Donald Trump and the United Nations: What to Expect at the UN General Assembly This Week

Donald Trump will spend three consecutive days at the United Nations. And this year, like last year, his speeches, off the cuff remarks and general comportment will drive the discussion in New York.

On Monday, Trump will chair a meeting focused on counter narcotics and drugs. This event is mostly intended for a domestic political audience and includes a somewhat banal pledge from attendees to engage more deeply on supply and demand side issues of the drugs trade. It will be a brief event, and attendees are promised a photo-op with Trump.

On Tuesday, Trump delivers his remarks to the General Assembly. Given the apparently warm feelings that Trump now holds for Kim Jong Un, we probably cannot expect a repetition of his bellicose rhetoric from last year in which he derided Kim. However, we probably can expect some harsh words directed against the Palestinians, as the United States has recently broken with decades of precedent and cut off virtually all humanitarian to Palestinian refugees and bi-lateral assistance to the Palestinian Authority. We can also expect Trump to hit on themes of sovereignty, stressing that the United States should remain above reproach and not bound to international agreements like the Paris Accords.  

The real drama may unfold on Wednesday, when President Trump is scheduled to chair a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. 

The United States currently holds the presidency of the Security Council, a position that rotates each month between member states. This gives the United States the chance to set the Security Council’s schedule for September, and therefore the US president the opportunity to serve as President of the Security Council when other heads of state are in town.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley first announced in early September that this meeting would focus on Iran. Days later, she walked that back after it became obvious that every single country on the Security Council, including America’s closest allies, would use the opportunity to re-iterate their support of the Iran Nuclear Deal,  from which the United States has withdrawn. Furthermore, the bylaws of the Security Council would have permitted the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, to address the Council.

The optics of this would not have been great for the United States, so the US Mission to the UN sent a clarifying note saying that the meeting would instead focus on non-proliferation issues more generally. But one week before the scheduled meeting, the Washington Post reported that the White House had disowned this new iteration, and instead the meeting would now focus on a rather vague grab-bag of international affairs buzzwords favored by conservatives, including “sovereignty and constitutionalism.” A planning memo for the press circulated by the White House on Thursday lists simply “counter-proliferation” as the topic of the meeting. But then, on Friday, Trump tweeted this: 

The upshot is that no-one really knows what will happen on Wednesday, when President Trump chairs this meeting. Still, in a press conference on Thursday, Nikki Haley invoked Trumpian superlatives to describe the upcoming meeting, saying it would be “the most watched Security Council meeting ever.” 

Every country on the 15 member panel will be given an opportunity to speak. Chances are, most countries will play it cool and strenuously avoid anything that may offend Trump. (The exception here might be Bolivia, which seems to enjoy needling the United States during Security Council meetings.) The real variable is Trump himself. Will he stay on script and follow protocol as “President of the Security Council?” Will he break protocol by interrupting speeches and take pot shots at other Council members, as he did during the G7 and NATO? Does he even have the stamina and attention span to sit through 14 purposefully innocuous speeches by other member states? Does he expect the Security Council meeting to mimic meetings of his cabinet, in which officials take turns lavishing him with praise?

The fact that no-one really knows what to expect from Trump during this meeting is exceedingly worrisome to people around the United Nations. There is a profound desire around the UN not to offend Trump or do anything that might trigger a negative reaction from him. The worst outcome would be a repeat of the G7 or NATO summits, which Trump purposefully blew up by offending allies and openly deriding the utility of these institutions.  “Figuring out what might offend Trump and how to avoid that is something of a parlor game around here,” one time UN watcher told me. “No one wants this to end up like the G7 or NATO summits.”

So far, the UN has been able to escape Trump’s ire. But whether or not UNGA devolves into a diplomatic train-wreak hinges largely on what will happen during this Security Council meeting.