Trump chips away at multilateral institutions

A long exposure shot of US President Donald Trump speaking at the opening session of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2017 Keystone

When Donald Trump came into office last January, Geneva officials predicted a tumultuous time for the multilateral system and international organisations such as the United Nations. One year on, so-called International Geneva has been largely spared from budget cuts, but local observers warn Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy could be a ‘disaster in slow motion’. 

This content was published on January 25, 2018

“We are living through a gigantic and risky experiment and it’s a real test of American and global institutions,” Thomas BierstekerExternal link, a governance specialist at the Geneva Graduate Institute, told 

Driven by his promises to put America first, Trump has focused on renegotiating external relationships, putting faith in bilateral deals, while delivering several blows to international cooperation and multilateral diplomacy. On Thursday, he is set to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he is expected to push his “America First” agenda and to declare that the US is open for business.

On international trade, the president has complained against the US trade deficit with China, criticized the Geneva-based World Trade Organization (WTO)External link, withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks and demanded a revamp of the . 

On the campaign trail, Trump was openly critical of organisations like the UN. In power, he appeared to soften his tone, saying the UN had great potential, praising Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for his reform work and pledging to be “partners” to make the organisation a “more effective force for peace”. 

Yet in June, the president announced his wish to take the US out of the UN-led Paris Climate AccordExternal link, and in October the US formally notified the UN’s world heritage body UNESCO that it was withdrawing its membershipExternal link, citing “continuing anti-Israel bias”. In December, the US also pulled out of the UN’s ambitious global strategy on migration. 

Washington also reviewed its funding of international institutions. In April, it decided to cut donations to the UN Population Fund (UNPFA). This month the US State Department said it was withholding half of its $125 million aid package for the . But the most significant financial decision came just before Christmas when it was announced that the UN operating budget for 2018-2019 would be slashed by -5%External link to $5.4 billion. This followed a concerted campaign by the US and the European Union. 

The US is the biggest UN contributor, providing 22% of its biennial core budget and 28.5% percent of its $7.3 billion peacekeeping budget. It is also the major funder of major UN specialized agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which are headquartered in Geneva.  

“We will no longer let the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of,” said US ambassador to the UN Nikki HaleyExternal link, adding that the ‘inefficiency and overspending of the organization’ were well-known. 

Limited financial impact

Valentin Zellweger, the Swiss ambassador to the UN in GenevaExternal link, said it was “too early” to say what consequences the UN regular budget cut would have for Geneva and that it would probably affect the UN secretariat across all services. 

Ian Richards, the UN union executive secretary, felt the core budget cut would only have a limited impact in Geneva, where UN civil servants’ salaries were recently lowered, as most of the cuts were to administration and in New York. Lobbying by Guterres and last-minute arbitration by a group of countries including Switzerland had reportedly managed to limit job losses, according to a recent article in the Tribune de Genève newspaperExternal link

In reply to, numerous specialist Geneva-based organizations, which mainly depend on voluntary donations from states, say they are confident that the current levels of US government funding should remain unaffected.

American political scientist David SylvanExternal link, however, described the reduction to the UN core budget as ‘significant’. The Graduate Institute professor believes US pressure will continue on the budgets of the UN and of specialist agencies. 


But rather than funding, the more serious threat to International Geneva over the past year came from Trump’s long-term undermining of the legitimacy of the multilateral system, he declared. 

The WTO has been an obvious target. Propelled by his promises to put America first and to protect US workers against what he sees as unfair trade practices from China and others, Trump has weakened the WTO as a forum to settle disputesExternal link

"In retrospect, 2017 could mark the beginning of the end of the rules-based free trade order and the system unravelling," Andre Sapir, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, told Reuters. 

The UN Human Rights Council in GenevaExternal link has also been in Washington’s sights. During her visit last June, Haley said the council must reform and eliminate ‘chronic anti-Israel’ bias. While she did not signal a US withdrawal from the rights forum, she said the US was reviewing its participation. 

Biersteker said the fact that nobody had been appointed as the new head of the US mission in GenevaExternal link and as US permanent representatives to the WTO and the Human Rights Council since Trump’s presidential victory was indicative of a "lack of interest in the world" and “consistent with an isolationist trend”. 

Filling the gap

After a year of Trump-watching, it is often difficult to explain the pattern of his impulsive and reactive tweeting on foreign affairs but one thing is clear, “he’s still in campaign mode”, Biersteker commented. 

“And in some ways his bark appears worse than his bite,” he added. 

Sylvan felt the problem was that "nobody is minding the store so it’s basically the status quo ante”. 

“Ironically, US policy towards international organisations is being made at a much lower level” due to tensions between Trump, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the State Department, and a failure to fill senior positions, he added. 

One interesting lesson of 2017, both experts agree, is that countries appear to be pushing back and willing to fill some of the leadership roles vacated by the US, as seen with the Paris Climate Accord and more recently during a UN Security Council debate on Iranian protests. 

“The US withdrawal or abdication of leadership has not been as extreme as we feared, but it could be a disaster in slow motion,” said Biersteker. 

“The rest of the world is moving on and is not waiting for the US to wake up from this. It's saying climate change is too important an issue and we are going to continue with this agenda with or without you. This is a message being sent in other issue domains.”

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