President Donald Trump has denounced “the utter weakness and incompetence” of the United Nations, derided it as “a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time,” and proposed deep cuts to its U.S. taxpayer funding.
Trump will likely take a more measured approach when he attends the U.N. General Assembly in New York next week, according to sources tracking the issue inside and outside his administration.
In one of his most visible moments yet as a statesman, Trump will deliver a speech to dozens of world leaders on Tuesday in line with past presidential addresses to the annual gathering. Skeptical dignitaries bracing for a Trump tirade should instead expect an address on global hotspots like North Korea and Iran, and issues like famine in Africa. “In many respects this is just going to be business as usual,” a Trump administration official said.
Of course, it’s always possible that the mercurial U.S. president could go off script—as he has at past gatherings of foreign leaders.
Just this week, Trump dismissed the U.N.’s latest sanctions against North Korea, passed last Monday, as “not a big deal” that might not have “any impact”—undercutting his State Department, which declared them substantial.
“Trump’s audience will be very aware of his mood swings,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “If he gives a good speech but undercuts that with a few mad tweets against the U.N. the next morning, he will waste their goodwill.”
Trump has also denounced “the enormous anti-Israel bias of the U.N.,” as he put it in October, and is likely to scold its member states on that score. And until recently he consulted regularly with John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. who is a withering critic of the body.
But diplomats and U.S. officials say that Trump still understands that the U.N. can play a helpful role—especially when it comes to tackling the growing crisis around North Korea’s nuclear program and applying pressure on Iran’s theocratic regime. (“Very big financial impact!” Trump tweeted about an Aug. 5 U.N. Security Council vote to limit North Korean exports.)
Nor is everything Trump has said about the U.N. is unkind. “I have long felt the United Nations is an underperformer but has tremendous potential,” Trump said in an April meeting with U.N. officials at the White House.
That’s the message behind Trump’s role on Monday as host of a special gathering on U.N. reform, a top priority for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley.
The meeting will focus on ideas for streamlining the notoriously inefficient organization, whose biennial core budget is $5.4 billion. Countries participating in the event are asked to sign on to a 10-point declaration of support for the reform efforts. Guterres has indicated those efforts will include reducing duplicative programs, rethinking the structure of the U.N.’s executive body and decentralizing decision-making.
But much of Trump’s most important activity in the coming days will involve traditional one-on-one diplomacy with fellow world leaders, kicking off this weekend at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., where he is expected to meet some of the visiting foreign heads of state.
Trump will meet next week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and POLITICO has confirmed that he will see Jordan’s King Abdullah, an influential Arab ally. But two of the world’s most powerful leaders will be absent from the international gathering: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping.
Trump may use his U.N. meetings to gauge support for fiddling with or abandoning the internationally negotiated nuclear deal with Iran. Trump has called the July 2015 agreement the “worst deal ever” and hinted he may declare Tehran in violation of the agreement next month.
So far, Trump has encountered stiff international resistance to the idea of re-negotiating the deal. There are some hints, however, that a few world leaders may be open to the idea of hammering out supplemental agreements with Iran that deal with sensitive issues such as its ballistic missile program.
The Trump administration has significantly cut back U.S. communication with Iran, which was substantial under former President Barack Obama. In 2015, Obama even shook hands at the U.N. event with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who has yet to talk to his U.S. counterpart, Rex Tillerson.
But the U.N. General Assembly offers a rare opportunity for the two sides to encounter each other — accidentally or on purpose – and any such exchange will be carefully parsed by fellow diplomats.
Some observers are hopeful that Trump might send a clear message of support for international institutions. “He needs to show that he is a friend to the world,” said one European diplomat.
But few expect Trump to cast himself as a born-again globalist. “While the president will make an effort to be conciliatory and convince the assembled leaders why it is in their interest to, for instance, support his U.N. reform proposals or take a stronger stance on North Korea, he firmly believes in his ‘America first’ foreign policy,” said Brett Schaefer of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Trump’s “America First” creed is unlikely to rouse an audience of leaders who overwhelmingly oppose his views on issues like global climate change and human rights.
Even so, Trump doesn’t have to worry about being booed.
“The U.N. General Assembly audience is very diplomatic and is restrained,” said Peter Yeo, a U.N. Foundation official in touch with the Trump administration. “It certainly will be different than a campaign rally.”