Washington: Every year, the US President heads to New York to welcome world leaders to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. He gives a speech and meets with an endless string of foreign potentates to discuss a dizzying array of complicated, often intractable issues.
The days are “kind of like speed dating from hell”, as one analyst put it, and the evenings are “the world’s most tedious cocktail party”. In other words, not exactly President Donald Trump’s favoured format.
But when Trump attends the first UN session of his presidency this week, all eyes will be on him as counterparts from around the globe crane their necks and slide through the crowd to snatch a handshake — and, in the process, try to figure out this most unusual of American leaders.
“The world is still trying to take the measure of this president,” said Jon B. Alterman, a senior vice-president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and author of the speed-dating analogy. “For a number of leaders, this is going to be their first chance to see him, to judge him, to try to get on his good side.”
In some places, there has been an instinct to dismiss Trump as a bombastic, Twitter-obsessed political and diplomatic neophyte.
“But the fact is you can’t write off the American President,” Alterman said.
One of Trump’s primary tasks will be to define how his America-first approach, which has led him to pull out of international agreements on free trade and climate change, fits into the world-first mission of the United Nations.
His challenge is “to describe the Trump Doctrine on US global leadership and engagement,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, ambassador to the UN under President George W. Bush. “The perception in many parts of the world, including the UN, is that President Trump is unilateralist and isolationist. Trump has the opportunity to present and describe his vision and strategy. The world will be all ears.”
Trump arrives in New York at a time of crackling tension over North Korea’s provocative actions and deep uncertainty about what he will do with President Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. While foreign leaders once feared that an erratic American presidency was taking shape, they have been reassured, to some extent, that Trump is settling into a somewhat more conventional foreign policy than many had anticipated, analysts said.
The President has not launched an all-out trade war with China, ripped up the Iran deal or the North American Free Trade Agreement, or moved the US Embassy in Israel to Occupied Jerusalem, at least not yet. He has belatedly reaffirmed support for Nato and agreed to send more troops to Afghanistan.
“But America’s friends still see dysfunctionality at the heart of the Trump administration, as key advisers come and go through the revolving door,” said Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to Washington. “They remain disheartened by Trump’s announcements on climate change and trade policy.” And “they fear that the fighting talk of this impulsive president could make things worse rather than better on the Korean Peninsula”.
Previewing the week, Lt Gen H.R. McMaster, the President’s national security adviser, said Trump would stress “sovereignty and accountability.” Sovereignty is a term that appeals to US conservatives sceptical about the UN It is also a term, however, used by autocrats such a s Presidents Bashar Assad of Syria and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela to reject interference by outside powers as they crush opposition.
Trump will emphasise long-standing efforts to reform what many Republicans see as the sclerotic and inefficient UN organisation, but aides would not say whether he would commit to the traditional level of US financing as Washington remains in arrears.
“You’ll have to wait and see,” said Nikki R. Haley, the ambassador to the UN.
Trump’s advisers made little mention of UN priorities such as the Global Goals set in 2015 to eliminate poverty and hunger, improve health and the environment, and reduce inequality and gender discrimination by 2030.
“The train has left the station, and he wants the train to come back to the station,” said Sarah E. Mendelson, an ambassador to the UN Economic and Social Council under Obama. “It’s going to go on regardless of what the President does or doesn’t say.”
Haley said Trump would use his speech to lay down markers.
“I personally think he slaps the right people, he hugs the right people, and he comes out with the US being very strong in the end,” she said.
North Korea will be “front and centre”, Haley said, just days after the Security Council escalated sanctions in response to its latest nuclear and missile tests. “And at that point, there’s not a whole lot the Security Council is going to be able to do,” she said, and so “I have no problem kicking it to Gen Mattis, because I think he has plenty of options,” she added, referring to Defence Secretary Jim Mattis.
The lunch with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea could help determine the next steps.
“They will also be looking to see if Trump is looking towards a long path with North Korea and looking towards diplomacy eventually,” said Lisa Collins, a Korea scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The President’s schedule offers various subplots. While Obama used his first UN visit to bring together Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, Trump will meet with them separately on different days, and aides played down expectations of progress in his peacemaking initiative. Indeed, aides said the meeting with Netanyahu would probably focus more on Iran, with the Israeli leader pressing Trump to revise or scrap the nuclear agreement.
Trump will not meet with Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the new prime minister of Pakistan, after recently increasing pressure on the US ally to crack down on Taliban elements operating out of its territory. Instead, vice-president Mike Pence will take that meeting. Likewise, Trump is not scheduled to attend a meeting on climate change.
Many will watch Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has been overshadowed by Haley, to see if he has influence or is on the way out. Tillerson is scheduled to meet with leaders or foreign ministers from Iraq, India, Russia and Myanmar, among others.
But to the extent world leaders evaluate the new President, Haley said they should be impressed.
“They’re going to find out we are going to be solid, we’re going to be strong,” she said. “No one is going to grip and grin. The United States is going to work.”