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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.

By Mark Seddon

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.

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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.

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