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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

The clarity of Trump's policies will force world leaders to take note at UNGA

The question is no longer what the US president wants but what should be done in light of what he wants

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres listens as US President Donald Trump speaks during the 2017 UN General Assembly. Reuters
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres listens as US President Donald Trump speaks during the 2017 UN General Assembly. Reuters

US President Donald Trump will once again be the star among 84 heads of state and 44 prime ministers coming to New York for the United Nations General Assembly this year – not only because of his unusual personality traits but also because world leaders are starting to take his policies much more seriously; some with reassurance, others with dread. The clarity of Mr Trump’s policies with regards to China, Iran, European allies and others has forced them to sit up and reconsider their choices and adapt to the new landscape. The question is no longer what Mr Trump wants but what should be done in light of what he wants.

His bilateral meetings will include the leaders of South Korea, Japan, Britain, France, Egypt and Israel. However, the most hotly anticipated meeting so far would be with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, although it is as yet unscheduled and unlikely to take place. Such a meeting, if the Iranian leadership agrees to it, would have major implications and an automatic trigger for the postponement, if not the abandonment, of further US sanctions set to come into effect on November 4.

What the leadership in Tehran fears, however, are the demands of the US president, which it would likely have to reject because they will probably include reforms the regime cannot stomach. Brian Hook, Washington’s special representative for Iran, gave a glimpse of what Mr Trump had in mind when he proposed negotiations for a treaty that would curb Iran’s ballistic missile programme and rein in Iran’s proxy wars in the Arab region.

The other very unlikely meeting would be with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Mr Trump might, however, give the world leaders an idea of the “deal of the century” that his son-in-law Jared Kushner is preparing when he speaks to the General Assembly. If so, this could set off a new cycle of controversy. What would be a real shock here is for Mr Abbas to declare the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority and force Israel to assume its responsibilities as an occupation power. Were these incidences to occur, Mr Rouhani and Mr Abbas could turn the tables in a radical way. Otherwise, the Trump administration will dictate its Palestinian demands at UNGA and its Iranian demands at a UN Security Council session set to be chaired by Mr Trump.

His bilateral meetings will tackle other major international issues, topped by North Korea. Syria will be raised by foreign ministers, led by Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov. The issue of Yemen will be raised in speeches by various heads of states but UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has linked what happens in Yemen to the issue of Houthi rocket attacks targeting Saudi Arabia.

Mr Guterres held a press conference in which he spoke about ongoing crises and the prospects for resolving them, insisting that the UN was a necessity not only politically but also in areas like peacekeeping, development, youth and female empowerment. He addressed the need for more women to occupy senior posts in the international organisation to achieve gender equality. However, Mr Guterres has yet to appoint an Arab woman to a senior UN post, despite having his pick of 22 nations. This undermines not just them but his image in the minds of women and girls yearning to fulfill their potentials and achieve the global status, rights, respect and aspirations they deserve.

On the first day of the international week in New York, leaders will meet to discuss drug trafficking. Mr Guterres will open the meeting on Monday in which the US president and Latin American leaders are set to speak. Everyone will seek collaboration and assistance from the other leaders but the elephant in the room will be Venezuela - not over the issue of drug trafficking but because of the emerging refugee crisis with millions of Venezuelans flocking to neighbouring countries to flee the collapse of their failed state.

No one will dare propose military action. For one, who would lead a military alliance to intervene in Venezuela? Experts have dismissed any prospect of a military coup toppling the regime, indicating that the military is part of its structure, while paramilitary groups and armed gangs are often working with government troops. The consensus is that Venezuela is now a divided failed state that no one can rescue or intervene in to stop its suffering. While Venezuela’s neighbours and the United States will not intervene in the foreseeable future, Russia and China will be keeping a close watch on the country, due to their oil and political ties with Caracas.

World leaders start delivering their speeches on Tuesday, with the US president set to speak after the leader of Brazil. Many countries will be looking to see how they figure in Mr Trump’s discourse. Speaking to the press, US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley has said that the main theme of her boss’s speech will be national sovereignty before multilateralism. That’s to say, when the United States withdraws from the Paris climate treaty or the Iranian nuclear deal in order to renegotiate its flaws and address the violations of Iran that Barack Obama had turned a blind eye to, it would be exercising its sovereign rights.

Mr Trump will not attack the leader of North Korea as he did at last year’s UNGA. He has opened a new, unexpected chapter with Kim Jong-un, achieving a breakthrough that has astonished friends and foes. Yet North Korea is not Mr Trump’s only radical achievement.

On China, for example, experts acknowledge that Mr Trump has broken with “business as usual”, forcing Beijing to face up to a new reality by pressuring its economy. Instead of confrontation, China has chosen to open more doors to encourage investors to remain after realising the seriousness of Mr Trump’s trade measures against it. Experts agree that Mr Trump’s endgame here is to strike new deals with China that would favour his country’s position.

Mr Trump’s critics are perplexed by Tehran’s rejection of calls by the US president for a meeting with its leaders. Some are wary of a possible US military adventure in Iran but the majority are aware that Mr Trump is seeking an adjusted deal rather than war. Mr Trump’s critics fear Iranian retaliation against his policies through the closure of waterways or terrorist attacks but his supporters dismiss this as fearmongering and surrender to blackmail.

Everyone will be closely watching the UN Security Council meeting which Ms Haley said would be the most-watched in the history of the organisation. Mr Trump will personally chair the session, which Ms Haley has said would tackle Iranian sponsorship of terror and assaults on stability.

The Trump administration realised that such a session dedicated to discussing Iran would grant its representative the right to speak freely and at length – regardless of whether that representative is Mr Rouhani, foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif or an envoy. For this reason, the US decided to modify the purpose of the session to focus on proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles instead.

European leaders during this session – expected to be attended by the British prime minister and French president - are not going to opt for confrontation with the US president, as Iran would wish. However, there are clear differences. Experts will be looking for the nuances reflecting differences. As for China, Iran is of critical importance in many areas, including in Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road project, so China is expected to reject the US position on Iran, with Russia likely to follow suit.

What we don’t know yet is the substance of what Mr Trump will bring to the Security Council, a theatre that has seen many surprises in the past. The biggest would be a Trump-Rouhani meeting prior to the Security Council session on Wednesday.

The most prominent absentee from UNGA will be Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to one expert, Mr Putin carries himself like someone who has invested wisely and achieved good returns from his adventures, especially in Ukraine and Syria.

Not far from that, an unspoken matter, yet one that will be present in the UN week in New York, will be the issue of alleged collusion between Mr Trump and Russia to influence the US elections. With eyes trained on the plea deals and confessions of those who had worked with Mr Trump, the US president remains under close international scrutiny as well as at home. The midterm elections in the United States will take place in little over a month and the whole world, not just the American people, will be holding their breath. If Mr Trump’s party loses the House and the Senate majorities, the spectre of impeachment could loom closer and hold him back from acting decisively on the world stage.