By Julia d'Amours
The 72nd UN General Assembly will start on Tuesday, September 19th. This year’s theme is “Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet,” as chosen by this year’s GA President Miroslav Lajčak of Slovakia. Lajčak has designated six themes for this year’s GA: improving the lives of ordinary people; prevention and mediation to sustain peace; migration; achieving SDG and climate standards; human rights and equal opportunities for both genders; and improved quality of events hosted by the UN General Assembly Presidency.
The UNGA always garners international attention as the “hottest ticket in diplomacy,” but this year’s is leaving delegations in heightened anticipation as President Trump makes his UN debut. According to State Department officials, the US delegation will be smaller than earlier years, scaling down attendance from 1,000 to about 300 US personnel. US diplomats will also reportedly need permission to attend the myriad side events and debates hosted throughout the week. This diminished presence is partly due to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s aims to scale down departmental spending. It’s also sending the message, however, that the US is disengaging from its international obligations and the UN as a whole.
President Trump will be present for three days of the UNGA, more time than most US Presidents have traditionally spent, beginning his participation with an address to the General Assembly on Tuesday, September 19th. From there, he will proceed to several key events, such as a luncheon hosted by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The Trump Administration has indicated counterterrorism, conflict in Syria, North Korea, and UN reform as its priorities during this GA session.
Another change in this year’s GA will be the venue of the negotiations. Typically, the US hosts meetings at the UN or in nearby hotels. Trump has opted instead for his New Jersey golf club. It is rumored that his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner will play significant roles in these discussions.
Recent tensions between the Trump Administration and UN have left foreign diplomats with apprehension. At the White House in April, Trump remarked that he has “long felt that the UN is an underperformer but has tremendous potential”. Ambassador Haley told the UNSC in April, “You don’t see the United Nations, like, solving conflicts.” The relationship between the White House and the UN has only grown more contentious over the summer. Last month, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN Human Rights Chief, said that Trump’s repeated denouncements of the press and incitement of violence was “poisonous.”
Historically the US has used the UNGA to demonstrate its commitment to global leadership and indispensable role in the UN. This year, however, many expect touting an “America First” agenda. On September 18th, Trump will chair a meeting on streamlining UN services which will give him and Haley the opportunity to present themselves as big UN reformers. It is anticipated Trump will threaten to revoke funding in certain reforms are not made.
With the increasing hostility with North Korea, the ongoing conflict in Syria, global terror attacks and countries all over the world dealing with the ravaging effects of climate change, the world needs national level leadership to meaningfully address international crises. Unfortunately, the signs are pointing to Trump’s visit to the UN further fraying global tensions.