Both UN Secretary-General (SG) Antonio Guterres and US President Donald Trump took office in January. They could not be more different in background, temperament, experience and leadership style. Trump is brash, loud, vulgar, an amateur outsider and the ultimate disruptor, used to bossing everyone else, who does not do sensitivity. Guterres is courteous, sophisticated, cultured, professional, a global insider and the ultimate conciliator who persuades and coaxes colleagues to follow his lead.
One is the public face of US-style global capitalism, the other a former head of Socialist International. Guterres is the internationalist, global counterpoint to Trump’s unilateralist nationalism. His tenure so far has been silky smooth, while Trump’s has encountered violent turbulence daily. Truly, one is from Mars and the other from Venus. Yet, if the world is to weather the gathering storm to emerge in relative safety, for the next four years the two will have to work together.
The UN is not and never can be immune to the golden rule: he who has the gold writes and polices the rules. With 193 member states it is unhealthily dependent for almost one-quarter (22%) of its regular budget (and 28% of peacekeeping dues) on just one, the US Yet on some calculations, the UN system contributes more to the US economy than it gets from Washington.
Periodically, calls are made in the US to reduce payments, withdraw from the UN and expel it from the US Trump describes it as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” Two draft executive orders have reportedly been prepared but delayed to cut UN funding by 40% and initiate a review of some multilateral treaties that could be cancelled. On Jan. 3 Alabama’s Congressman Mike Rogers introduced a bill, co-sponsored by Conservative-leaning representatives, to UN
Unlikely to pass, the bill reinforces the Trump narrative of opposition to multilateral institutions and disengagement from global leadership. But should the threat of expulsion ever become real, it would concentrate the minds of New York’s political leaders and business community on the economic disaster that would portend for the city and the state, starting with property values.
Guterres seems ready to stand up to Washington. Reacting to Trump’s travel ban, (since voided by the courts), on 1 February Guterres, head of the UN refugee agency for a decade, said the ban “should be removed sooner rather than later” because it violates basic UN principles and is not the most effective way to prevent terrorist attacks. On Feb. 7, he deeply regretted Israel’s law to legalize settlements and outposts in the occupied West Bank built on land confiscated from Palestinians. He warned that the new law would have “far-reaching legal consequences” and could derail the two-state solution.
On 8 February, Guterres announced the appointment of former Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad as special representative to head the Libya mission. The appointment was greenlighted by all Security Council members in discreet soundings, including the US But, reflecting opposition from Israel’s PM, on 10 February US ambassador Nikki Haley created a diplomatic dustup by suddenly announcing American opposition. A note from Guterres on 11February emphasized that Fayyad had been appointed based on his personal qualities and individual competence. However, Guterres also pointed out that, with respect to regional diversity, no Israeli or Palestinian has so far served in a high UN position.
A former World Bank and IMF official who is disliked by Palestinian hardliners and Hamas, Fayyad is exactly what Israel and the US seek in Palestinian leaders. As the Libya post has no implications for Israel, picking a fight with the new UN chief early in his term “is simply dumb,” said a columnist in Haaretz. Guterres, one of the most Israel-sympathetic UN SGs, has held firm in the right to choose his envoy – not a US envoy – based on personal qualities and representing no government.
Given Trump’s open disdain for staunch American allies, his hostility to the UN is unsurprising. We are well and truly into the era of post-truth alternative facts – the old admonition of everyone being entitled to their own opinions but not to create their own facts is clearly obsolete. Domestically, Trump has discovered he cannot run the country like his private business.
He may be mugged by reality sooner rather than later in world affairs as well. Allies and the UN are critical to the pursuit of global American interests; they are not just consumers of US beneficence. The US may still be the indispensable power but the UN is no less an indispensable international organization. As the march of folly into Iraq in 2003 proved, US exercise of power is less effective without UN sanction. Overall, the UN has been attentive to US concerns, interests and preferences. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, for example, the UN immediately backed the war on terrorism.
The UN Charter proclaims Western liberal values as guiding UN principles. No other country had as much influence on designing the international organization nor on its operations once established as the US No other will have as critical a role in determining its agenda and actions. The UN system was the forum for externalizing American values and virtues like democracy, human rights, rule of law and market economy, and embedding them in international institutions. US structural dominance in the UN is embedded in its primary organs and voting procedures. The crucial executive decision-making body is the Security Council, which has often bent to US will and can never act against US vital interests owing to the veto clause.
The UN, and only the UN, can set international standards and norms to regulate interstate behaviour. Norms, laws and treaties for governing the global commons will either be negotiated in UN forums, or ratified by the UN machinery. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty are two good examples. Its humanitarian service delivery functions are widely appreciated. Studies by US scholars and think tanks show how UN peace operations offer the best crossover between cost efficiency and effectiveness. There is no foreseeable substitute for the UN’s institutional and political legitimacy such that if it did not exist, we would have to invent it, albeit differently structured to reflect today’s geopolitical and economic realities.
The US defence budget is around $600bn. For under $8bn, the UN maintains 16 peacekeeping operations with over 100,000 personnel from more than 100 countries in conflict-riven regions where otherwise Washington would face pressures to intervene, at the cost of American blood and treasure. Thus the UN offers the US a means of mediating the choice between isolationism and unilateralism; between inaction through refusing to be a cop and permanent interventions through being the world’s only cop.
Ramesh Thakur is Professor, Crawford school of Public Policy ANU. This article first appeared in the Japan Times on 24 February 2017.