a photo of the UN building in New York, via Wikimedia Commons

Donald Trump’s First Meeting at the United Nations is About UN Reform. Here’s What That Means

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.

So what exactly are these reforms all about?

The reform agenda being touted by President Trump decidedly does not mean big changes to the Security Council to change the veto or expand the council to include emerging powers like India or Brazil. Rather, they are a suite of bureaucratic shifts and changes in the UN’s organizational chart. The net effect of these reforms is to increase the power of the Office of the Secretary General–that is, give him more ability to hire and fire personnel and more broadly shape the UN bureaucracy.  As of now, many of the kinds of executive authorities to do this are vested not with the Secretary General, but with UN membership at large.

Creating a more centralized bureaucracy accountable to the Secretary General has been a longtime goal of the United States, regardless of the administration. They are often joined by other key donors in Europe and Japan, who are keen to increase efficiencies and stretch their donor dollars as far as they can go.  These efforts have traditionally been resisted by the global south, which tends to view these kinds of reforms as a constraint upon their ability to influence hiring quotas and spending decisions.

Still, some 120 countries have signed onto a political declaration endorsing the general idea of bureaucratic reforms. (But that declaration very thin on actual details around reform hence, the large number of signatories.) Much of the details will be rolled in out in coming months as the Secretary General releases much-anticipated proposals to centralize management structures and introduce some changes to how UN peacekeeping operations are administered.

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: one hot debate around the reform of how the UN approaches development issues is whether or not UN “Resident Coordinators” should report to the Administrator of the UN Development Program. On Peacekeeping, a key question is whether certain offices in the Department of political affairs should be coupled with similar functions in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.  

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.

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.