President elect Donald Trump will take office just weeks after the next UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres assumes his post on January 1.
The relationship between the US president and the Secretary General is important. The United States is the largest funder of the United Nations, providing about 22% of the regular budget and 28 % of the peacekeeping budget. The USA also sits on the Security Council and based on its size, strength and the fact that it serves as the UN’s host country, wields more influence at the world body than any other country on the planet.
Ban Ki Moon had a professional — if not personally close — relationship with President Obama. The two share common goals on climate change and President Obama productively engaged in climate talks overseen by the UN. The administration of President George W. Bush, on the other hand, had a fairly hostile relationship with Kofi Annan following the Bush administration’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003, which Annan publicly criticized. Father, back President George H.W. Bush and then-Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar had an exceedingly close relationship, particularly in the run-up to the Persian Gulf War. President Bush regularly sought out the UN chief for advice on worldly issues. For his part, de Cuellar felt emboldened enough to call Bush directly at the White House and urge the USA to pay its bills to the UN.
So what kind of relationship can we expect between Antonio Guterres and Donald Trump?
On the one hand, the two come from sharply different political traditions. Guterres is the former socialist Prime Minister of Portugal and head of the UN Refugee Agency. He emerged as a political leader during a peaceful revolution that overthrew Portugal’s fascist post-war government. He’s consistently shown throughout his political and diplomatic career a commitment to protecting the world’s most vulnerable people, including refugees. He’s chided countries that have not lived up to their international obligations to provide safe haven to people fleeing conflict and abuse. One may expect this could put him in conflict with the Trump administration.
On the other hand, Guterres is very much a cost-cutting reformer who has worked cooperatively with Republican administrations in the past.He was first appointed as head of the UN Refugee Agency during the George W. Bush administration, which is key because as the largest funder of the UN Refugee agency, the USA has an unofficial veto over who serves as its chief. He ran a tight ship as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, reforming budgets and even using creative real-estate moves to save on overhead. As head of the UN refugee agency he shifted some core headquarters functions from (expensive) Geneva to (cheaper) Budapest, cutting headquarters costs by $9 million per year. Within just three years of his appointment in 2005, staff costs shrunk from 45% of the overall budget to 33%. This kind of no-nonsense approach to budget management may appeal to President-elect Trump’s sensibilities.
Still, there is a great deal we do not know about Donald Trump’s foreign policy vision more broadly and his plans for the United Nations more specifically. His campaign rhetoric did not frequently invoke the United Nations, other than a vague call to reverse the Paris Climate Agreement and de-fund UN climate programs. In the coming weeks and days, as his foreign policy team is assembled, we will have a better sense of the direction he may take toward the United Nations. And soon after January 21 we will have a deeper sense of the kind of relationship that will emerge between the US President and UN Secretary General.