We face a US president who distrusts international cooperation, disregards climate change and disdains the United Nations. There is nothing unusual about that. Ten years ago, when I moved to New York, George W Bush was in the White House and his hellion of an ambassador to the UN John Bolton (who argued that “there is no United Nations”) was striving to neuter the organisation after the Iraq crisis.
European diplomats had differed over Iraq, but they agreed on the need to protect the UN from Bolton.
This meant funnelling additional money into multilateral aid, deploying European Union military missions to back up blue helmet peacekeepers in Africa and supporting various UN reform efforts. The last failed to transform the institution, but Europe’s defensive campaign thwarted Bolton (who stood down in 2006) and kept the UN going until the Obama administration took office. Obama broadly aligned himself with European positions on issues from climate change to the Iran nuclear talks, and would frequently turn to the UN for assistance in stabilising trouble spots from Syria to South Sudan, albeit with very flawed results.
As a result, many European officials have grown comfortable with a generally constructive US presence at the UN, and have forgotten the battles of the Iraq era. It is time for them to reread the diplomatic cables from that time: President-Elect Trump, whose foreign policy advisors notably include Ambassador Bolton, seems to be heading for a series of early showdowns. It is hard to know how he will really act, but European diplomats and the incoming UN secretary-general – Antonio Guterres of Portugal – should be preparing contingency plans to defend recent multilateral achievements, like the Paris Agreement.
Trump has promised to undermine the Paris climate change treaty, cease funds to UN environmental initiatives and cut back on development aid. The top UN human rights official has called him “dangerous from an international point of view.”
In the Security Council, the US may tilt towards Russia, leaving Britain and France isolated.
On climate change, Europe’s most important ally may be China, which played a crucial role in making the Paris deal happen. Both before and after the US vote, Chinese officials indicated that they remain committed to combating global warming. Beijing, the EU and other concerned powers are unlikely to dissuade Trump from relenting completely on this issue, but they could jointly and quietly lobby him to avoid any drastic steps to undermine the Paris bargain – such as withdrawing the US from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – and pledge to sustain related UN programmes that the US defunds.
If the US also cuts funding for other UN efforts, such as humanitarian assistance on human rights monitoring, there will be further calls for EU members to fill the gaps. In the mid-2000s it was easy enough to find extra cash to boost the UN. But, today, European aid budgets are stretched by the refugee crisis, and even stalwart donors such as the United Kingdom are reassessing their commitments.
So there will be no simple European bailout for the UN. As James Cockayne of the UN University notes, “the UN will have to be much more hard-headed, focused and efficient, if it is to survive.” It will be no bad thing if it gets a bit leaner in response to Trump. But his arrival in office could also scramble basic assumptions about how the US and Europeans cooperate in the Security Council and other UN forums.
In the Security Council, the US may tilt towards Russia, leaving Britain and France isolated. The Obama administration has regularly marginalised the British and French to strike deals with the Russians over Syria at the UN, but Trump could take this even further. It is quite conceivable, for example, that Russia and the US could jointly sponsor a new UN peace plan for Syria that explicitly leaves President Bashar al-Assad in place. That would leave London and Paris with an impossible choice: Stand by their previous demands for Assad to go and veto Russo-American resolutions, or simply acquiesce to Trump’s sellout.
In Geneva, the US may return to the Bush administration’s habit of “disengaging” with the Human Rights Council, especially if it raises questions about Trump’s declared willingness to use torture. If Washington disregards multilateral human rights and justice mechanisms, other countries are liable to follow its example. Three African countries, including South Africa, recently signalled their intention to quit the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is easy to imagine more doing so without Trump seriously objecting.
The number of ways that President Trump will be able to mess up the UN is almost infinite: If he reneges on the Iran deal, for example, Tehran could lodge a formal complaint with the Security Council. Cue diplomatic fireworks. European officials in New York and Geneva should use the remaining two months of President Obama’s tenure to map these political risks, quantify the damage that American funding cuts might do to various parts of the UN, and assess potential responses. Where, for example, can some cash be found in existing aid budgets to fill the most damaging potential US cuts? What incentives do wavering African states need to stick with the ICC? What steps will China consider to defend the Paris agreement?
However well diplomats prepare for Trump, he will find ways to surprise them. But, rather as new parents should child-proof as much of their home as possible before their offspring can walk, Europe’s representatives to the UN should safeguard as much of the system as they can before he takes office.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.