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Will the US leave the United Nations?

A former adviser to the eighth UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warns that Donald Trump’s attitude to the organisation puts it in an existential crisis.

In a decision that has caused utter consternation at UN Headquarters in New York and in capitals across the world, The Trump administration is reportedly preparing executive orders that would clear the way for drastically reducing the United States’ role in the United Nations with a threatened budget cut of 40 per cent.

This comes only weeks after António Guterres, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations began his term in office in early January, and just weeks before Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th US President. Both, in theory at least, have a four-year term, which may be renewed. They have something else in common too – large rooms with shared views. The Secretary-General’s 38th-floor dining room at UN Headquarters has a panoramic view of Turtle Bay in mid-town Manhattan – including the huge black stump that is the Trump Tower.

But that is where any similarities stop, for this US President has a world view that is at best naïve and at worst, plain ignorant. It is one in which the United Nations barely has a walk-on part. Guterres, on the other hand, has a wealth of international experience, having spent a record ten years as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

His close supporters back home still joke that he did not become President of the European Commission, a role taken by a fellow Portuguese politician, José Manuel Durão Barroso. But fate has decreed that he has assumed a far more important position and at an utterly crucial time for the United Nations, when multi-lateralism is set to be challenged by a new American exceptionalism, which could severely challenge the UN’s ability to carry out its peace-keeping functions.

Many believe that Guterres and Trump the Democrat supporter-turned-populist Republican are now set on a collision course with potentially deep ramifications for the United Nations and ultimately, world peace.

The Paris Climate Agreement and Trump’s deep hostility towards the nuclear treaty with Iran have been cited as potential fault lines. Steven Groves, a conservative lawyer who was part of Donald Trump’s transition team, has said that the US should completely quit the United Nations forum to tackle climate change in order to quickly exit the Paris climate agreement, although Trump has himself said that he is “open-minded” about the human effect on climate change.

Another very real and almost immediate potential flashpoint lies in the Middle East. Trump’s appointment of an ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who opposes the two state solution advocated by the UN, supports illegal Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and who has said that he looked forward to working “from the US Embassy in Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem”, is potentially incendiary.

Not only would such a move be a direct contravention of international law, it would constitute the most direct threat to the authority of the United Nations. Many believe that another ferocious Palestinian Intifada would follow.

However, if the US and the UN should come to blows, this will not be a fight of Guterres’ making. The latter is a wily diplomat, who will be doing his level best to achieve a working relationship with a president who appears to react well to flattery and badly to personal criticism. Guterres was a popular figure in his own country precisely because he possesses attributes of consensus-building, diplomacy and empathy. His government was known for its inclusivity. Less known was Guterres’ habit of appearing incognito, in listening mode, among the homeless and down-and-out in Lisbon.

The United Nations has been a perennial bugbear for the Republican Party. For some, historically the organisation represents a conspiracy to secure “world government” by “globalists”. For others, its propensity to offer the occasional stricture to the Israeli government, while offering a platform to those member states America sees as sworn enemies has long put it beyond the pale.

The Reagan government and Bush governments held back on payments to the UN and froze them altogether to those agencies that really earned their disapproval. For Donald Trump though, at least until recently, the UN fleetingly represented a business opportunity. Except that mysteriously back in 2008 he never got around to submitting an actual bid for a contract to renovate the building, despite raging  – having learned that the contract had gone for $1bn to a rival – that: “It’s a total disgrace. It should take 18 months. It shouldn’t cost more than $750m.”

In December 2016, Donald Trump tweeted that the UN has “such great potential”, but it has become “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”

A couple of days later he tweeted again: “As to the UN, things will be different after Jan 20th.” Just how different that might yet be became apparent in another tweet that defied any rudimentary grasp of reality: “We will also cancel billions in global warming payments to the United Nations, and use that money to support America’s vital environmental infrastructure and natural resources.”

To be fair, Trump has since announced that he has an “open mind” over climate change. Edward Mortimer, who served as Director of Communications to Kofi Annan believes that: “Trump does seem magnificently ignorant of almost all international affairs, including almost certainly basic facts about the UN such as how little it costs and the many ways in which it serves US interests, as all his predecessors of both parties have found.”

Barely a fortnight ago, Senator Ted Cruz (a former Republican presidential nominee) and Senator Lindsey Graham began moves to completely collapse US funding for the UN. They introduced a bill to defund the United Nations. This followed in the wake of increasingly inflammatory threats from a variety of Republican lawmakers, who see the Trump presidency as the best opportunity to “jack-hammer the UN into the East River”, to quote another former Presidential nominee, Mike Huckabee.

Now it is becoming clear that moves to de-fund the United Nations are coming from the very top. Since the United States provides significant funding to the UN’s indispensable humanitarian assistance network, vital programmes could be slashed and assistance gutted if the legislation passes. This would include the World Food Programme’s work to feed those dying from starvation; Unicef’s extensive child vaccination program, and the UN Refugee Agency’s sheltering of those fleeing from war. In addition, this executive order would cripple the UN’s 16 peacekeeping missions, which play a vital stabilisation role to millions caught in conflict.

It may currently have a slim chance of being enacted, but there can be no doubting the direction of travel. The new UN Secretary-General of the United Nations will need all of the support he can command as the organisation faces what is beginning to look like an existential crisis.

Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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