Trump pushes for UN reform at New York meeting

As president-elect, Trump described the UN as a “club for people to get together, talk and have a good time” but has since softened his tone since taking office. UN Photo/Kim Haughton

United States President Donald Trump made his debut at the United Nations in New York on Monday, urging the world body to reform by cutting down on bureaucracy. Some 120 states, including Switzerland, signed up to the US-led initiative in support. However, observers in Geneva remain dubious about the impact of the event. 

This content was published on September 18, 2017

Switzerland signed up to Monday’s US-sponsored event in New York and a ten-point declaration distributed by UN envoy Nikki Haley backing the broad "effective, meaningful" reforms proposed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. 

According to Paola Beer Ceresetti, spokesperson for the Swiss foreign ministry, Switzerland wants a “strong, modern and efficient UN capable of fully meeting the ambitious goals it has fixed”. 

“The UN must continually renew itself, strengthen and adapt to new challenges. In this regard, Switzerland supports reform efforts by the new UN Secretary General, reforms of peace and security, reforms of the UN development system and management reforms,” she added. 

Guterres, who has presented a broad reform agendaExternal link for the 193-member organization since joining last year, also spoke at Monday’s meeting. Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter was in attendance. 

As president-elect, Trump was a frequent critic of the UN, complaining that the United States’ share of the world body's budget is unfair. He pushed to slash funding and described it as a “club for people to get together, talk and have a good time”. 

The US is the biggest UN contributor, providing 22% of its $5.4 billion (CHF5.2 billion) 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 Trade Organization (WTO), and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which are headquartered in Geneva. 

However, Trump has softened his tone since taking office. On Monday, he pushed the UN to focus "more on people and less on bureaucracy", while also suggesting that the US was funding too much of the world body.

Nonetheless, he said the US would "pledge to be partners in your work" to make the UN "a more effective force" for peace.

He also praised Guterres and complimented the steps the UN had taken in the early stages of the reform process and made no threats to withdraw his nation's support.

Few changes

Observers in Geneva, home to the European headquarters of the UNExternal link and numerous UN agencies and international organizations, remain dubious about the impact of the reform meeting and Trump’s earlier threats against the UN. 

“I have the impression the reform meeting will just be a more general reflection on the structure of the UN,” said Cédric Dupont, professor of international relations at the Geneva-based Graduate InstituteExternal link, ahead of the event.

He said Geneva officials’ initial pessimism about Trump and his America-first agenda had probably been “exaggerated”, as the president appears to have grasped the practical use of the UN and positive sides to the multilateral system. 

David Sylvan, an American political scientist also at the Geneva-based Graduate InstituteExternal link, was more critical. 

“I think this will be a show – a joint Broadway production – for everyone. They will all say ‘yes we all agree with you’ and ‘it’s very important’ and then they will go their own ways afterwards,” he commented. 

“As for Guterres, all secretary generals have wanted to try to run the organization in a more efficient fashion,” said Sylvan. “They all bridled to some degree at the fact that they are saddled with many high-level appointees who they have to take and give each person a staff, etc. Then you have the specialized agencies which are a totally different thing.” 

‘Paper tiger’

Does this mean that nothing will change and Trump won’t touch anything? 

“I don’t know, but in Geneva there haven’t been any declarations that suggest the technical UN agencies are directly threatened,” said Dupont. 

Sylvan believes the Trump administration will only manage to force through a small reduction in the US contribution to the UN budget. 

“I don’t think the US Senate will agree to most of the cuts he proposed. If Trump gets the wiggle room he’ll attempt to reduce the peacekeeping budget,” said Sylvan, who believes the UN may face “at least one year of belt-tightening”. 

The UN has seen this before with previous presidents, such as Ronald Reagan or George W Bush, he went on. “It’s an easy political punching bag for politicians in the US. So, for the UN veterans it’s all about trying to ride it out and to give in rhetorically and expect that either there will be no cuts the following year or that the cuts can be undone or rescinded.” 

Ultimately, Congress, foreign leaders and officials appear to have taken the measure of Trump, said Sylvan. 

“They realize that he’s a paper tiger and doesn’t follow through on most of his threats or does so in a relatively symbolic, random fashion,” he concluded.

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