The Trump challenge to António Guterres
Soon after Portugal’s António Guterres was picked to succeed Ban Ki-moon as the United Nations Secretary-General, commentary on the major challenges awaiting him was dominated by the Security Council’s paralysis in resolving the Syrian conflict. There was also mention of climate change, North Korea’s nukes, Africa’s wars and the refugee crisis engulfing Europe. Nobody had anticipated then that Mr. Guterres would be presented with a new challenge of a different kind: Donald Trump.
Last week, reacting to the decision by the Obama administration not to veto the resolution condemning Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, a resolution passed 14-0 in the 15-member Security Council with American abstention, a miffed Mr. Trump trashed the UN as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” A not-so-veiled threat followed: “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.” That is when Mr. Trump officially succeeds President Obama as U.S. President.
Mr. Trump’s UN-bashing is nothing new. In March, addressing the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — a campaign rite of passage for American presidential hopefuls — Mr. Trump drew applause for his anti-UN rhetoric. “The United Nations is not a friend of democracy, it’s not a friend of freedom,” he said. “It’s not even a friend to the United States of America where, as you know, it has its home. And it is surely not a friend to Israel.”
Nobody took Mr. Trump’s words seriously then. There were not many who had imagined he would be running the country that contributes the biggest share (22 per cent) of the UN’s regular budget. The UN’s 2016-17 biennium budget is just under $6 billion. Over 28 per cent of its annual peacekeeping budget of nearly $8 billion also comes from the U.S.
Many of Mr. Trump’s campaign pronouncements were at odds with the UN, including climate change, human rights, the Iran deal, the refugee crisis, and the West Asia peace process.
Mr. Trump’s posture favouring Israel against an unanimous resolution supported by Russia, China, France and the U.K. — all permanent members of the Security Council — and every one of the 10 non-permanent members, along with his avowed ‘America First’ stance, strikes at the very heart of multilateralism, the core of the global body’s DNA.
Pulling out of multilateral efforts to battle climate change was among Mr. Trump’s major campaign promises. In his ‘100-day action plan to Make America Great Again’, he vowed to cancel billions in payments to the UN climate change programme. Calling climate change a “hoax invented by the Chinese,” he threatened to cancel the Paris Agreement. There is a loud message in his picking Scott Pruitt, a well-known climate sceptic, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Come January 20, the apparent absence of a clear-cut foreign policy framework in Washington will leave the UN and Mr. Guterres in a quandary. Nikki Haley, Mr. Trump’s choice for ambassador to the UN, is not known as a foreign policy wonk, unlike her predecessor Samantha Power. The nomination of Rex Tillerson, a corporate mogul lacking substantial international political experience, as Secretary of State has already raised the hackles of environmentalists and human rights activists. How can Mr. Guterres ensure that the U.S. doesn’t turn increasingly hostile to the UN?
“Early dialogue with the new President and his Secretary of State, neither of whom has a record of having paid much attention to the UN in the past, is important,” says Shashi Tharoor, who narrowly lost the race for Secretary-General to Mr. Ban in 2006. “Guterres will need to engage with the U.S. early on some major initiative that Washington can see as also being in its interest.”
Reforming the world body
Pre-empting the risk of withholding funding by the U.S. administration, which will render a significant blow to the world body, will be a top priority for Mr. Guterres. Projecting himself from the outset as a reformer of the UN could buy him some brownie points.
He could start with the UN’s peacekeeping, which has been severely tainted by allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers in various countries. Peacekeeping operations are bedevilled by various other ailments. For instance, making the Kenyan Force Commander a scapegoat in the midst of spectacular failure of the UN civilian leadership in South Sudan is something he will need to address deftly. The incident has left the East African nation humiliated, forcing it to retaliate by withdrawing its entire military personnel. Mr. Guterres will need to mollify Kenya to ensure its continued support to resolving conflicts, especially in Africa.
In Liberia, where the peacekeeping operation has been gradually downsizing for some years now, not a single senior civilian official has lost their job. Only junior personnel were forced to take the brunt of nearly 40 per cent of staff cut. Such management fiasco needs to be averted. It’s an open secret that staff recruitment in UN peace operations is often opaque. Often Special Representatives of the Secretary-General, mostly political appointees, interfere in the recruitment of staff to favour their pet candidates, leaving many a principled and dedicated staff demoralised. Mr. Guterres will need to demand greater accountability and integrity from his special representatives and deputies in the field.
Mr. Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin, deepened by the latter’s decision not to go for a tit-for-tat retaliation against President Obama’s recent expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. for alleged cyber interference to influence the U.S. presidential election, should offer Mr. Guterres a useful tool, especially since he has worked closely in the past with Sergey Lavrov, current foreign minister and former Russian ambassador to the UN.
The overall picture, however, is challenging. With unprecedented gloom enveloping the planet, the job of the UN Secretary-General has today become even more difficult than ever before. Whether Mr. Trump could make it an impossible job is anybody’s guess.
E.D. Mathew is a former Spokesperson with the United Nations.