The United Nations might be over the Trump show this year.
Or at least it’s looking that way ahead of the 74th United Nations General Assembly. The annual meeting kicks off the new session of the United Nations, stuffing leaders and dignitaries from around the world into the organization’s headquarters in New York City.
This year, the week-long event starts with two high-level meetings. One is on climate change. The other will cover universal health care. So two things that Trump wants nothing to do with.
It’s quite the symbol of just how much the Trump administration has isolated the United States.
It’s also a sign that, at least in the forum of the United Nations, Trump isn’t exactly reshaping the agenda. Previous US administrations have had an awkward relationship with the UN, but few have been so blunt in their disdain for multilateral institutions, or so open about their pro-sovereignty, nationalistic message.
But Trump’s “America First” program is ceasing to create the controversy it once did. The rest of the world knows his script. It’s simply moving on.
There’s a recognition, said Stewart Patrick, a fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations, that the world has “taken the measures of the man at this stage. There is no real surprise.”
And that’s left Trump the odd man out — still a somewhat weird place for an American president to be.
Trump’s role may be diminished but he’ll still be hard to totally ignore
That doesn’t mean Trump will be totally sidelined next week. He’ll still be, as is tradition, addressing the General Assembly on September 24.
Last year, Trump reiterated his isolationist message, along with some of the major national security threats — Iran, North Korea — that the US faces. It seems very likely that Trump will use this platform to call out Iran — specifically the recent bombing of the Saudi oil facilities, which the Trump administration has alleged Iran orchestrated.
The question is whether the rest of the world will listen. US allies largely blame the Trump administration for the escalating tensions with Iran. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at a Wednesday press conference that the General Assembly is “a moment to cool tensions,” and that nowhere is that “more important than in the Persian Gulf.”
Trump will also host a Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom event on Monday — essentially counterprogramming. The agenda is pretty broad right now: A White House press release said Trump “will call on the international community to take concrete steps to prevent attacks against people on the basis of their religion or belief.”
Still, religious freedom could be a theme that Trump embraces this week. That could actually be a positive development: a way for Trump to work with, rather than against, the UN.
For example, there are some reports that the Trump administration might formally call out China for human rights abuses and detainment of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority, at the UN, possibly during his General Assembly speech. That would be pretty remarkable — especially as Trump himself has shied away from taking a tough stance on China’s human rights violations as he tries to negotiate his trade deal. (Others in his administration, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have been more forceful.)
At the same time, Foreign Policy reported that Trump was trying to team up with conservative governments to push back on reproductive rights language at the universal health care summit. And at least domestically, the Trump administration has used “religious freedom” to push back on LGBTQ rights. So it’s still a bit of a wild card what will come out of his meeting: a genuine commitment to religious freedom for all or something more agenda-driven.
The Trump administration may be skeptical of the United Nations, but the president himself usually enjoys the scene in Turtle Bay: He gets to be the center of attention, he gets to hobnob with world leaders, and he gets to sleep at home in New York.
He may be less of a focus this year, but again, it’s sort of relative. Even Trump’s absence from meaningful discussions on climate change, for example, is a reminder of who the US president is and what his mission is.
And Trump will get to schmooze with dignitaries, although some of his favorites — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman — won’t be attending this year. But some of his new pals, like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, are expected to be present.
There have been a few bilateral meetings confirmed, including with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which is definitely going to be interesting now.
Climate change will dominate the agenda — and a few other things to watch for next week
Ahead of the United Nations General Assembly next week, people all over the world are going on strike to demand leaders respond to climate change, led by teen activist Greta Thunberg.
This momentum is intended to call attention to the climate emergency and force countries to make concrete commitments to meeting the obligations of the 2015 Paris Climate Accords. The high-level meeting on climate change is intended to be a forum for countries to show exactly what they are doing to cut back on emissions and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, an extraordinarily ambitious goal.
Guterres said Wednesday he wanted to showcase the United Nations as a “center for solutions.
“Let’s face it: we have no time to lose,” Guterres said. “We are losing the race against climate change.”
This has the potential to offer a pretty serious discussion on the challenges of a warming climate. The protests that preceded the summit are giving the event a sense of urgency that United Nations meetings don’t often have.
But collective action will be hard when major countries — like the United States and Brazil — will be sitting on the sidelines. The US is expected to send representatives but it’s not expected to offer proposals to the climate change meeting.
And even though it’s going to be weird for the US, it’s going to be even more awkward for Brazil. After a summer of the Amazon burning, Bolsonaro is expected to give his own take on his country’s environmental policies, and many are expecting a dose of Trumpian nationalism.
Brazil always speaks first at the United Nations General Assembly (back in the early days of the UN no country wanted to go first and Brazil would always offer, so the country always gets that spot now), so Bolsonaro could really kick off the General Debate with controversy.
Bolsonaro is likely the leader to watch this year, given the Amazon disasters this summer and his feud with G7 leaders over the fate of the country’s rainforests. And this will be his first real debut at the UN.
Also having his debut, at least as prime minister, will be Boris Johnson. The UK leader is expected to attend as he deals with the political chaos of Brexit at home and a standstill with European leaders over a revised Brexit deal. Johnson is expected to meet with European leaders on the sidelines of the UN, though it seems doubtful there will be a breakthrough in Manhattan.
And finally, there’s Kelly Craft, the new United States ambassador to the United Nations. Craft was confirmed in July and just sworn in earlier this month, so she’s only had a few weeks to settle in before the diplomatic equivalent of the Super Bowl kicks off. And, as Martin Edwards, a professor of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall, put it, she’s basically an “untested quarterback.”
Craft’s qualifications for the UN job are still in question, too. She served as the US ambassador to Canada but got the post mostly because she was a big GOP donor. How she navigates her first General Assembly will likely reveal a lot about where she stands in the Trump administration — which other countries will be watching to see, as they’ll have to work with her once the cameras turn away and the world leaders all head home.