The United Nations wouldn’t be the same after January 20, roared president-elect Donald Trump in a tweet after the outgoing Barack Obama administration in a startling diplomatic manoeuvre got the UN Security Council to pass a unanimous resolution condemning Israel’s settlements in occupied Palestinian lands.
Days later he tweeted again: “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!” He also suggested the United States could cut its funding to the organisation.
According to a draft executive order, seen by the New York Times, the Trump administration wants a 40 percent cut in its contribution to the UN. The US is the largest contributor to the UN budget – 22 percent. A huge cut or the threat of a cut will certainly make any UN secretary general to compromise his or her hallowed policies in the larger interest of the UN projects ranging from poverty alleviation and promoting education to peacekeeping and climate change. Last year, the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon meekly removed Saudi Arabia from a list of war crimes against children, hours after the oil kingdom warned it would slash its funds to the world body.
Trump supporter John Bolton, who was President George Bush’s envoy to the UN, once infamously said that if the 38-storey UN building “lost 10 storeys today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” Bolton was considered for the post of Secretary of State by the Trump team and later for the post of National Security advisor in the wake of Gen. Michael Flynn’s resignation over his alleged promise to the Russian envoy that the US would lift some of the sanctions linked to Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
After Trump assumed office on January 20, he appointed Nikki Haley, a hardliner, as the United States’ Permanent Representative to the UN. Unlike her predecessor, Samantha Power, who was known for her human rights activism, Haley is known for her politics and entrepreneurship. Though a daughter of immigrant parents hailing from India’s Punjab state, she supports tough laws to crack down on illegal immigrants. Prior to entering politics as a member of South Carolina’s House of Representative, she was running a multimillion-dollar upscale clothing firm, her family business, and was at one time president of the National Association of Women Business Owners.
When Trump invited her to take up the post of UN envoy, she was the Governor of South Carolina, carrying the honour of being chosen to deliver the Republican Party’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union address last year.
Her predecessor Power, known for her activism against genocide, had put aside her lofty campaigns and fell in line with the Obama administration’s policy of politicising human rights to further the United States’ national interest. Shame on you, she shouted at Russia, Syria and Iran for what was happening in Ukraine and Syria. But she spoke very little against Israel’s atrocities in the Gaza Strip and Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen, where a large number of civilians including children have died in indiscriminate air attacks. Her silence during the vote on the December 23 anti-Israeli resolution at the UNSC was the loudest she spoke for the Palestinian cause. The United States’ decision not to oppose the resolution during the lame duck days of the Obama presidency was too little too late. Moreover it was seen as a move aimed at soothing the troubled conscience of President Obama rather than any love for world peace or the Palestinian cause.
Whatever it is, it became an occasion for the Trump team to say the UN would not be the same after January 20. But one can say with much certainty that democratising the UN system or broadbasing its decision making process is far from Trump’s intention. What he probably meant was that the US would do what it wants irrespective of the UN process and would go even beyond what the George W. Bush administration did in disregarding UN mechanisms to prevent conflict. The rot started during the Ronald Reagan presidency, during which the US openly declared that it would not accept the rulings of the International Court of Justice. Since then, the US had been, with arbitrary actions, undermining the UN system. Perhaps, the Obama presidency was an exception.
Haley came to the UN on January 27, weeks after the new UN Secretary General, António Guterres, a socialist politician from Portugal, outlined his vision to revive the global body by urging member-states to uphold their international obligations, including their commitment to world peace and measures to save the environment.
The very first day in office as UN envoy, Haley put the world body on notice.
Addressing a media conference at the UN headquarters, she issued a stark warning to foes and friends alike that the Trump administration would hold to account those who did not back the United States. “You’re going to see a change in the way we do business,” she said. “Our goal with the administration is to show value at the U.N., and the way we’ll show value is to show our strength, show our voice, have the backs of our allies and make sure our allies have our back as well…. For those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names; we will make points to respond to that accordingly.”
Her warning -- amid threats to slash funds for UN peacekeeping operations -- reminds us of President George W. Bush’s “Either you are with us or with the terrorists” statement made at the launch of his war on terror in October 2001. Interestingly, Bush is now trying to distance himself from Trump policies though there is hardly any difference.
Notwithstanding the Trump administration’s threats to the world body, Russia and China called the US bluff on Tuesday and vetoed a resolution against Syria. The tough-talking Haley only denounced Russia and China for voting against the resolution cosponsored by the US, France and Britain.
The US dominated UN system is fast changing, with Russia and China asserting themselves at international bodies. The US, from January 1990 to December 2003, used its veto on 11 occasions, while China and Russia used their vetoes twice each during the same period. But since 2004, the US has used its veto only on five occasions, while China had used its veto seven times and Russia 13 times, largely against resolutions supported by the US. (http://research.un.org/en/docs/sc/quick).
China, aspiring to be the world number one power, has also stepped up its role at the United Nations, increasing its support for peacekeeping and development aid.
If Trump walks the talk and slashes the UN funds, the world body needs to map out a strategy to work without the US or even take the UN headquarters to Geneva – as it once did to enable Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to address the world body after the US denied him a visa -- or even to Beijing.