Editorial BoardBloomberg News
Roger Kotila, Ph.D
President, Democratic World Federalists
An institution that’s more necessary than ever should be helped to do better.
U.S. President Donald Trump will command the world’s attention at the United Nations General Assembly this week. After last year’s affirmations of U.S. sovereignty and denunciations of Kim Jong Un as a “Rocket Man on a suicide mission,” who knows what bolts Trump will hurl this time? His chairing of a Security Council meeting on nonproliferation and a U.S. event on the “world drug problem” promise other opportunities for drama.
These theatrics shouldn’t be allowed to shift the focus from a broader problem. In 2018, governments face a pressing and fundamental issue: What can be done to adapt the UN to a new era of rising nationalism and geopolitical competition? The U.S., under this president’s leadership, has no answer. In most ways, it seems unaware of the question.
The president’s instincts seem to call for disengagement if not outright withdrawal. Trump has backed away from the UN Population Fund, the Paris accord on climate change, the UN-led Global Compact on Migration, UNESCO, and the UN Human Rights Council, and has proposed drastic cuts in voluntary contributions to UN agencies.
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Granted, some of his complaints about the UN are valid. (Many echo those of previous administrations.) Mismanagement, episodes of corruption and a pronounced anti-Israel bias have marred the UN’s reputation and made it less effective. But in a world plagued by complex collective problems, a well-functioning UN is more necessary than ever.
The administration should engage more seriously across the full range of issues — with the same sense of purpose it has brought to one or two particular cases. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley has led useful scrutiny of peacekeeping operations, for instance. Secretary-General António Guterres’s proposals for strengthening peacekeeping management were approved with U.S. support.
The U.S. and the other permanent members of the Security Council have made common cause on peacekeeping and crises such as North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but their inability to resolve horrific conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Myanmar is a grave disappointment. Conflict resolution lies, or ought to lie, at the core of the UN’s ambitions. This is why it was founded in the first place.
The council’s non-permanent members should be more forceful in pressing this agenda. The induction next year of Germany, Indonesia and South Africa ought to help. The institution itself needs to be managed more efficiently and with a refreshed sense of purpose. The ability to respond more quickly, with joint forces ready to be deployed at short notice, would be valuable. To reduce costs and save lives, the UN should be more willing to shut down missions that aren’t working and hold national detachments accountable for their conduct.
Critics and admirers of the UN alike regard Guterres, appointed to the job last year, as an accomplished leader with the experience and temperament needed to make meaningful strides in the years ahead. In the end, though, the effectiveness of the UN will depend on the desire of its member governments, and especially that of the U.S., to make it succeed. The U.S. needs to show it again understands what it used to regard as obvious.
If Trump wanted to do that, it wouldn’t be hard. If he wanted to ease divisions, strengthen U.S. influence and bolster the UN at a single stroke, he’d reverse his stance on the Paris accord on climate change — an existential challenge that geopolitical rivals such as China have embraced as a basis for global cooperation. Of late, the U.S. government’s posture on this fateful question has been a failure on every level.
And it’s symptomatic — one more abdication of America’s responsibility to lead. This is Trump’s biggest mistake, which is saying something. American leadership, bound up with the role that the world needs the UN to play, remains as indispensable as ever.