5 Stories to Follow for UN Week

1) Donald Trump’ Unpredictability Sets the Tone

Every UNGA has its sideshows. In past years, this has included things like Muammar Gaddafi’s rambling 125 minute speech; Hugo Chavez suggesting George W. Bush was literally the devil, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claiming there are no gays in Iran. These antics tend to suck up much of the media attention, often to the detriment of important issues of substance.

This year, though, the sideshow is the main event: Donald Trump’s debut at the United Nations.

Trump will spend a good amount of time at UNGA. He scrapped plans to reside an hour drive away at his golf club in New Jersey and will instead stay in downtown Manhattan, blocks from the UN. On Monday he will preside over a UN high level meeting on UN reform and on Tuesday he will deliver his much anticipated address to General Assembly. Beyond that, he will have a number of bilateral meetings with other heads of state and dignitaries, including UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, whom he had not yet met in person as president.

This is a fairly typical schedule for any American president, and in a press conference ahead of UNGA UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and National Security Advisor HR McMaster laid out an agenda that is not terribly dissimilar from previous Presidential engagements at the UN. Still,  Donald Trump is not a typical US president. The key question on everyone’s mind is: which Donald Trump will show up? Will be be scripted and stay on message? And if so, what will that message be? Will he say one thing at the UN and tweet something else? 

The inability of the international community to accurately predict the behavior of the United States president has been a driving force of international relations since Trump took office in January. This dynamic will surely manifest itself at the United Nations this week, with Trump’s erraticism keeping the UN at edge. 

2) Designing Solutions for Sustainable Development

Though it does not register on the Trump administration’s agenda, much of the international community are using UNGA as an opportunity to spur progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.  With the US federal government abrogating its leadership role on climate change and sustainable development, many other forces are stepping up to fill the void. Throughout New York this week, there are innumerable opportunities for local government, civil society, the private sector and philanthropies to demonstrate leadership on smart growth and sustainable development. 

These include several high level meetings at the United Nations and events around New York, including (but certainly not limited to) the annual Social Good Summit, the Global Citizen Festival, Climate Week, the Sustainable Development Solutions Summit at Columbia University, and a new forum organized by the Gates Foundation, called “Goal Keepers”  that will feature a keynote from Barack Obama. 

The Sustainable Development Goals are a set of 16 goals that every UN member state pledged to work to achieve by 2030. The top line goal is a total elimination of extreme poverty — as defined as people who live on less than $1.25 per day —  by 2030.

Now two years into those goals, a great deal of effort and energy is being expended into devising tangible solutions to some of the discrete challenges posed by the goals.

The dialogue around the SDGs this year will very much be solutions-driven, including devising new ways to finance the SDGs, exploring new strategies to curb maternal mortality, or scaling up strategies that already have a proven track record. Those these events and meetings are not likely to generate much media attention, but they are arguably the important and substantive outcomes of this week in New York.

3) The Rohingya Crisis

International crises have often provided a sobering backdrop against which world leaders convene in New York. Alas, this year is no different. Over 400,0000 members of an ethnic minority in Myanmar, the Rohingya, have been driven from their homes and fled across the border to Bangladesh. The uptick in violence began in late August and since then Rohingya towns, villages and neighborhoods have been burned to the ground by government security forces. Even as it foments a mass displacement crisis, the government of Myanmar is preventing aid from reaching this besieged population. Top UN officials, including the Secretary General himself, have called a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Behind the scenes, diplomats will focus on twin priorities of designing strategies to pressure Burma to relent on its ongoing campaign and boosting financial support to Bangladesh and humanitarian relief agencies working to stem the fallout. 

From the General Assembly rostrum expect a diversity of dignitaries to condemn this ongoing human rights catastrophe. The Rohingya are religiously muslim, and their plight has become increasingly politically relevant in Muslim majority countries. European countries are also likely to publicly criticize the Burmese government, as they have been growing increasingly condemnatory in recent days. One big unknown is whether Donald Trump will raise the issue publicly. Any other US president probably would, but he has shown a public indifference to human rights issues in general and an antipathy towards Muslims in particular.

No leader, though, will be able to criticize the country’s de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to her face. The Nobel Laureate has decided to skip UNGA. Meanwhile, by the time her counterpart across the border Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hassana takes the General Assembly podium on TK, the number of Rohingya refugees who have fled her county in the last three weeks could very well exceed half a million.

4) North Korea

UNGA convenes on the heels of yet another tit-for-tat between North Korea and the Security Council. After North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test on September 6, the Security Council imposed a heavy round of new sanctions on the country. These came on top of particularly stringent sanctions passed just one month earlier. Meanwhile, last week, the North once again tested a missile, which flew over Japanese territory. On Friday, the Security Council issued a joint statement condemning this latest provocation.

Little progress is expected on this issue this week, principally for the fact that the Chinese President is skipping UNGA.  Still, North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho is in town — and he has historically been a key interlocutor with the United States. The chances that he meet with his American counterpart Rex Tillerson, however, are rather slim. 

Expect American diplomats —and President Trump himself — to press counterparts to more robustly enforce the recently-passed Security Council sanctions. Taken together, these sanctions, which hit North Korea’s textile industry, coal, oil and seafood exports, affect about a third of North Korea’s foreign trade. But they are only as strong as they are enforced. Encouraging countries to put the squeeze on North Korea by swiftly implementing the sanctions is very much expected to be a centerpiece of President Trump’s address to the General Assembly. The alternative, he is expected to argue, increases the likelihood of war.

Though he came to office having expressed disdain for the United Nations, President Trump has nevertheless put the UN at the center of resolving the most urgent national security threat facing the United States. 

5) Donald Trump: Champion of Common Sense UN Reform (Seriously)   

Donald Trump’s debut at the United Nations comes one day before his speech to the General Assembly. On Monday, Trump is playing host to a high level meeting on United Nations reform. He is there to lend his support— and demonstrate the highest level of US government commitment — to a rather technical set of management and bureaucratic reforms that are being championed by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. This is likely to be the substantive highlight of American engagement at the UN, and it accompanies a “political declaration” of support around some key principles of UN management reform.

On the one hand, it is somewhat curious that President Trump would personally lead a forum on this effort because these discussions center on rather arcane peculiarities about the UN bureaucracy. (To whit: the hot debate is whether or not UN “Resident Coordinators” should report to the Administrator of the UN Development Program or directly to Office of the Secretary General. Another issue: should the Assistant-Secretary-General for Economic Development also serve under a newly formed position of United Nations Chief Economist?)

On the other hand, resolving questions like these–and many, many others — are actually quite critical to a better functioning UN system. The reform package championed by Antonio Guterres and vigorously supported by Nikki Haley would make the United Nations a more streamlined bureaucracy better able to deliver tangible results to the people it serves. So it should be seen as a net plus that the US has decided to positively engage on these issues at the highest level.

From a political standpoint, the net effect of these reforms would be to strengthen the position of the UN Secretary General–that is, give him more power to hire and fire personnel and more generally shape the UN bureaucracy. Efforts to empower the office of the Secretary General have historically been supported by the United States, Europe, Japan and the major donor countries. They have been resisted by the global south, which tends to view these efforts as a constraint upon their ability to influence hiring quotas and spending decisions.

Whether or not this high level forum provides the kind of political boost these efforts need to win support from the broader UN membership is not yet clear. But it is definitely a positive sign that the United States is willing to give it a try.


Podcast: UN expert Richard Gowan discusses the highlights of this year’s UNGA.