Aides to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have told U.S. diplomats that America will have a “toe-print, not a footprint” at next month’s U.N. General Assembly, shrinking the size of the delegation visiting New York as President Donald Trump reshapes the U.S. approach to diplomacy worldwide.
The decision to cut back the U.S. diplomatic presence appears driven largely by Tillerson’s desire to reduce his department’s budget. But it also sends a signal that the new Republican administration is serious about scaling back and refocusing America’s global commitments.
Exact figures were unavailable, but State Department officials said the U.S. delegation will likely shrink by several hundred compared to past years. The U.S. government as a whole usually sends well over 1,000 people to the gathering, including the president’s security entourage, a former U.S. official said. Many of those people, whose jobs range from legal experts to nuclear negotiators, would go for quick day trips.
Trump, meanwhile, is expected to spend at least three days at what will be his first U.N. General Assembly as America’s head of state, a longer-than-normal stint for a U.S. president. He’ll be spending nights at his Bedminster, N.J., golf resort, according to a current administration official.
Tillerson’s top aides have told State’s rank-and-file that anyone who wants to attend the assembly or myriad side events must get approval and that approvals will be few. For example, while in the past multiple deputy assistant secretaries in a State Department bureau would attend at once, the guidelines this year indicate that only one deputy assistant secretary can be in New York at a time, U.S. diplomats told POLITICO. Some bureaus have been told they can’t send anyone, the former U.S. official said.
The plans to cut back the U.S. presence, first reported by Foreign Policy, have added to the gloom of U.S. diplomats already feeling marginalized by the Trump administration. The president has proposed slashing State’s budget by a third and most of the top positions at the department have yet to be filled, with many bureaus relying on interim leaders.
The shrunken U.S. presence is likely to add to concerns among U.S. allies already nervous about Trump’s antics
“The U.N. General Assembly can be a soul-destroying political circus — a lot of foreign officials wander about looking dazed and giving dull speeches,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert affiliated with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But given the unhappiness overseas with Trump, the U.S. should actually be pursuing ‘flood the zone’ tactics and getting as many diplomats and politicians up to New York as they can to press the flesh and reassure foreign leaders that Washington is not really imploding.”
Former and current U.S. officials agree there’s room to cut the normally massive U.S. delegation attending the General Assembly, an event some liken to “diplomatic speed-dating” where the quality of interactions are often not that high. But they worried that the Trump administration will go too far and squander an important opportunity.
Top officials from some 190 countries attend the General Assembly. The gathering is an especially ideal setting to build good will with smaller countries who normally don’t get much high-level U.S. attention but whose support on a variety of issues may one day prove critical.
The secretary of state, who usually stays longer than the president, tends to be booked solid from morning to night in dozens of multilateral and bilateral events where he can meet officials from countries he might never visit. Junior level staffers, too, can take the chance to develop relationships that can pay off later.
“Most of us think [the proposed scale-back] is short-sighted and cuts into our effectiveness to not be able to go up there,” one senior State Department official said. “If you want to make a business case, it’s probably cheaper to send a few people up to New York than to send them all over the world.”
The White House referred questions to the State Department’s press division, which did not immediately offer a statement.
The Trump administration isn’t the first to question the value of sending a large U.S. delegation to the General Assembly. Several years ago, top officials at the State Department evaluated the costs and the benefits.
“We reached the conclusion that there was a lot of utility to it,” a former senior State official said on condition of anonymity. “We also encouraged day trips, not week-long encampments. But then it can get inefficient to have everybody traveling for one day — so it’s not like there’s one answer.”
Still, Brett Schaefer, a U.N. expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, noted that agencies beyond the State Department often send representatives, too, and that at times the U.S. presence is overwhelming.
“The U.S. delegation alone is a blob consuming the seats in a meeting,” he said. “You can accomplish as much with fewer people. Who is going to be at the table matters more than how many people are backing them up.”
Other skeptics also pointed out that so few leadership positions at State are filled on a permanent basis right now that foreign counterparts may find it a waste of time to meet with the people holding those roles on an interim basis. Some U.S. diplomats also grumble that they’re given so little policy guidance from Tillerson that they wouldn’t know what to say to their counterparts in the first place.
Trump has questioned the value of international organizations including the United Nations, so his first speech to the gathering, slated for Tuesday, Sept. 19, will draw exceptional scrutiny.
Trump’s aides are still in early phases of working on his speech, and it’s not yet clear whether Trump will strike any isolationist tones. However, the president is likely to cover hot-button issues such as North Korea’s nuclear program and Iranian aggression in the Middle East. He may also try discuss some subjects that haven’t received much attention, such as the threats of famine in parts of Africa and the Middle East, the current administration official said.
It’s not clear why Trump plans to stay in New Jersey instead of at Trump Tower in Manhattan. But he is planning on being at his Bedminster golf resort the weekend of Sept. 16-17, just ahead of the main week of the General Assembly, the administration official said. That should give him even more time to meet world leaders willing to trek to New Jersey.
The president plans to participate in several core events related to the General Assembly, including a luncheon hosted by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will shadow Trump at many of his meetings, while also taking part in their own separate sessions.
The U.S. also may also host or co-host a side summit this year on reforming the United Nations, a theme that both Haley and Guterres have made key planks of their agendas.
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