Trump and some of his advisors ascribe to the “America First” camp of Republican foreign policy that takes a non-interventionist, anti-globalist stance
Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | January 20, 2017 | Geneva
The inevitable has happened albeit a tad sooner than expected. US president-elect Donald Trump has clashed with the UN even before he has assumed office promising that “things will be different” after he takes over. The casus belli was a Security Council (SC) resolution on Israel – though the Jewish nation’s stand on Palestine has always been contentious ground between the UN and the US.
For the first time in 36 years, the UNSC passed an Egypt-initiated resolution on December 23 last year that is critical of Israel’s rapid increase of settlements in Palestinian territory with 14 members of the council voting in favour of the resolution and one abstention. The Obama administration created history by abstaining from voting on the resolution that criticises its long-term ally.
“The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transitional period… Today the Security Council reaffirmed its established consensus that settlements have no legal validity,” said Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN in New York, after she raised her hand high in an abstention vote.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expectedly, severely criticised the US decision to abstain, indicating that he pinned his hopes for more positive outcomes on president-elect Trump.
There were a series of ominous tweets by Trump thereafter. Trump asked Israel to “stay strong” after the UNSC session as “January 20th is fast approaching!” In another tweet, he said: “The big loss ... for Israel in the United Nations will make it much harder to negotiate peace.” “Too bad, but we will get it done anyway!”
Trump has also reportedly promised to move the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv reversing decades of US policy on the issue.
Another tweet stated: “The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”
“After January 20th things will be different at the UN,” Trump warned.
A fleeting and rare show of unity on the Israel-Palestine conflict at the UN will surely be deluged by a much more confrontational posture after the billionaire businessman takes over.
The Israel resolution is not the first time that Trump has shown his distaste for the global body and its work. He was candid about it even during the presidential election campaign.
Further back in history, Trump had made a pitch to the then UN secretary-general (UNSG) Kofi Annan to fix the UN headquarters building on the East River in Manhattan, New York, for a much lower price than what the UN said it would cost. “I could do it for $500 million, what they’re going to spend $1.6 billion for. The only difference is my job would be better,” the real estate mogul had said in an interview to ABCNEWS.com. “I hope they’re able to get away from the bureaucrats that are trying to get rich getting this job built,” Trump had added.
A transactional relationship
However, it is not just Trump but many Republicans in general who have pooh-poohed the legitimacy of the work done at the UN.
The US Congress has passed a resolution with a 342-to-80 vote earlier this month that called for the repealing of the UNSC’s resolution that condemned Israeli settlements. As reported by the Washington Post, “several senators want to go a step further, and take the Security Council vote as a cue to start partially defunding the United Nations and withholding foreign aid from countries that supported the resolution”.
Before the resolution was passed, Lindsey O Graham, the American senator who chairs the appropriation committee, had warned that if the resolution against Israel was passed then he would work to “suspend or significantly reduce United States assistance to the United Nations”. Similarly, John McCain, another American senator, had indicated that the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) might be a good place to start defunding the UN. Such calls of stanching US funds have only grown since December 23.
Trump and some of his advisors ascribe to the “America First” camp of Republican foreign policy that takes a non-interventionist, anti-globalist stance. The views range from perceiving the UN as inimical to US interests to the UN being an intermittently-convenient body to further US interests.
While most nations have a transactional relationship with the UN – thumping its back when aligned with their objectives and crying foul when pulled up for violations – the US’ transactional proceeds have the most far-reaching implications given the fact that it is the single-largest funder of the UN and that it holds a permanent seat at the UNSC.
So while the George Bush administration had decided not to join the UNHRC (it was Obama who reversed this policy and sought a seat at the premier global rights body), it had engaged with the UN when it served US interests. Though Trump may end up using a similar approach, Washington in the next four years may have a much more confrontational approach to the international body than what has been seen in prior Republican regimes.
The perpetual threat associated with US disengagement from UN diplomacy is the possibility of the cutting off of American funds from the already cash-strapped multilateral body.
Washington pays for about one-fourth of the UN budget for its peacekeeping missions and is the largest contributor to its core funds for bureaucratic functioning apart from paying a huge amount for relief operations.
Graham, before the Israel resolution vote, had said that the issue could “create a backlash in Congress against the United Nations” and
could bring back the American practice followed in the 80s and the 90s of non-payment of US dues.
The UN may have to withdraw peacekeepers from areas of active conflict in case of a shrinking of US funds – currently the US chips in just under 29 percent of the peacekeeping budget (a total of $8 billion). The Obama government had waived the rule of capping the outer limit of contribution to the blue helmet budget at 25 percent but it may well be reinstated.
The US in 2016 has been the biggest donor to the UN Refugee Agency paying about $1.1 billion more than the EU and the German ($400 million each) contributions. China contributed only 0.002 percent of the American contribution towards refugee work.
The UN last year launched a record aid appeal of $22.2 billion for 2017. The effects of the refugee crisis and extant conflicts will reverberate through the current year implying that budget needs will not decrease any time soon. Like for NATO, Trump has asked other nations to contribute more towards UN bills. A reduction of American funding will spell disaster for many of these humanitarian issues that confront the world today. Moreover, future funding for UN development programmes could be conditional subject to how nations vote in UN resolutions – the threat has already been openly made by Graham vis-à-vis the UNSC resolution on Israel.
These possibilities stand in glaring contrast with Obama’s active engagement with the UN and his committed stance on multilateralism. Unlike Bush who bypassed the UNSC on Iraq, Obama worked through the council for tightening sanctions against North Korea and Iran before the P5+1 nuclear deal was brokered.
“He also pushed back on Congressional efforts to restrict UN funding, cleared US arrears, took the lead on strengthening UN peacekeeping, and sought – and won – for the first time a US seat on the Human Rights Council,” writes the Newsweek.
UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein already has had a few run-ins with the US president-elect. Zeid reprimanded Trump for many of his statements made during the presidential campaign; he had also warned against the Trump presidency.
In a hard-hitting statement made in The Hague in September last year, the UN human rights chief compared some of the strategies used by right-wingers, including Trump, to those used by Da’esh to mobilise people.
“And yet what Mr [Geert] Wilders shares in common with Mr Trump, Mr [Viktor] Orban, Mr [Miloš] Zeman, Mr [Norbert] Hofer, Mr [Robert] Fico, Madame [Marine] Le Pen, Mr [Nigel] Farage, he also shares with Da’esh,” Zeid had said.
Trump is unlikely to bury the hatchet with the top UN official any time soon.
Even if Zeid had not issued statements against Trump, the human rights’ body and various other UN agencies may have anyway become soft targets for the new US administration given the stand of some elected officials’ on issues like abortion, rights of LGBT and women. The appointment of Mike Pompeo as CIA head has raised concerns at the world body with Pompeo being a supporter of torture methods. Trump, during his election trail, had promised to bring back waterboarding, a banned torture method previously used by CIA interrogators, as well as allow other practices that he called “a hell of a lot worse”.
Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general and Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, has been a long-time climate skeptic. One of Trump’s many promises during the campaign was to withdraw from the Paris climate change deal in case he won.
Steven Groves, a conservative who is part of Trump’s transition team, said last month that abandoning the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) would be the “most practical” way for the US to drop its climate change commitments. This would seriously undermine global efforts to tackle climate change and also undercut the credibility of the multilateral system to address other global problems. A US repudiation of the Paris agreement may set off a ripple effect with other big polluters withdrawing from the deal and thereby also threatening multilateral cooperation in other areas.
The US administration could also withhold funds from the UN’s Green Climate Fund (GCF) which would evoke strong reactions from countries like India who have signed the Paris agreement on the assurance of support for mitigation, adaptation and technology transfer. The GCF is a commitment to provide long-term financial support by industrialised countries, with funds rising to $100 billion per year by 2020, to support concrete mitigation actions by developing countries. The slow trickle of funds is already a contentious issue in climate change negotiating rooms.
The US-Russia relations will, in all probability, become warmer in the coming days with a smoother functioning of the security council. Trump and Russia may agree to keep Bashar al-Assad as the president viewing him as the lesser evil than ISIS in Syria. This may lead to some sort of resolution to the protracted crisis that has claimed more than 4,00,000 lives and has triggered a huge refugee crisis.
The America Firsters’ distaste for getting muddled in international conflicts will likely be welcomed by Russia and China. It may, however, see a weakening of the strength of the western bloc – the US, the UK and France – vis-à-vis pet rallying calls around issues like human rights, peacekeeping and democracy promotion.
The possible partial US disengagement will leave a vacuum that none of the other UNSC members may be able to fill immediately. Though China has stepped up its investment in the UN in recent years, including by sending more boots-on-the-ground for peacekeeping missions, playing an important role in the Paris climate deal as well as increasing its humanitarian aid, it is still a far smaller player than the US in terms of its financial contribution.
To add to the unpredictable situation, the UN is undergoing its own transition with the new secretary-general, Antonio Guterres assuming office this month. A former prime minister of Portugal, a former UN Refugee Agency chief and a skilled negotiator in global forums, Guterres is highly qualified to head the world body. However, the challenges that he faces – from shrinking funds, a disengaged US, a huge refugee crisis, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria and so on – are huge. Guterres has to come up with innovative ideas on keep Trump productively engaged in multilateral diplomacy.
As the old Chinese curse has it: May you live in interesting times. We seem to be living the curse.
(The article appears in the January 16-31, 2017 issue)
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