At UN, Trump tests his own brand of multilateralism

Why We Wrote This

Can a leader who declares “the future does not belong to globalists” build coalitions to tackle issues of common concern? Our diplomatic correspondent reports from the U.N. General Assembly.

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U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 24, 2019.

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President Donald Trump is seeking support this week at the United Nations General Assembly on several fronts: maximizing pressure on Iran, championing religious freedom, and opposing China’s trade practices. Yet Mr. Trump, who withdrew the United States from treaties or organizations devoted to these causes, may find himself confronting a skeptical global audience, say experts in international relations.

On Monday France, Germany, and the United Kingdom – all three signatories to the Iran nuclear deal – issued a joint statement saying it was “clear” that “Iran is responsible” for the recent attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil field. Yet the three also said that they still support the nuclear deal, and hope that all parties might return to the negotiating table to arrive at the “better deal” Mr. Trump says he wants.

Is the U.S. president helping his own cause? Heather Conley, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes that China trade is a natural for much of the world to side with the U.S. on. “Instead we have the president not just taking the bilateral approach he prefers,” she says, “but also placing tariffs on Japan and the EU and threatening” to impose even more.

Nearly three years into his go-it-alone presidency, Donald Trump is at the United Nations this week trying to get in a bit of a multilateralist groove.

Having pulled out of the six-nation agreement with Iran on its nuclear program last year, the president is now trying to convince the international community to accompany the United States on a maximum pressure campaign against Iran over the recent attacks on Saudi oil installations.

Having pulled the U.S. out of the U.N. Human Rights Council and put human rights on the back burner, he is this week championing religious freedom, which he declared at a U.S.-hosted religious freedom summit at the U.N. to be the most threatened universal right. At the meeting Monday Mr. Trump issued a “global call to protect religious freedom” and summoned international partners to join the U.S. in forming a grand coalition to vanquish what he said are the world’s opponents of faith.

And having trashed multilateral trade agreements in favor of bilateral accords that permit the U.S. to negotiate as the stronger party, the president is now encouraging the world to join the U.S. in singling out China for what he says are its unfair and deceitful trade practices.

Yet as he pursues these uncharacteristically multilateral initiatives, Mr. Trump may find himself confronting a skeptical global audience and, say some experts in international relations, learning one of the truths of diplomacy, that multilateralism is a two-way street: Countries that have burned the bridges of international cooperation may not find partners rushing to their side when they put out the call.

“We need partners to join us in addressing these issues of national security we say are important to us, and traditionally many countries have wanted to join,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But what we’re hearing from President Trump is the same cognitive dissonance, where we say we want others to join us, but we aren’t doing what is necessary for others to want to join us.”

Adds Michael Doyle, a professor of international relations at Columbia University in New York and a former assistant secretary-general of the U.N.: “For Trump, cooperation is a one-way street. It’s others accepting a series of policies, a series of priorities that the president himself cites and a vision he himself holds, and insisting that others simply follow them. It’s all ‘my way or the highway,’ but that’s not an approach that others are likely to find enticing.”  

“Future belongs to patriots”

Many countries are likely to be all the more cautious after Mr. Trump’s highly nationalistic speech to the General Assembly Tuesday, in which he condemned globalism and vaunted sovereignty, national interests, and secure national borders.

“The future does not belong to globalists, the future belongs to patriots,” Mr. Trump said in a 35-minute speech delivered in a monotone with little expression of enthusiasm for the ideas he espoused.

A “globalist” worldview had “exerted a religious pull over past leaders, causing them to ignore their own national interests,” he told a silent General Assembly – a house that multilateralism built on the ashes of World War II.

For some, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric had little to do with cooperation on the critical challenges facing the world and was aimed more at a domestic audience drawn to a nationalist message that eschews internationalist approaches to issues like immigration.

“What the president said sounded very much like something [French far-right leader] Marine Le Pen said in a recent campaign, when she asked, ‘Are you a patriot or a globalist?’” Ms. Conley notes. “It’s a message that speaks to the ‘alt-right’ international, but it’s one I can only imagine left the [General Assembly] audience cold.”  

Mounting tensions with Iran, especially since Saudi oil fields were attacked Sept. 14, have offered a window into the challenges Mr. Trump faces as he seeks to go multilateral and enlist the support of allies for international action to deter Iran.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attacks, and Iran has rejected allegations that it was involved. Yet while no evidence has yet been publicly presented that shows Iran carried out the attacks, most experts and Western officials believe Iran was involved either directly or indirectly.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrives to address the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 25, 2019.

“This is effective multilateralism”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in the run-up to this week’s meetings at the U.N. that the U.S. would be pressing key allies to join in heightening pressure on Tehran, over both its regional provocations and its nuclear program.

And the Trump administration has had some success. On Monday France, Germany, and the United Kingdom – all three signatories to the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA, from which the U.S. has withdrawn – issued a joint statement saying it was “clear” that “Iran is responsible” for the oil field attacks and declaring “full solidarity” with Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in an interview with NBC News that he agrees with Mr. Trump that the JCPOA is a “bad deal” – and went a step further to call for a “Trump deal” to replace the 2015 accord.

Yet even with that, the three European allies of the U.S. said that they still support the JCPOA, and hope to encourage efforts to calm tensions so that all parties might return to the negotiating table to arrive at the “better deal” Mr. Trump says he wants.

But before that can happen, the main goal of the Europeans appears to be to head off a march to a hot conflict in the Middle East that could doom any hopes for nuclear diplomacy with Iran.

“France is trying to put together proposals to avoid an escalation,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters at the U.N. Monday. Mr. Macron has for months assigned himself the role of an intermediary between Mr. Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, with the objective of setting up a meeting between the two antagonistic leaders here this week.

That meeting already seemed like a very remote possibility at best, but the door might have been shut tight by Mr. Trump referring to “Iran’s blood lust” in his speech.

Speaking in New York Wednesday at a conference of the United Against Nuclear Iran organization, Secretary Pompeo laid out the progress he sees in enlisting international support for pressuring Iran.

Citing everything from the shift by America’s three European allies to Argentina’s recent designation of Iran-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, Mr. Pompeo said, “This is effective multilateralism; it’s what the Trump administration has tried to do – multilateralism based in fact and the truth.”

Trade with China

Mr. Trump has also used his days at the U.N. to encourage support from allies and partners for compelling China to adopt fairer and transparent trade practices, not just with the U.S., but with the world.

Addressing the trade issue in his speech, Mr. Trump said China had engaged in unfair and predatory practices since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 that had cost not just the U.S. but many other countries millions of jobs.

“Not only has China declined to adopt promised reforms, it has embraced an economic model dependent on massive market barriers, heavy state subsidies, currency manipulation, product dumping, forced technology transfers, and the theft of intellectual property and also trade secrets on a grand scale,” Mr. Trump said. “As far as America is concerned,” he added, “those days are over.”

The issue of China’s abuse of the international system is a natural for much of the world to want to side with the U.S. on, many analysts say. But they note that instead of cultivating that sense of common grievance, the Trump administration has antagonized its like-minded international trading partners, from Japan to the European Union.

“You’d have a greater chance of modifying China’s trade behavior if you joined forces with our key allies and put collective pressure on Beijing to really change its ways. And that in fact is the approach that Japan has encouraged from early on – that Japan, the U.S., and the EU join forces and confront the Chinese from one strong common position,” says Ms. Conley.

“But instead we have the president not just taking the bilateral approach he prefers,” she adds, “but also placing tariffs on Japan and the EU and threatening” to impose even more.

Many of Mr. Trump’s actions this week, from his religious freedom initiative to his fierce attack on the proponents of “open borders,” will no doubt be well received by his core domestic supporters. But Columbia’s Professor Doyle says the president’s global audience is unlikely to be swayed by what remains a very “America First” approach.

“Trump spoke at length about national sovereignty, and it sounds like sovereignty for all, but in reality it is sovereignty only on U.S. terms,” he says. “That is not an approach that encourages international cooperation.”

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