Donald Trump likes attacking soft targets, and the United Nations is about as soft as they come. Over the past two months, U.N. officials have been bracing for an entirely inevitable clash with the next U.S. administration. Their only question has been exactly what would set off the showdown. Would it be climate change? Torture?
Now they have their answer. The president-elect is gearing up to do battle with the U.N. even sooner than expected, and his casus belli is a classic sore point in U.S.-U.N. relations: Israel. Trump not only tried to stop the U.N. Security Council’s recent resolution condemning Israeli settlements, but also suggested the U.N. itself will face consequences once he is president, tweeting, “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.”
That might well be true, but Trump will likely come to regret it. An early fight with the U.N. could be politically useful for the incoming president, as it offers a high-profile but low-cost way to project a muscular approach to foreign policy. Yet it could also backfire. In office, President Trump might come to realize that he needs the U.N. to deal with knotty problems like Syria—and that if he aims to cut U.S. support to the organization, he might just create space for China and Russia to increase their influence on global diplomacy.
Since the Security Council passed its first resolution in over three decades condemning Israeli settlement building last week—made possible by the Obama administration’s abstention—Trump and congressional Republicans have aimed a torrent of abuse at the organization. Critics of the president-elect, including Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, have led calls for the U.S. to withhold funds from the organization; only one major Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has supported Obama’s move. Back on Twitter, Trump wrote off the U.N. as a “club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”
I’m not convinced that holding long, contentious meetings and caring for the world’s refugees is anyone’s idea of a “good time,” but Trump is surely right about the domestic politics. While he would encounter considerable resistance in Washington if he carried through on his threats to reduce U.S. security commitments in Europe and Asia, bashing the U.N. over Israel is popular. And if Congress blocks some U.S. funding to the U.N., it might also make a symbolic point without necessarily doing much real harm. It could, for example, reassert an old rule—waived during the Obama era—that the U.S. should never pay more than 25 percent of the U.N.’s peacekeeping budget, rather than just under 29 percent as it does today. But as the U.N. University’s Centre for Policy Research has estimated, this would save only about $300 million a year, while the overall annual cost of blue helmet missions now hovers around $8 billion. So if Washington withholds limited quantities of cash next year, the U.N. will be able to get by.
But it is not clear that Trump will be satisfied with short-term tactical measures. Some in his circle certainly want more drastic action. John Bolton, the former firebrand U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and an early Trump supporter, has argued that the U.S. should hold back its entire contribution to the U.N. regular and peacekeeping budgets next year—about $3 billion.
Previous Republican presidents have tended to balance public attacks on the U.N. with quiet efforts to support the organization where it is useful to U.S. interests. The Bush administration bypassed the Security Council over Iraq and boycotted the Geneva-based Human Rights Council over its criticisms of Israel and failure to arraign abusive autocracies, but still endorsed the dispatch of large U.N. peacekeeping forces to trouble spots like Haiti and Darfur. Trump might ultimately adopt a similar pick-and-mix approach to the U.N., but he could be vastly more destructive.
In a worst-case scenario for the U.N., the next administration could assault the institution on multiple fronts simultaneously. While demanding that the Security Council reverse its criticisms of Israel, Trump could take steps to weaken the Paris climate agreement—although he has equivocated over whether he will pull the U.S. out of the treaty altogether—and look to make big financial cuts to U.N. development and humanitarian programs.
In addition to covering roughly a quarter of the organization’s core bureaucratic and peacekeeping costs, Washington pays an outsize percentage for its relief budgets. In 2016, for example, the U.S. has chipped in more than $1.5 billion for the U.N. refugees agency, UNHCR. The next two biggest donors—the EU and Germany—both contributed under $400 million. It is not hard to imagine President Trump, having decried the sums the U.S. spends on foreign aid on the campaign trail, insisting that other countries should pay a far larger share of the U.N.’s bills. This could weaken the already cash-strapped humanitarians’ attempts to assist refugees and displaced persons from Iraq and Lebanon to West Africa.
If the U.S. starts to undercut U.N. diplomacy, budgets and operations next year, how will others react? The U.N. secretariat is on the verge of its own transition, with a new secretary-general, Antonio Guterres of Portugal, set to take office on Jan. 1. A veteran political operator who spent 10 years in charge of UNHCR, Guterres is about as well-qualified to deal with a Trumpian onslaught as anyone could be, although hard-core Republicans such as Bolton have noted with distaste that he was also once president of the Socialist International. Leaving this left-wing baggage aside, Guterres needs to come up with ideas about how to persuade Trump’s team not to gut the U.N. completely.
Some U.N. officials believe Guterres’ best option may be to play to Trump’s ego, and try to convince him that he can help find a way out of the Syrian quagmire. If, as he has suggested, the president-elect is willing to cut a bargain with Russia over Syria that leaves President Bashar Assad in place, there will still need to be a huge international effort to rebuild the country and try to coax refugees home. Trump has said he wants to keep the U.S. out of nation-building, and Russia lacks the resources and inclination to manage the process. The U.N. may end up filling that gap, and Guterres could try to win over Trump by underlining this role.
And there’s another compelling argument for working with the U.N. that might appeal to Trump: If the U.S. refuses to lead at the U.N., other powers might aim to fill the gap, to America’s detriment. Russia has already managed to assert its influence in the Security Council over Syria while the U.S. has equivocated over how to handle calamities such as the 2013 chemical weapons crisis and the fall of Aleppo this month. China, which has long punched below its weight in the U.N.’s halls of power, has the potential to assert greater authority across the U.N. system if Trump attempts to undercut it. Both countries would doubtless welcome the chance to roll back many of the human rights norms and liberal values that successive American administrations have pushed the U.N. to promote.
The Chinese government has invested heavily in the U.N. in recent years, sending growing number of troops on blue-helmet peace operations and playing a decisive role in cementing the Paris climate deal. It is still not a major player in the humanitarian field (it has, for example, contributed under $3 million to UNHCR this year, or less than 0.002 percent of the American contribution) but has signaled that it is willing to start injecting more cash into the U.N. system. In the wake of the U.S. elections, U.N. officials and diplomats have started to speculate that Beijing may be the only power that can defend the organization from Trump.
That would, ironically, only confirm Republicans’ claims that the U.N. is fundamentally opposed to U.S. interests. In reality, the U.S. has always been the predominant power in Turtle Bay, and it will remain so unless Trump makes good on his threats to undermine the institution. If he does so, he may unwittingly hand over the U.N. to Beijing.
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