When world leaders gather at the United Nations General Assembly in New York every fall, there’s usually a pressing global crisis that sits atop nearly everyone’s agenda. In recent years, issues like the explosive growth of refugees worldwide or addressing climate change have served as major themes that pull the conference together.
But this year, the big, daunting challenge that looms over the gathering is actually one of the leaders themselves: President Donald Trump.
Trump has already proven himself to be a huge skeptic of the UN. In the past, he’s slammed it as an “underperformer” and “a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” And he has proposed steep cuts to US funding for the UN that the UN has said would “simply make it impossible” for it to maintain its essential operations. The US is the biggest financial contributor to the UN in the world and its most important player when it comes to decision-making on issues ranging from food aid to peacekeeping to nuclear nonproliferation.
So now all eyes are on Trump, who will host a meeting of world leaders on UN reform on Monday and be one of the first speakers to kick off the conference’s general debate speeches next Tuesday. Will Trump behave like past American presidents have and speak in measured tones about the need for global cooperation on various fronts? Or will he try to break things — degrade the UN, issue threats to other countries, and propose actions that suggest the US wants to go it alone on issues like reining in North Korea?
“Our close allies and partners are worried about a repeat of the general tenor from his inaugural speech — a tenor that signals additional American retreat on the leadership role we’ve played for decades,” Rob Berschinski, senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First and a former senior adviser to Obama-era UN Ambassador Samantha Power, told me.
There are already signs that Trump will display his America First colors at UNGA this year — reports indicate that the administration is reducing the size of the American entourage by a considerable number. Analysts say that with fewer high-level US diplomats at the summit, multilateral and bilateral meetings won’t carry the same weight; without US sign-off on key initiatives, they just won’t matter as much. But at the same time, the absence of the US will also leave a vacuum for other ambitious countries like China to step into a leadership role.
In other words, if Trump wants to shun the UN in a bid to strengthen American power, it could backfire.
Trump has decided to hang out at his golf resort during UNGA
There are two major things about Trump’s presence at UNGA this year that depart from convention and signal a more nationalistic attitude toward the summit.
First, Trump is expected to stay at his New Jersey golf club for the duration of the conference and may host world leaders there as well. The State Department is preparing for a number of meetings with foreign leaders at the resort next week, according to an August report by the Washington Post. The White House did not respond to Vox’s request for comment.
That’s a striking break from tradition, in which the US president stays at a hotel in New York along with most the other leaders of the world. For decades, presidents have stayed at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, although Obama shifted to the Lotte New York Palace beginning in 2015 due to security concerns.
But this year, it looks likely that world leaders will be shuttling down to New Jersey to meet with Trump on his home turf. “It’s just another example of how it’s about Trump,” Ted Piccone, a senior fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, told me. While he added that “it’s relatively insignificant in the scheme of things,” he said it does send a bit of a message.
What’s that message? Trump likes to do things his own way, even in settings that are explicitly designed to highlight the importance of cooperation and compromise. It echoes the kind of vulgar self-importance that Trump displayed when he famously pushed aside Duško Marković, the prime minister of Montenegro, to move to the front of a pack of leaders at the NATO summit in May.
And the fact that Trump stands to profit financially from political meetings with foreign leaders — his company makes money from their stays at his properties, and the venues get free advertising in press reports — “smacks of corruption,” Berschinski notes. While we’ve quickly gotten used to Trump making use of his properties for important political meetings, it won’t escape the notice of leaders and diplomats from abroad, especially those who may not have had the opportunity to meet him before.
Second, the administration’s delegation at UNGA is going to be much smaller than usual. While the US government usually sends more than 1,000 people to the meeting, that number could shrink by several hundred, according to a report by Politico. Politico’s State Department sources said that there will be strict limits on how many deputy assistant secretaries are allowed to stay in New York at a time, and that the goal is for the US to leave a “toe-print, not a footprint,” at UNGA this year.
That big reduction has analysts worried that UNGA meetings won’t be able to deliver the usual amount of meaningful results.
A smaller American presence will make UNGA — and the US — weaker
In addition to UNGA’s signature general debate, during which world leaders take turns sharing their visions with the world in 20-minute speeches, the September session at UNGA is also about multilateral and bilateral meetings between the world’s countries to discuss solutions to a wide range of pressing issues.
Some of those meetings are about classic UN issues like peacekeeping in conflict-ravaged countries in sub-Saharan Africa or tackling famine. But they’re also an opportunity for countries to try to make quick progress on issues of general importance that have little to do with UN proceedings, like trade.
“I do think that sends a signal that is a worrisome one from the perspective of all the challenges and crises around the world,” Sheba Crocker, the former assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs under the Obama administration, told me. “There’s a lot to take on, and the US has historically played a very important role in leading the agenda and leading the conversation in trying to make progress on these crises.”
Since the US is always the biggest player in the room on any decision, the decreased presence of high-level US officials will make meetings less consequential. If the US either fails to send an official or only sends a very junior-level official to a meeting about, say, Syrian refugees, then that meeting won’t have the same authority it would if there were a much higher-ranking official in attendance.
Piccone says that in a lot of the multilateral meetings the US is expected to chair, “it’s not clear who will be in the seat for the US — if it is someone with a high enough rank who can actually seriously convey what the US position is.”
For instance, says Berschinski, “There will be talk about the Iran nuclear deal — are the experts from the State Department going to be in the room?”
The absence of high-ranking American officials will also create a power vacuum at meetings throughout the week. That means other influential countries will have an opportunity to step into that space, claim the title of leader themselves, and play a bigger role in shaping international agreements in a way that best suits their interests.
And many of those countries, like Russia and China, don’t share US interests.
Trump could set off some major fireworks with his speech
It’s difficult to predict what Trump will say during his general debate speech, which could touch on many topics ranging from criticism of the UN to security in the Middle East. It’s possible that he’ll deliver a fairly straightforward speech and sound perhaps just a little edgier than some of his predecessors on issues like UN funding.
That’s what Brett Schaefer, a UN expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, predicts is the likely scenario. In a recent article in the National Interest, he argues that Trump can distinguish between carefree rallies and more serious venues — and that Trump would likely consider UNGA to be the latter. He says the president is likely to deliver a “serious and disciplined speech” because Trump thinks the US has real things to gain from rallying support for his own initiatives before that audience, like ratcheting up pressure on North Korea.
But Trump has a way of surprising everyone when he’s expected to be buttoned-up and hew to tradition. Consider, for example, how Trump shocked some of his closest advisers when he refused to back the principle of collective defense in NATO during a speech at the military alliance’s headquarters in May. Everybody thought this was when Trump was going to act like a professional and finally fall in line with decades-long conventions of Western security allegiances. Instead, we saw freewheeling, America First Trump come out in full force and turn his back on the US’s closest military partners.
So I asked experts which issues they think Trump is most likely to cause a stir on with his UNGA speech.
North Korea is one of them. The country has been testing ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs at a breakneck pace in recent months, and the international community has been scrambling to find ways to slow it down. On Monday, the UN Security Council passed a new round of sanctions on North Korea that, among other things, bans the purchase of its textile exports and slashes the amount of fuel going into the country.
But Trump could use his UNGA speech to signal that he’s tired of having to win over China and Russia on those sanctions and wants to pursue a more unilateral approach. Both those countries have an interest in keeping North Korea stable and have pushed for sanctions against the country to remain fairly modest up to this point for that reason.
Trump could then, for example, announce that he plans to slap sanctions on or cease trade with any country in the world for doing any business with North Korea, something he’s hinted at before.
“If he signals a US go-it-alone approach, I think that would be very disruptive,” Piccone said about Trump’s potential rhetoric on North Korea.
Trump could also cause uproar among key partners by attacking the Iran nuclear deal. “If the president criticizes Iran or [the Iran nuclear deal], he would ruffle some feathers. If he said he would approach the UN Security Council about Iran’s violation of it, that would cause even more kerfuffle,” Schaefer told me.
That would anger the US’s partners in the Iran deal — the UK, France, Germany, China, and Russia — who believe Iran is complying with the terms of the contract and have no interest in walking away from it. And as the global community struggles to find a way to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, they’re likely to worry that the US reneging on the Iran deal will make Pyongyang even less open to negotiations over suspending its nuclear program.
UN reform is another issue where Trump could cause trouble. Trump, like many presidents before him, has argued that the UN needs to reform itself to make more efficient use of its funds. But unlike presidents before him, Trump tends to use bombastic threats to try to achieve his objectives; if he does that with UN funding, things could get messy very quickly.
Analysts say Trump could, for instance, threaten that if a certain number of countries don’t increase their funding by some enormous and unrealistic percentage, then the US will cut off contributions to UN peacekeeping.
That would provoke chaos and fear at the UN about the future of the organization. But ironically, insofar as Trump isn’t good at sticking to his biggest threats, it could also backfire: By making a big, impossible demand of UN members, Trump might end up persuading them to do less than with a more nuanced and measured request.
It is ultimately possible that Trump will cause little drama and won’t end up the centerpiece of every conversation during UNGA week. In fact, that might be the most surprising possible outcome for the summit.