foreign policy

Donald Trump’s United Nations Balancing Act

Not the most nimble gymnast.
Not the most nimble gymnast. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Trump has a difficult balance to strike this week — both in his speech before the U.N. General Assembly, and the meeting of the security council he will chair — balancing his vision of American nationalism against the need to secure cooperation from allies to fulfill American foreign policy goals. Even before his Supreme Court nomination turned into a national nightmare, President Trump’s overriding goal for his time in New York was to reinforce his standing with his core supporters. He will do it by playing to a fear well-nourished in the right — that the U.N. is coming to replace their cherished local way of life with multicultural global socialist dictatorship, complete with black helicopters and brainwashing.

That is why the White House has been telling everyone who will listen that the theme of the president’s speech Tuesday will be America’s sovereignty — not just everything that happens within its borders, but to its citizens and its economic interests. The 70-plus year history of the United Nations, of course, rests on the idea that nations could use their sovereignty to accept shared norms — everything from rules for sending mail across borders to agreements to ban nuclear tests, child labor, and rape. The size of the U.S. economy and breadth of its military worldwide are simply unimaginable —for better and worse — without a series of deals that surrendered small bits of U.S. sovereignty in exchange for Washington’s ability to exert enormous pressure on other countries.

While American embrace of shared rules has been inconsistent at best, over the decades it inspired Americans and others to make major strides in rights and living standards around the globe — a fact reflected upon by the 30 female foreign ministers who gathered in Canada this weekend to talk about what insights their shared experiences offer.

By contrast, Trump’s bet — and it is a consistent one that has underlain his thinking since the 1970s — is that the commitment to a shared set of rules can be replaced by a series of one-off deals, in which the U.S. gives up less and gets more. The vision he laid out last year, at the U.N. as well as in Warsaw and Southeast Asia, replaces rules-based international institutions with countries cooperating to secure their own sovereignty. It also replaces the international community’s slow progress toward standards that treat people equally, whomever and wherever they are, with the right of a dominant culture to decide for itself who can belong, and what rights minorities have. This is where the domestic racism, nativism, and sexism that the last few years have unleashed in the U.S. meet high international strategy.

But the U.N. is more than just a speech-making forum, and we’ll get to see several examples this week of how the Trump worldview is delivering in practice.

Unlike last year, though, President Trump now has national security aides who know the U.N. well and are pursuing their own ambitions there. His national security adviser John Bolton, who famously served as the unconfirmed ambassador to the U.N. under George W. Bush, appears to view the U.N. as a threat to the U.S. on a par with Russia, China, or Al-Qaeda. When he’s not giving adolescent speeches announcing that the U.N.’s International Criminal Court is “dead to us” — a grotesque comment about a body whose job is to prosecute the most serious mass killings and war crimes — he’s trying to strain every cent of support for Palestine out of the U.S. budget.

Awkwardly, however, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is trying to advance policies on North Korea and Iran that require cooperation from other leading U.N. states. The administration tried to sustain decades of international pressure on Pyongyang while also dialing up its engagement with the North with Trump’s Singapore summit earlier this year. However, Pompeo’s continuing calls for the North to take key denuclearization steps first are now out of sync not just with China, which has returned to allowing trade and much-needed fuel to flow freely across the border, but also with our South Korean allies, who last week called for a statement ending the Korean War in exchange for North Korea’s promise to shut down a nuclear facility in the presence of international experts. Experts across administrations in the U.S. have long preferred to hold any statement, much less a peace treaty, as a prize to be given after the North takes concrete steps to disarm not just facilities but existing weapons.

Some, this columnist among them, once thought this year’s U.N. meetings might provide the backdrop for a second Trump-Kim summit — and Trump this morning told reporters that the announcement of another summit is coming soon. However, what’s on display this week is the growing rapprochement between North and South, and Kim’s efforts to divide Trump from Pompeo and other U.S. officials demanding actual progress on disarmament. It is Kim’s bad luck that the Kavanaugh embarrassment likely means few in the U.S. will notice. But plenty of Asians will observe that being an American ally doesn’t count for what it once did, and that Washington’s vaunted policy apparatus cannot keep up with the thirty30-something leader of a country the size of Mississippi.

Iran is watching the North Korea mess closely. Secretary Pompeo and his Cabinet allies have tried to put together what might have been a standard-issue Iran policy for a Republican administration — toss out the deal negotiated by a Democratic predecessor to freeze and roll back Iran’s nuclear program, reinstate crippling international sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, and demand a “better” agreement that would thwart not only Iran’s nuclear ambitions but its support for extremist groups and its regional ambitions.

This policy has no chance — zero — of working if major oil importers like India and China don’t agree to cut off purchases from Iran. Sanctions that make it difficult to use U.S. currency to buy or sell Iranian goods will go back into effect in November. So originally announced plans for the president to chair a session of the Security Council on Wednesday focused just on Iran made some sense. If, that is, you believed that the president would make a positive, persuasive case that would convince not just leaders but their publics that sacrificing not just cheaper oil but a little bit of national sovereignty to U.S. demands made sense.

The core demand of U.S.’s Iran policy is that major allies and partners sacrifice some of their own sovereignty … while insisting that American sovereignty is inviolable. How and whether Trump can square that circle is the game of the week.

Trump’s Tricky U.N. Balancing Act