World’s eyes on Trump as UN gath­ers

US pres­i­dent to ‘head­line’ at sum­mit

Bangkok Post - - WORLD -

WASH­ING­TON: Ev­ery year, the US pres­i­dent heads to New York to wel­come world lead­ers to the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly. He gives a speech and meets with an end­less string of for­eign po­ten­tates to dis­cuss a dizzy­ing ar­ray of com­pli­cated, of­ten in­tractable is­sues.

The days are “kind of like speed dat­ing from hell”, as one an­a­lyst put it, and the evenings are “the world’s most te­dious cock­tail party”. In other words, not ex­actly Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s favoured for­mat.

But when Mr Trump at­tends the first UN ses­sion of his pres­i­dency this week, all eyes will be on him as coun­ter­parts from around the globe crane their necks and slide through the crowd to snatch a hand­shake — and, in the process, try to fig­ure out this most un­usual of US lead­ers.

“The world is still try­ing to take the mea­sure of this pres­i­dent,” said Jon Al­ter­man, a se­nior vice-pres­i­dent at the Cen­tre for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton and au­thor of the speed­dat­ing anal­ogy. “For a num­ber of lead­ers, this is go­ing to be their first chance to see him, to judge him, to try to get on his good side.”

In some places, there has been an in­stinct to dis­miss Mr Trump as a bom­bas­tic, Twit­ter-ob­sessed po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic neo­phyte. “But the fact is you can’t write off the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent,” Mr Al­ter­man said.

One of Mr Trump’s pri­mary tasks will be to de­fine how his “Amer­ica First” ap­proach — which has led him to pull out of in­ter­na­tional agree­ments on free trade and cli­mate change — fits into the world-first mis­sion of the United Na­tions.

His chal­lenge is “to de­scribe the Trump doc­trine on US global lead­er­ship and en­gage­ment,” said Zal­may Khalilzad, am­bas­sador to the UN un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush. “The per­cep­tion in many parts of the world, in­clud­ing the UN, is that Pres­i­dent Trump is uni­lat­er­al­ist and iso­la­tion­ist. Mr Trump has the op­por­tu­nity to present and de­scribe his vi­sion and strat­egy. The world will be all ears.”

Mr Trump ar­rives in New York at a time of crack­ling ten­sion over North Korea’s provoca­tive ac­tions and deep un­cer­tainty about what he will do with pre­de­ces­sor Barack Obama’s nu­clear agree­ment with Iran. While for­eign lead­ers once feared that an er­ratic pres­i­dency was tak­ing shape, they have been re­as­sured, to some ex­tent, that Mr Trump is set­tling in to a some­what more con­ven­tional for­eign pol­icy than many had an­tic­i­pated, an­a­lysts said.

The pres­i­dent has not launched an all-out trade war with China, ripped up the Iran deal or the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment, nor moved the US Em­bassy in Is­rael to Jerusalem — at least not yet. He has be­lat­edly reaf­firmed sup­port for Nato and agreed to send more troops to Afghanistan.

“But Amer­ica’s friends still see dys­func­tion­al­ity at the heart of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, as key ad­vis­ers come and go through the re­volv­ing door,” said Peter West­ma­cott, a for­mer Bri­tish am­bas­sador to Wash­ing­ton. “They re­main dis­heart­ened by Mr Trump’s an­nounce­ments on cli­mate change and trade pol­icy.” And “they fear that the fight­ing talk of this im­pul­sive pres­i­dent could make things worse rather than bet­ter on the Korean Penin­sula”.

Pre­view­ing the week, HR McMaster, the pres­i­dent’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, said Mr Trump would stress “sovereignty and ac­count­abil­ity”. Sovereignty is a term that ap­peals to US con­ser­va­tives scep­ti­cal about the UN It is also a term, how­ever, used by au­to­crats like Pres­i­dents Bashar al-As­sad of Syria and Ni­co­las Maduro of Venezuela to re­ject in­ter­fer­ence by out­side pow­ers as they crush op­po­si­tion.

Mr Trump will em­pha­sise long­stand­ing ef­forts to re­form what many Repub­li­cans see as the scle­rotic and in­ef­fi­cient UN or­gan­i­sa­tion, but aides would not say whether he would com­mit to the tra­di­tional level of US fi­nanc­ing as Wash­ing­ton re­mains in ar­rears.

“You’ll have to wait and see,” said Nikki Ha­ley, the US am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions.

Mr Trump’s ad­vis­ers made lit­tle men­tion of UN pri­or­i­ties like the Global Goals set in 2015 to elim­i­nate poverty and hunger, im­prove health and the en­vi­ron­ment, and re­duce in­equal­ity and gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion by 2030.

“The train has left the sta­tion, and he wants the train to come back to the sta­tion,” said Sarah Mendelson, an am­bas­sador to the UN Eco­nomic and So­cial Coun­cil un­der Mr Obama. “It’s go­ing to go on re­gard­less of what the pres­i­dent does or doesn’t say.”

Me Ha­ley said Mr Trump would use his speech to lay down mark­ers.

“I per­son­ally think he slaps the right peo­ple, he hugs the right peo­ple, and he comes out with the US be­ing very strong in the end,” she said.

North Korea will be “front and cen­tre”, Ms Ha­ley said, just days af­ter the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil es­ca­lated sanc­tions in re­sponse to its lat­est nu­clear and mis­sile tests.

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