World’s eyes on Trump as he attends the first U.N. session of his presidency
WASHINGTON – Every year, the president heads to New York to welcome world leaders to the United Nations 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 Trump’s favored format.
But when Trump attends the first U.N. session of his presidency this coming 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 American leaders.
“The world is still trying to take the measure of this president,” said Jon B. Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and author of the speed-dating 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 Trump, a bombastic, Twitter-obsessed political and diplomatic neophyte.
“But the fact is you can’t write off the American president,” Alterman said.
One of 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 U.S. global leadership and engagement,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, ambassador to the U.N. under President George W. Bush. “The perception in many parts of the world, including the U.N., is that President Trump is unilateralist and isolationist. Trump has the opportunity to present and describe his vision and strategy. The world will be all ears.”
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 President Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. While foreign leaders once feared that an erratic American presidency was taking shape, they have been reassured, to some extent, that Trump is settling into 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, or moved the U.S. 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 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, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, said Trump would stress “sovereignty and accountability.” Sovereignty is a term that appeals to U.S. conservatives skeptical about the U.N. It is also a term, however, used by autocrats like Presidents Bashar Assad of Syria and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela to reject interference by outside powers as they crush opposition.
Trump will emphasize longstanding efforts to reform the sclerotic and inefficient U.N. organization, but aides would not say whether he would commit to the traditional level of U.S. financing as Washington remains in arrears.
“You’ll have to wait and see,” said Nikki R. Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations.
Trump’s advisers made little mention of U.N. priorities like the so-called 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 E. Mendelson, an ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council under Obama. “It’s going to go on regardless of what the president does or doesn’t say.”
Trump will begin the week Monday with a meeting on U.N. reform. He will meet with the leaders of France and Israel and host a dinner with Latin American leaders. On Tuesday, he will deliver his centerpiece speech to the General Assembly, have lunch with Antonio Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, and meet with Miroslav Lajcak, the president of the General Assembly. He will also meet with the emir of Qatar and host a diplomatic reception.
On Wednesday, Trump will meet individually with the leaders of Britain, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority and host a luncheon with African leaders. On Thursday, he will meet with the leaders of Turkey, Afghanistan and Ukraine and host a lunch with the leaders of South Korea and Japan.
Haley said 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 U.S. being very strong in the end,” she said.
North Korea will be “front and center,” Haley said, just days after the Security Council escalated sanctions in response to its latest nuclear and missile tests. “And at that point, there’s not a whole lot the Security Council is going to be able to do,” she said, and so “I have no problem kicking it to Gen. Mattis, because I think he has plenty of options,” she added, referring to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.