It was a casual, throwaway remark that gave the first hint of Donald Trump’s take on the United Nations since he became president-elect. The UN was virtually unmentioned in the 2016 election campaign, but he is making up for that now. “The United Nations has such great potential,” he tweeted the day after Christmas in another signal of how he intends to conduct foreign policy, “but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad.”
The stunning and dismissive insult is circulating around the world, not only in UN offices but also in foreign ministries and international media. It adds to the mounting apprehension and palpable fear of what is to come from what could be the most hostile government in Washington that the UN has ever faced, in both the White House and in a right-wing Republican-led Congress itching to diminish the role of the organization and bankrupt many of its programs and services.
Trump’s appointed national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, one of several generals now in positions of influence, was forced to from his job as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency because of his management style; he was described by some who knew him as “disruptive” and strongly opinionated. He has already flaunted one of his peeves about the UN. A visceral anti-Muslim religious bigot who apparently doubts that Islam is even a religion, he retweeted an accusation from social media last year that the UN’s new global-development policies would ultimately lead to the banning of Christianity. In leaked e-mails that Colin Powell has acknowledged were authentic, he called Flynn a “jerk” and “nutty.”
Spurred on by this ethos fostered by Trump, critics of organizations such as UNESCO and the US Fund for UNICEF are targeting them in online misinformation, forcing them to refute the stories publicly.
Suspicion is growing that Flynn may be behind Trump’s attacks on US intelligence agencies because of a grudge against James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, whom he apparently blamed for being behind his abrupt departure from the Defense Department.
The incoming chief White House strategist and senior counselor will be Stephen Bannon, the former executive chairman of the Breitbart News Network and the website Breitbart News, which has been variously described as indulging in white-supremacist, anti-foreign, and anti–multicultural propaganda. He would not likely become a defender of the UN.
Bannon, one of a number of Trump appointees who are alumni of Goldman Sachs, which Trump once loudly reviled as a candidate, brought Trump’s election campaign strategy to a very low level of civility well beyond the bounds of diplomacy. Kellyanne Conway, the Trump campaign manager, who will be a senior adviser in the White House, has lost all credibility among most commentators knowledgeable about the UN and international affairs for her blanket defense of Trump’s offensive tweets and uninformed policy pronouncements.
The loyal, parrot-like Trump transition staff, and the powerful Trump family, add to the confusion in UN offices and diplomatic missions in New York about what, exactly, to expect from Washington in 2017. UN officials have said they see no coherent foreign policy articulated by Trump, who has not held a news conference since last July and has missed most national-security briefings after his election. The UN Secretariat has not found a normal foreign-policy transition team with which officials could connect and communicate as the UN has done in past US government changes. “Franky, we don’t know who to talk to,” one prominent UN official said.
The public face of the United States at the UN will be that of the 44-year-old governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who has no international policy experience. She swept into office on a Tea Party wave in 2010. Thought she had been critical of Trump earlier, she met the criteria for the president-elect’s team, adding a woman and a minority to the mostly white roster of appointees. Haley’s parents are immigrants from India who became successful businesspeople in South Carolina. Her appointment will serve Trump in another way also: Her lieutenant governor, Henry McMaster, who will take over the governor’s office, is a strong conservative closer to Trump.
Nancy Soderberg, an American national-security specialist and diplomat of ambassadorial rank, served in the US mission to the UN in the late 1990s, mostly in the Security Council, after four years as deputy assistant to the president for national security in Bill Clinton’s administration. She does not downplay the chances of success for Haley, despite the huge gap in their experiences and knowledge of the UN.
“Anybody who’s a governor has got the skills to succeed in that job,” Soderberg said. “She doesn’t know much about foreign policy, but they said that about Clinton, too. She’s not steeped in the issues. My guess is that she’s perfectly qualified to do that job if she hires some good people around her.”
“Haley has a strong record of combating racism and intolerance, speaking out strongly after the murder of nine African Americans in a Charleston church [by Dylann Roof] and leading the efforts to get rid of the Confederate flag. The question now is whether Trump will give her authority to represent her principled views on a global stage,” Soderberg added. “What policies is she going to be asked to implement? Nobody knows the answer to that. The early indications are that she’s going to end up taking stances that are hugely unpopular in the UN.”
In Soderberg’s view it was “bizarre” for an incoming president to pick an ambassador to the UN before choosing a secretary of state. “You look at the team first,” she said, mentioning State Department and intelligence officials, among others, who would be involved in guiding or advising on policy.
Soderberg—who was vice president of the International Crisis Group and head of its New York office from 2001 to 2005 and is now a distinguished visiting scholar at the University of North Florida and director of its public-service-leadership program—lists the potential challenges Trump poses for Haley.
“He calls climate change a hoax,” she said. “He has talked of canceling US participation in a global climate-change agreement and been sharply critical of the Iran nuclear deal, which was endorsed by the Security Council.”
The UN system’s support for legal and safe abortion will be an excuse to cut off contributions to the UN Population Fund, harking back to the policies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. If Trump reinstates the ban on funds for any organization anywhere in the world that so much as discusses or counsels on abortion or liberalized family-planning choices more generally, “he will be putting domestic politics ahead of women’s rights,” Soderberg said.
As much as for millions of Americans, the unexpected election success of Trump came as a cruel shock for the UN, after years of positive engagement and support from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who advanced dialogue and cooperation within the organization on critical issues, including climate change, and led the Human Rights Council in promoting the rights of women and LGBT people globally. Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, were able to work well together within the Security Council framework to secure the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, among other critical moves. It is not clear, but possible, that Trump will prefer to work directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin outside the UN.
Trump’s emergence and the disruption it could cause may also undermine some staff hopes for a happier, more positive UN work atmosphere. There was a sense of relief after the secretive Ban Ki-moon administration moved into its final year, which was marked by a relatively smooth, more democratic transition to a new UN secretary general, António Guterres, who began work on January 3 with a warm “meet and greet” with an anxious UN staff.
Guterres, a democratic socialist and former prime minister of Portugal, most recently served for a decade as UN high commissioner for refugees, leading the UN’s most stressed agency. UNHCR is struggling to save the lives and meet the basic needs of more than 65 million displaced people on the run. Ten million of them are stateless. Many of them will want to settle in the West as asylum seekers and immigrants. Enough said.
As a New Yorker, Trump is not an unfamiliar character around the United Nations. A little over a decade ago, when the organization was completing plans to renovate UN headquarters, the braggart businessman turned up in the office of Secretary General Kofi Annan to tell him that the UN’s projections would cost too much, and that he could offer a better deal. Invited to submit a required bid, Trump walked out and never followed through, according to someone who was in the room. Badgering, not bidding, was always his style.
In Congress threats to “punish the UN” have been mounting since the Obama administration abstained on December 23 in a Security Council vote on the resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity on Palestinian land in West Bank and East Jerusalem. The resolution passed 14-0, with all the other four powerful permanent members—Britain, China, France, and Russia voting for it. Trump, forgetting the rule about one president at a time, had demanded an American veto.
The problem for the punishment posse is that nobody on the Security Council is a UN official, so there is a disconnect in the logic of threatening the UN as an institution for action taken by sovereign member governments. But that won’t deter those on Capitol Hill determined to cut American dues and contributions to the organization, or among voters willing to believe any story, however short of the truth it falls.
“The United Nations will regret this vote,” warned Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who has begun to work on legislation to defund the UN. The House of Representatives has already passed a resolution (January 5) condemning the UN and the Obama administration’s abstention on the UN Security Council vote critical of Israeli settlements. In late December, Graham told CNN: “If you can’t show the American people that international organizations can be more responsible, there is going to be a break, and I am going to lead that break.”
There is a lot to lose. By any measure, the United States—and the American people—are the largest contributors to the UN system and its many activities around the world. In 2016, the United States was assessed 22 percent of the organization’s regular budget, while China was billed roughly 8 percent and Russia, 3 percent. Assessments for the peacekeeping budget for 2016–18 were calculated at 28 percent for the United States, 6 percent for China and 3 percent for Russia. These assessments—dues based on treaty obligations—are only part of the hundreds of millions of dollars that go to special appeals, UN agencies outside the Secretariat, and other forms of contributions.
While Trump promises that “things will be different after Jan. 20th” at the UN, his power will initially be limited largely to two strategies: first, playing the wrecker in the 15-member Security Council by bullying governments who hold council seats, particularly the vulnerable nonpermanent members, and second, willingly encouraging and acceding to impending, and damaging, legislation in Congress designed to cripple the organization. He and his secretary of state will also be able to exert pressure on the secretary general to appoint Americans of Trump’s choice to high-level UN positions as Guterres begins to fill those jobs in his new administration. The British, French, Chinese, and Russians will be competing for those jobs, along with regional powers from around the world like India and South Africa.
The looming threats to meddle in the UN with the aim of blunting its independence are coming at a very vulnerable time for the organization, which will struggle to defend itself from a wave of misinformation and lies, even as Guterres and his team put in place new media policies with considerable input from Melissa Fleming, an experienced American social-media whizz who is the a senior adviser to the new secretary general. She was formerly spokesperson for UNHCR and earlier the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Globally, media coverage of the UN has declined sharply in recent years, in part because of the secretive style of operations favored by Secretary General Ban, and the closing of UN information centers and reporting posts in Europe and elsewhere. Teaching and research about the organization has withered or disappeared in many universities after foundations slashed grants for UN studies. This makes it easier for purveyors of damaging stories about the UN to thrive on social media, where a lot of damage can be done.
Central to the problems of UN media outreach has been the organization’s Department of Public Information, where competent and experienced journalists on all information and outreach platforms are working with scant resources in an international atmosphere where many if not most nations stymie openness and have the political power to censor and silence staff.
At DPI’s founding, there were 51 mostly like-minded member countries in the UN. Now 193 countries are represented at the UN, offering many points of view on what news and information the UN should or should not be disseminating, particularly most recently on social developments like the recognition of LGBT rights or the promotion of women’s personal reproductive rights, to which numerous nations do not subscribe in practice. LGBT issues are notably not in the 2015–30 Sustainable Development Goals.
“We are a melting pot of cultures poured into a bureaucracy designed in the 1950s,” Stéphane Dujarric, the secretary general’s spokesman, said in an interview.
The Department of Public Information is not only hamstrung by its outdated mandate but is also often working for a director who ranks as under secretary general and is usually a political appointee not chosen primarily for his or her media skills. Nations with oppressive information practices skeptical of outreach are extremely parsimonious. Samir Sanbar, who headed the office from 1993 to 1997, said in an interview that he was flatly denied funds by the General Assembly budget committee to create a UN website. Instead, he stretched the resources of his existing staff to develop the platform. “Even the idea of information going to the public remains always a question of arguments with member states,” he said.
Nancy Groves has directed all UN social media efforts since 2010, including its Twitter account, which has nearly 8 million followers. Facebook has 2 million, and Instagram, 1 million. Groves, a Department of Public Information staff member, has brought a fresh approach to the job, which now includes a daily hunt for anti-UN propaganda and fraudulent websites, at least two of which falsely attributed to Guterres have recently been taken down.
In May 2015, Groves told Audiense, a site base in Britain and Spain that monitors social media, that UN officials who once dismissed Twitter have come to accept its importance in delivering not only news and information but also visual images, including photographs and graphics that explain and illustrate the UN’s work. The incoming Guterres administration is sharply focused on this potential as it prepares a new policy on UN media.
YouTube is still a rogue element, however. Reporting late last year by PassBlue, an international news site with a focus on the UN, discovered in a brief survey of YouTube videos that conspiracy theorists reminiscent of those in the 1990s who tried to intimidate the Bill Clinton administration were on the verge of dominating this platform in 2016. Of the first six results that appeared in the YouTube search the most popular (with 220,050 views) was “How Dangerous Is the United Nations?” Of those videos, four involved an imminent “invasion” by the UN.