United Nations: Trump’s chance to reassure allies

US allies would settle for some reassuring words and a clearer sense of what Trumpism will mean for US foreign policy

Ibrahim Halawa's sister Fatima was "overwhelmed with joy" following her brother's acquittal after spending over four years in an Egyptian prison. Video: Patsy McGarry

 

More than 190 world leaders gather in New York this week for the general assembly of the United Nations, but attention will focus almost entirely on one man. As a candidate, Donald Trump was scathing of the UN, dismissing it as a drain on the US budget and decrying the multilateral order it represented as antithetical to his “America First” credo. It was, he once tweeted, a “club” for people who wanted to “have a good time”.

As president, however, Trump has found the UN can be a rather useful tool in the pursuit of American interests. He has, admittedly, acted on a campaign pledge to seek deep cuts in US contributions, and his declared intention to withdraw from the Paris climate change accord has left allies rattled. But alongside his counter-productive bluster on North Korea, for example, has come a recognition that the threat posed by Pyongyang can only be countered by winning Chinese and Russian support for punitive measures through the UN security council. That approach is paying dividends: last week the Trump administration won the council’s support for the toughest set of sanctions yet on North Korea. Trump’s debut at the UN has coincided with reports from Washington that the US’s repudiation of the climate accord may not be as definitive as initially flagged. Indeed, his very presence in New York this week (the leaders of China, Russia and Germany are not attending) is in itself an encouraging signal.

While the general assembly is structured around the set-piece speeches in the cavernous hall, the real business happens elsewhere: in the countless bilateral meetings and fleeting exchanges on the fringes of the main event. That’s where US allies will try to influence the inexperienced and impressionable Trump. But his formal remarks will be closely parsed for hints of his thinking on some of the pressing issues facing the world.

Will he tone down his dangerous rhetoric on the Iranian nuclear deal? Can he exert pressure on Beijing to use its influence to rein in the military in Myanmar, where UN secretary general António Guterres has said the government is engaged in a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” in its campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority? Can he specify exactly what he wants in exchange for US support for the climate accord? “He slaps the right people; he hugs the right people,” said the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Halley, who has seen the text of Trump’s speech. That in itself would be a change: as Trump’s dealings with South Korea, Russia, Germany and Japan suggest, he often does the reverse. Trump would make “quite an impact” this week, Halley added. That’s what US allies fear. They would settle for some reassuring words and a clearer sense of what Trumpism will mean for US foreign policy.

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