CANBERRA – U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and U.S. President Donald Trump could not be more different in background, temperament, experience and leadership style. Trump is brash, loud, vulgar, an amateur outsider and the ultimate disrupter, used to bossing everyone else, who does not do sensitivity. Guterres is courteous, sophisticated, cultured, professional, a global insider and the ultimate conciliator who persuades colleagues to follow his lead.
Truly, one is from Mars and the other from Venus. Yet, if the world is to weather the gathering storm to emerge in relative safety, for the next four years the two will have to work together.
The United Nations is not and never can be immune to the golden rule: He who has the gold writes and polices the rules. With 193 member states, it is unhealthily dependent for almost one-quarter of its regular budget on just one, the United States. Yet in some calculations, the U.N. system contributes more to the U.S. economy than it gets from Washington.
Periodically, calls are made in the U.S. to reduce payments, withdraw from the U.N. and expel it from the U.S. Trump describes it as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” Two draft executive orders have reportedly been prepared but delayed to cut U.N. funding by 40 percent and initiate a review of some multilateral treaties that could be canceled. On Jan. 3, Alabama Congressman Mike Rogers introduced a bill, co-sponsored by conservative-leaning representatives, to terminate U.S. membership of the U.N.
Unlikely to pass, the bill reinforces the Trump narrative of opposition to multilateral institutions and disengagement from global leadership. But should the threat of expulsion ever become real, it would concentrate the minds of New York’s political leaders and business community on the economic disaster that would portend for the city and the state, starting with property values.
Guterres seems ready to stand up to Washington. Reacting to Trump’s travel ban, on Feb. 1, Guterres, head of the U.N. refugee agency for a decade, said the ban “should be removed sooner rather than later” because it violates basic U.N. principles and is not the most effective way to prevent terrorist attacks. On Feb. 7, he deeply regretted Israel’s law to legalize settlements and outposts in the occupied West Bank built on land confiscated from Palestinians. He warned that the new law would have “far-reaching legal consequences” and could derail the two-state solution.
On Feb. 8, Guterres announced the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as special representative to head the Libya mission. The appointment was green-lighted by all Security Council members in discreet soundings, including the U.S. But, reflecting opposition from Israel’s prime minister, on Feb. 10, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley created a diplomatic dustup by suddenly announcing American opposition.
A former World Bank and IMF official who is disliked by Palestinian hardliners, Fayyad is exactly what Israel and the U.S. seek in Palestinian leaders. Guterres, one of the most Israel-sympathetic U.N. secretary-generals, has held firm in the right to choose his envoy based on personal qualities and representing no government.
Given Trump’s open disdain for staunch American allies, his hostility to the U.N. is unsurprising. We are well and truly into the era of post-truth alternative facts — the old admonition of everyone being entitled to their own opinions but not to create their own facts is clearly obsolete. Domestically, Trump has discovered he cannot run the country like his private business.
He may be mugged by reality sooner rather than later in world affairs as well. Allies and the U.N. are critical to the pursuit of global American interests; they are not just consumers of U.S. beneficence. The U.S. may still be the indispensable power, but the U.N. is no less an indispensable international organization. As the march of folly into Iraq in 2003 proved, U.S. exercise of power is less effective without U.N. sanction. Overall, the U.N. has been attentive to U.S. concerns, interests and preferences. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, for example, the U.N. immediately backed the war on terrorism.
The U.N. Charter proclaims Western liberal values as guiding U.N. principles. No other country had as much influence on designing the international organization nor on its operations once established as the U.S. No other will have as critical a role in determining its agenda and actions. The U.N. system was the forum for externalizing American values and virtues like democracy, human rights, rule of law and market economy, and embedding them in international institutions. U.S. structural dominance in the U.N. is embedded in its primary organs and voting procedures. The crucial executive decision-making body is the Security Council, which has often bent to U.S. will and can never act against U.S. vital interests owing to the veto clause.
Only the U.N. can set international standards and norms to regulate interstate behavior. Norms, laws and treaties for governing the global commons will either be negotiated in U.N. forums, or ratified by the U.N. machinery. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty are two good examples. Its humanitarian service delivery functions are widely appreciated. Studies by U.S. scholars and think tanks show how U.N. peace operations offer the best crossover between cost efficiency and effectiveness. There is no foreseeable substitute for the U.N.’s institutional and political legitimacy such that if it did not exist, we would have to invent it, albeit differently structured to reflect today’s geopolitical and economic realities.
The U.S. defense budget is around $600 billion. For under $8 billion, the U.N. maintains 16 peacekeeping operations with over 100,000 personnel from more than 100 countries in conflict-riven regions where otherwise Washington would face pressures to intervene, at the cost of American blood and treasure. Thus the U.N. offers the U.S. a means of mediating the choice between isolationism and unilateralism; between inaction through refusing to be a cop and permanent interventions through being the world’s only cop.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.