holds, of course, tremendous potential to realize its founding ideals, but only if it’s run more efficiently and effectively.”
On the eve of his much-anticipated speech Tuesday, Trump is set to have dinner Monday with the leaders of Latin American nations to discuss violence in Venezuela, whose President Nicolas Maduro opted to tend to civil unrest at home this year.
That snub gave the reality-television-star-turned-head-of-state one fewer opportunity to be upstaged: In 2006, Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez theatrically crossed himself before pronouncing then-President George W. Bush the devil.
“It still smells of sulphur today,” Chavez said more than a decade ago.
Several other leaders behind the General Assembly’s most outrageous moments are long dead — including Arafat and the former Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev, who banged a shoe on his desk to protest another member’s speech — leaving Trump little competition when it comes to the spectacle of diplomacy this week.
North Korean leader Kim Jung-un, whom Trump dubbed “Rocket Man” recently in a tweet, has sent a minister in his stead, as has Cuban President Raul Castro.
Even Trump’s most credible foil as a head of state this year — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — is a far more moderate figure than his hardline predecessor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who provoked a walkout by using his speech to air 9/11 conspiracy theories in 2010.
A Nuclear Ban Treaty Without Nuclear Powers
With Rouhani scheduled to speak Wednesday, Trump will spend Monday afternoon discussing Iranian relations with French and Israeli leaders. The White House has put French President Emmanuel Macron on edge with threats to reconsider the Iran nuclear deal, an outcome sought by Israel’s hardline prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Trump, Macron and Netanyahu are all expected to take the podium of the General Assembly on Tuesday. McMaster said Trump is expected to hammer a three-point message: promoting peace, promoting prosperity, and upholding sovereignty and accountability.
While staying quiet on the details, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s preview of the speech had an air of showmanship.
“I personally think he slaps the right people, he hugs the right people, and he comes out with the U.S. being very strong in the end,” she told reporters on Friday.
As for the promised slaps, top diplomats across the globe are scrambling to soften the blows.
Secretary-General Guterres and the members of the Security Council have repeatedly emphasized de-escalation and vigorous economic sanctions against North Korea, whom Trump threatened militarily with “fire and fury.”
Trump’s pledge to unravel former President Obama’s agreement with Iran bodes the possibility of two confrontations involving nuclear technology at once.
Ironically, a milestone in the struggle for disarmament will occur on the morning of Rouhani’s speech, when at least 38 countries plan to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which passed by a 122-1 margin in December 2016.
None of the ratifying countries are nuclear powers, and the only NATO country to vote on it — the Netherlands — was the lone voice against the treaty.
Nevertheless, the Center on National Security’s director Greenberg cautioned that U.N. watchers should not write off its importance.
“The first significance of the treaty is that there is such a thing,” she said in an interview. “Hopefully, it will grow and include at some point the nuclear powers.”
Costa Rica, which has no permanent standing army, will send its President Luis Guillermo Solis to speak for the occasion.
On Climate Change: An Empty Chair, or a Seat at the Table?
The Wall Street Journal prefaced this week’s activities with a report Saturday that Trump would reach a deal to remain in the Paris agreement.
Though the White House quickly denied the anonymously sourced story, there are strong reasons to doubt the denial.
The Journal’s story mirrored the farewell message of former General Assembly President Peter Thomson, who stepped down a little more than a week ago.
Speaking of Hurricane Irma’s devastation of the Caribbean, Thomson slammed Trump’s rhetoric on global warming before suggesting a disconnect with the overtures of his diplomats.
“Climate change is happening,” he said at the time. “You can deny it until you’re the last man on the planet who doesn’t believe that it’s happening even as your house got blown away, but it’s happening and we have to address it. The Paris climate agreement is our best shot and we have to stay faithful to it.”
At the time, Thomson revealed that the United States sent “positive signals” about its willingness to keep “a seat at the table.”
But Trump has reportedly demanded weakening the terms of an agreement already criticized by environmental advocates for being too weak and entirely voluntary.
The link between rising global temperatures and extreme weather is certain to be discussed at a high-level meeting on Hurricane Irma on Monday, which will feature Secretary-General Guterres, new General Assembly President Miroslav Lajeak, and Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne.
Barbuda lost more than 90 percent of its structures and vehicles to Irma’s wrath, which Browne said landed like a “bomb” in his country.
Browne will address the General Assembly on Thursday, but Trump’s attention will be turned elsewhere that day.
McMaster said the president will spend his last day at U.N. headquarters with Turkish, Afghan and Ukrainian leaders.
“The latter two countries have suffered direct and persistent attacks on their sovereignty in recent years,” the general recently told reporters.
Those diplomatic meetings — which may be read as veiled swipes at Russia and China — coincide with those top U.S. antagonists among the permanent five nations sending their ministers to address the General Assembly that day.
The day after Trump’s departure, two of the other nations that the president has vilified will round off week one of general debate: Cuba and North Korea, via their ministers.