When President Donald J. Trump takes the podium Tuesday morning to speak to the UN General Assembly, he will encounter a global audience both familiar with and weary of his “America First” mantra. Last year, the president benefited from novelty and low expectations. The assembled foreign leaders were disturbed by Trump’s saber rattling over North Korea, but they were otherwise reassured by his stated desire to help the world body fulfill its potential and by his explicit endorsement of the UN reform agenda advanced by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Here was a president, many concluded, with whom we can do business.
Those hopes have dimmed over the past year. The president has revealed himself to be a man resistant to compromise, with few qualms about going it alone when he doesn’t get his way. Since September, The Trump administration has abandoned the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Scientific, Educational, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), withdrawn from multilateral negotiations over a benign UN Global Compact on Migration, moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem despite overwhelming international opposition, slashed funding for UN bodies from the UN Population Fund to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine, repudiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program, threatened to withdraw from the World Trade Organization, and declared virtual war on the International Criminal Court.
The United States has not (yet) left the United Nations, although Trump is the first president one could envision pondering such a step. The United States remains the United Nations’ largest funder—despite engineering a reduction in its peacekeeping dues—and continues to make use of the Security Council to keep the heat on North Korea. But the Trump administration’s UN diplomacy has been heavy-handed and often counterproductive, including vain efforts to browbeat UN member states into supporting U.S. positions on symbolic votes (particularly those related to Israel and Palestine). Consistent with her early pledge, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has been “taking names” of those who seek to thwart Washington’s aims. But it is the United States, rather than U.S. adversaries, that has been isolated.
For the leaders gathering in New York this week, the question hanging in the air is simple: Is that all there is to American diplomacy? Unlike his predecessors, Republican and Democratic alike, Trump offers no positive vision for the United Nations, no invocation of the “international community” or the higher purposes it should serve. Rather than rallying the world, the president clings to a crimped, transactional foreign policy. In place of American exceptionalism, he defends American “exemptionalism”—an insistence on special treatment, with an implicit threat that the United States will walk away if it fails to get its way. In place of global “leadership”—a phrase Trump rarely utters—he asks only, what’s in it for me? It is a worldview based on power, without purpose.
Changing this narrative will require the president on Tuesday to pay at least lip service to the fundamental objectives of the United Nations. These include “sav[ing] future generations from the scourge of war,” by investing in collective security; reducing poverty and suffering, through support for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and life-saving humanitarian relief; expanding human freedom and dignity, rather than coddling dictators or leaving dissidents to the tender mercies of tyrants; and preserving a habitable planet in the face of history’s greatest and most complex threat, climate change. Expectations for his speech are so low that even a modest rhetorical shift in this direction could win the president global plaudits.
Alas, Haley’s pre-UN General Assembly briefing last Thursday suggested that the president would hew to his shopworn script, which depicts global bodies and international agreements as threats to American “sovereignty”—a word he used twenty-one times in his General Assembly address last year. The United States has no problem with multilateralism, Haley insisted. It just opposes agreements like the Global Compact for Migration and Paris Climate Accord that “mandate[s] things on the United States.” As she explained, “Anytime you hear the United States talk about sovereignty it’s always going to be the will of the American people, not the will of the international community.”
Haley’s formulation, of course, sets up a straw man. The U.S. decision to join an international body or treaty is not a sacrifice of sovereignty, but its expression and embodiment. Provided it is done voluntarily, in accordance with constitutional requirements, it places no limits on the nation’s independent political authority. What multilateral cooperation does entail is a willingness on the part of the United States to give up some notional (but often illusory) freedom of action, for the benefits of working with others to advance American national interests. Alas, senior Trump administration officials, including the president himself, appear impervious to the logic of enlightened self-interest.
Besides his speech from the podium, the president will chair two other UN sessions this week. On Wednesday he will gavel into order a special session of the UN Security Council, whose rotating presidency the United States occupies this month. Earlier this month Haley had billed this as a session focused on Iran’s destabilizing regional activities. Facing resistance from permanent member Russia, the U.S. mission broadened the topic to a general discussion of preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. However, the President did not seem to get the message, tweeting on September 21 that he would be chairing the Security Council “meeting on Iran.” The stage is thus set for a volatile meeting, in which the famously unscripted president is likely to berate Iran, whose own President Hassan Rouhani may well be in attendance. That gambit could backfire, since many close U.S. allies—not least permanent Security Council members Britain and France—are incensed by Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA. In attempting to isolate Teheran, the United States may wind up isolating itself.
The president will also host another meeting of UN member states on Monday, focused on the global drug problem. On the surface, this is a diplomatic and political winner, providing the administration a chance to win broad support for global counternarcotics efforts and also call attention to its own domestic focus on countering the deadly opioid epidemic. But it is not without risks, given the fracturing international consensus over the unending U.S.-led “drug war” and its casualties. The administration’s prohibitionist outlook, which has expanded under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, also collides with the growing experimentation by both UN member states (including Canada starting next month) and some twenty U.S. states in legalizing or decriminalizing the cannabis trade.
In his own writings, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has long championed “a distinctly American internationalism,” based on a forthright defense of U.S. sovereignty and national interests (as he narrowly conceives these). President Trump appears to share Bolton’s nationalist instincts. But it is increasingly clear that such a defensive and confrontational approach to world order offers little basis for American global leadership.