For the second time since assuming power last year, President Donald Trump comes to the United Nations (UN) with his “America First” agenda, his administration’s political turmoil, and his own mercurial character.
The core of Trump’s message this week in New York is focused on the precedence of American sovereignty as a basis for US global cooperation and a view of the world that is largely shaped by international trade rather than US values and mutual interests. Trump comes to New York as his Supreme Court justice nominee is facing public and congressional scrutiny, his Justice Department is in disarray, and a self-damaging trade war with China rages.
It is not surprising that the Trump Administration is disregarding the basic principles of the UN system, a contempt that was reflected in three key recent decisions: cancelling the Iran nuclear deal, which is recognized by the UN Security Council; undermining the International Criminal Court; and defunding the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). The United States declined to endorse the UN-sponsored Global Compact on Refugees as international leaders met in New York on September 24; this is in light of the fact that the number of refugees around the world has reach 68.5 million, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Meanwhile, this month the State Department announced a new cap of 30,000 to the number of refugees allowed into the United States in fiscal year 2019, a decrease from the 45,000 cap of the previous year.
During the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly, the United States holds the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council. Three main Middle Eastern priorities dominate the UN agenda this week.
1. The Iran Nuclear Deal
Last year, Trump made his entrance with an eccentric speech at the podium of the UN General Assembly, calling North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a “rocket man” whose country the United States would “totally destroy.” This time around, the North Korean leader “has been terrific” and is “making tremendous progress,” according to Trump. The hawkish faction of the US president’s foreign policy team, primarily Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, is shifting focus to Iran while hoping Trump would not be tempted to appease Pyongyang and Tehran. The international community, however, is concerned about the opposite scenario. Trump was supposed to chair a UN Security Council meeting on September 26 dedicated to discussing Iran, but members of the Council have since expanded the scope of this meeting to include nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction to avoid a diplomatic clash between the United States and Iran at the United Nations.
The regime in Tehran is also conveying a similarly complex policy position toward Washington. President Hassan Rouhani wrote an op-ed extending a hand to the Trump Administration, but on September 23, he also suggested that the United States bore responsibility for the attack, the day before, on a military parade in Iran that killed at least 25 people. Pompeo explicitly noted that it is up to Tehran to reach out and initiate meeting plans between Trump and Rouhani in New York.
Moreover, Trump’s tone as he chairs the Security Council meeting might impact US-European relations and potentially increase US isolation on the global stage. Chairing a Security Council meeting is typically a neutral and logistical role that requires diplomatic tact. No resolution is expected from this meeting, however, which reflects the lack of consensus—unlike when former President Barack Obama chaired similar meetings in 2009 and 2014. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley touted the ratings factor by saying that “I am sure that’s going to be the most watched Security Council meeting ever.” While the White House disowned what was reportedly Haley’s plan to hold a Security Council meeting dedicated to discussing Iran, Pompeo and Bolton were keynote speakers on September 25 at the summit of “United Against Nuclear Iran,” an advocacy group known for its anti-Iranian regime policy views.
What will also be tested this week is the Trump Administration’s ability to convince or coerce the international community to follow suit and refrain from doing business with Iran, because of the decision to reimpose US sanctions on Tehran. The five major powers (France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China) have challenged or bypassed the United States on this issue and, on September 24, announced the establishment of a financial facility in the European Union to facilitate payment for Iran’s exports, including oil.
2. The Palestinian-Israeli Issue
The Trump Administration is making sure that the Palestinian-Israeli issue is a low priority at the United Nations this week as the United States continues to pursue its yet-to-be announced peace plan and pressure the Palestinians. Meanwhile, President Mahmoud Abbas remains defiant against Trump’s punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority. In New York this week, he will chair a meeting with senior officials from 40 countries and international organizations to counter the US-led efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian track. This Palestinian-led meeting, titled “Salvaging the Two-State Solution: Defending the International Rules-Based System,” reflects the limited options the Palestinian leadership has in facing the unprecedented US pressure.
A ministerial meeting is also being held on September 25 to secure financial support for UNRWA, as the agency is facing a budget deficit of nearly $186 million for the rest of 2018. UNRWA announced that its schools and health centers might be at risk if this funding gap is not secured. While these meetings in New York could secure UNRWA funding for this year, the long-term future of the UN agency remains unclear.
3. Wars in Syria and Yemen
The absence of any significant meeting on Syria or Yemen at the UN this week reflects the lack of US leadership on the Middle East. The Trump Administration has not been exerting enough pressure to advance a Syrian political process or to bring a conclusion to the war in Yemen.
The three countries of the Astana process, namely Russia, Turkey, and Iran, continue to play the leading role on Syria as their foreign ministers met with UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura on September 25 in New York to discuss rewriting the Syrian constitution, with no US role in these talks. France is hoping that the Security Council would endorse the Russian-Turkish agreement to create a buffer zone around Idlib by reinforcing new conditions that link this accord to starting a peace process in Syria; however, there appears to be little US support for such a plan. The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not attend the UN meetings in New York this week puts less pressure on the Trump Administration to raise the Syrian issue and, more importantly, to address the many current challenges in the US-Russia relationship.
On Yemen, the recent UN-mediated talks failed to reach a breakthrough in Geneva. There is no serious or visible attempt in New York to revive these efforts. UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock noted that “we may now be approaching a tipping point, beyond which it will be impossible to prevent massive loss of life.” The UN is currently rushing to send food to northern Yemen to prevent a hunger crisis. The Trump Administration seems to be giving the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen more breathing space to continue military operations in Hodeida against the Houthis.
The lack of US or UN leadership on Syria and Yemen reflects the deep divisions of the international community, which are in display all week in New York. In the early years, the US role was imperative to establishing the UN and is now crucial for the international organization’s continuous survival and relevance. Currently, the United States funds nearly one fifth of the UN budget of $50 billion, making it by far the largest funder of the United Nations. The “America First” agenda may have a hefty price tag that could undermine the fundamentals of the UN system and of global stability.