Trump visits UN: As a global leader, can the US do more with less?

The president is attending the opening of the General Assembly with roughly half the delegation brought by past administrations. Some might see a shrinking superpower. But Trump officials say the US can be more 'efficient' and still lead.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
President Trump talks with the US Ambassador Nikki Haley as they attend a session on reforming the United Nations at UN Headquarters in New York, Sept. 18, 2017.

President Trump has already shaken the post-World War II global order by pulling the United States out of American-led international pacts like the Paris Climate Accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal – and by threatening to dump others, like the Iran nuclear deal.

He has cast doubt on longstanding US-led alliances like NATO and those covering Northeast Asia, recently blasting US trade arrangements with South Korea even as the two allies take on the building bellicosity of North Korea.

And his administration has called for a nearly one-third reduction in State Department and foreign-aid spending, a cut many see as unavoidably limiting America’s diplomatic reach and influence.

Now this week, the US is participating in the world’s biggest annual diplomatic event, the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, with roughly half the delegation of senior diplomats and foreign-policy advisers brought by past administrations.

And that poses a fundamental question: In the realm of global leadership, can the Trump administration do more with less?

For many in the community of 193 UN member states who have been anticipating General Assembly week to see for themselves how Mr. Trump intends to meld his nationalist policies with America’s global role, the impression may be that of the incredible shrinking superpower.

Senior administration officials contend it is nothing of the sort, that the US will demonstrate this week how it intends to lead the world while strengthening the nation first and being more efficient.

The many dozens of world leaders assembling in New York “are going to find out we are going to be solid, we’re going to be strong,” the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told reporters at a White House press conference Friday. “No one is going to grip and grin, the United States is going to work.”

But for others, the US retrenchment at the world’s preeminent diplomatic gathering is further evidence of what a key Senate committee last week denigrated as “the administration’s apparent doctrine of retreat.”

Trump will be in New York for four days, and will deliver on Tuesday a much-anticipated speech outlining US global priorities. By tradition, the US president speaks third, after the UN secretary-general and the president of Brazil.

For many, the reduced cadre of US diplomats and specialists in a wide range of international issues will be at least as important in cementing global impressions of US intentions under Trump.

“What looks like a significant downsizing of the US presence will have a considerable signaling implication,” says Sheba Crocker, who served as the assistant secretary of State for international organization affairs in the Obama administration. “It’s sending a clear signal that the US is not playing the same role it has played traditionally and throughout many decades of multilateral diplomacy and engagement.”

Reshaping alliances

Noting that the smaller US presence at the UN comes after months of other actions suggesting a reduced US diplomatic profile, Ms. Crocker, now vice-president for humanitarian policy and action at CARE USA, says, “I suspect this is being seen around the world as further evidence that the US is pulling back from the leadership role it has traditionally played on the world stage and in driving the global conversation.”

Indeed, the UN week downsizing is likely to confirm the view among many leaders of other countries that it is time to look more to other powers for leadership, other former US diplomats say. Foreign leaders “already … have begun to reshape alliances and reconfigure the networks that make up the global economy, bypassing the United States and diminishing its standing,” writes Elliott Cohen, a senior State Department official in the administration of President George W. Bush, in the October issue of The Atlantic.

What Mr. Cohen sees as the “withering” of “high-level diplomatic contact” in an administration that has yet to nominate many critical undersecretaries of state or ambassadors is likely to accelerate with fewer of those top diplomats attending the UN opening session.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is orchestrating his department’s reorganization and ordered the UN presence downsizing, is doing both in the name of cost-cutting and efficiency. His aides say US diplomacy at the UN will be just a “robust” as ever.

“Some folks like to focus on the overall size of the footprint,” Mr. Tillerson’s spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, told journalists last week. “The secretary firmly believes coming out of the private sector that we all need to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” she said, adding, “Have you checked [New York] hotel rates?”

Even advocates of a broad and, yes, expensive US diplomatic presence at the UN acknowledge that efforts to rein in bloat can be necessary.

“It’s always fair to raise questions about delegation size, sometimes trimming around the edges can make sense,” says Crocker, who organized President Obama’s high-level meetings on strengthening UN peacekeeping during the UN week in 2015, and then last year on addressing the refugee crisis.

Where to find efficiency

Others note that using UN week right can actually enhance the kind of efficiency Tillerson is trying to encourage.

“I don’t think every senior official needs a large entourage, and sometimes the US delegations to UN meetings can get unnecessarily large, but on the other hand, it’s very important to have the senior officials focused on the many issues of importance to the US participating in New York,” says Kristen Silverberg, who served as assistant secretary of State for international organization affairs in President Bush’s second term.

“For me, the week in New York was always one of the most productive of the year,” she adds. “All of your colleagues are there from every part of the world, so it can be a very effective time.”

Indeed, Ms. Silverberg says she saw many times when key officials heading up Bush’s priority international initiatives – such as the Darfur humanitarian crisis and the Africa AIDS and malaria program – were able to organize impactful meetings with foreign colleagues in New York without undertaking expensive overseas travel.

Others say the reduced US delegation at what is referred to simply as “UNGA” – the UN General Assembly opening – sends another message to the world.

“If your idea of diplomacy is building and sustaining relationships to serve and further US interests over a wide range of issues from global security to nuclear proliferation and international development, then having a large number of diplomats to build those relationships is important,” says Michael Doyle, director of Columbia University’s Global Policy Initiative.

“But reducing that range and participation of diplomats further systemizes the transactional element of Trump foreign policy,” adds Dr. Doyle, who served as a special adviser to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “If you’re only really interested in the transactional, as seems to be the case in the world of Secretary Tillerson, then you don’t need all these seasoned diplomats,” he adds. “The deal of the week does not require a large delegation.”

Trump’s national security advisers note that the president and Vice President Mike Pence will take full advantage of the global leadership’s presence. Trump joined UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres Monday in convening a high-level meeting on UN reform.

Filling the void?

The president’s speech Tuesday will tout US global engagement and review what the US sees as the world’s pressing priorities.

“I personally think he slaps the right people, hugs the right people, and he comes out with the US being very strong in the end,” Ambassador Haley said in advance of Trump’s speech.

But others caution that any sense of US withdrawal from its global leadership role can prompt others to begin maneuvering to fill the void. Indeed, Mr. Cohen says, China is already responding accordingly.

“The large US presence at UNGA helped ensure that everything in New York was focused on our priority issues, rather than letting someone else decide what the agenda of the week would be,” says Silverberg, now managing director of the Institute of International Finance in Washington.

“If there’s a vacuum, if the US is stepping back, then other countries are going to fill it,” says Crocker. “And what we’ve learned from experience is that the countries stepping in don’t always have the same aims and priorities the US has – and has been able to keep the world focused on because of our leadership on the international stage.”

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