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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

UN General Assembly: Delegates and observers await Trump speech with bated breath

The US president went from harshly criticising the United Nations on the campaign trail to talking of its 'tremendous potential' once in office. But which way his speech will go on Tuesday is unclear

Experts agree that US president Donald Trump's speech at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York on September 19, 2017 will top the highlights of the 72nd annual event. Carolyn Kaster / AP
Experts agree that US president Donald Trump's speech at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York on September 19, 2017 will top the highlights of the 72nd annual event. Carolyn Kaster / AP

When Donald Trump takes the stage at the annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly in New York this Tuesday, many in the room will no doubt be remembering his harsh criticism of the body on the presidential campaign trail.

"The United Nations is not a friend of democracy … it's not a friend to freedom … it's not a friend even to the United States of America,” the US president said in March last year.

Since taking office, Mr Trump has largely moderated his tone towards the UN, even inviting security council ambassadors to a working lunch at the White House in April. At the meal, by no means a routine practice for US presidents, Mr Trump talked of the organisation's “tremendous potential” and said he saw “fantastic things ahead for the United Nations”.

It is not clear what approach Mr Trump's speech will take on Tuesday. But although it may break in style from those of his more conventional predecessors, it is unlikely to prove as controversial as other speeches by world leaders at the General Assembly — such as the 1960 speech by then Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who banged his shoe on the desk, or the 2010 speech by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinijad which prompted walkouts by numerous delegates after he proclaimed that most nations believed the US government was behind the 9/11 attacks.

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Mr Trump's speech is also unlikely to include any earth-shattering announcements of the kind made by the late former PLO leader Yasser Arafat in his 1974 speech when he extended an “olive branch” to the UN body.

Nevertheless, experts agree that Mr Trump's speech will top the highlights of the 72nd General Assembly as commentators and diplomats alike wait to see which stance the unpredictable president will adopt.

Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations, predicted the US president will try to strike a balance in his speech; on the one hand by “throwing some meat to his base … some tough-sounding language about putting America first or protecting Israel from the UN”, while on the other “by … recognising that his administration needs the UN more than it expected, especially to deal with North Korea”.

But Mr Gowan said the US president could also prove to be "surprisingly emollient in the General Assembly”.

“Trump is easily flattered, and may enjoy all the international attention he gets in New York," he told The National.

Brett Schaefer, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, predicted the US president will have the upper hand in New York.

“One of the advantages of being the world power is you have other options available to you," he told The National. "The US will pursue its policy interest regardless of what the UN does or not do.”

Such an approach to the UN was taken by former US president George W Bush who challenged the body by going to war in Iraq in 2003. The Obama administration prioritised multilateralism, however, working within the UN Security Council to achieve a resolution upholding the nuclear deal with Iran, though failing to make much headway through the body on Syria.

But Mr Trump faces a changing world.

“The US is still the top dog at the UN, but there is a lot of talk about China replacing it as a leader on issues like climate change,” Mr Gowan said.

“If Trump makes a mess of his speech, it will feed into a narrative of American decline.”

But Mr Schaefer shrugged off talk on a China alternative. “China is an influential county but the US is the biggest backer of UN," he said. "It’s incorrect that criticism of the UN, especially its management flaws and lack of accountability, will play into the hands of China."

The US still leads the list of UN members in terms of financial contributors, “providing 22 per cent of its US$5.4 billion (Dh19.8bn) biennial core budget and 28.5 per cent of its $7.3bn peacekeeping budget”, according to Reuters.

Mr Schaefer said he saw an opportunity for the US president to press for reforms and increased accountability at this year’s General Assembly. Mr Trump has said US contributions to the UN's budgets are "unfair" and earlier this year proposed drastic cuts to its UN funding, including reducing its contribution to the peacekeeping budget by $1bn.

US ambassador Nikki Haley has already worked with UN secretary general Antonio Guterres to implement budget cuts, boasting in June of cutting more than $500 million from the peacekeeping budget. And on Monday, ahead of his speech to the General Assembly, Mr Trump will host a UN reform summit with world leaders.

On that front, the US and the UN could find a working formula, Mr Gowan said.

“The secretary general will emphasise the need to streamline the UN bureaucracy, and the Trump administration will cheer him on," he said. "Mr Guterres has solid ideas for making the UN more flexible and efficient while saving the US some money along the way, so this is a win-win for the US and the UN."

Mr Trump may steal the limelight at this year’s General Assembly in the absence of other key world leaders, including Russian president Vladimir Putin, Chinese president Xi Jinping and German chancellor Angela Merkel. But, Mr Gowan said, “everybody knows that the US needs Chinese and Russian support to manage North Korea through the Security Council”.

Mr Schaefer said he expected Mr Trump to praise the UN Security Council's response to the North Korean missile crisis in his speech, but "challenge it to do more as long as Pyongyang's provocative actions continue".

He said the speech would also be an opportunity for Mr Trump to put forward the US's position on the Iran nuclear deal, coming just two weeks before the president must next report to Congress on whether Tehran is still in compliance with the agreement.

“I don’t think it was a coincidence that Ms Haley went to the IAEA [last month] and gave a speech to the IAEA to make the case that the Iran agreement does not preserve in its current form the interests of the US," Mr Schaefer said.

The US "can work with the UN to pressure Iran and improve the agreement”, he added.

Ultimately though, Tuesday's speech will be an opportunity for Mr Trump to make “a first impression” on the 193 delegates in the room, Mr Schaefer said.

And with the expectations of many countries so low, Mr Gowan said, “if Mr Trump puts in a moderately normal performance, you will hear a lot of foreign ministers and ambassadors praising his newfound maturity”.

“To be honest, the bar is set pretty low for Mr Trump now," he added. "He just needs to stay on script."