Blog Post

The UN in the Era of Trump

What the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States will mean for the United Nations in the years to come.

Date Published
29 Nov 2016
Sebastian von Einsiedel Cale Salih

The election of Donald Trump as the next United States President has created significant unease in the United Nations. While much remains unclear and difficult to predict, the views of Mr Trump and his advisers, combined with Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress for at least the next two years, indicate that the UN is headed toward a new and potentially challenging relationship with the US. The contours of this new era are just beginning to take shape, but, as we suggest in this piece, the UN would do well to pay close attention to four areas that may be especially affected: UN Security Council (UNSC) dynamics; funding; climate change; and human rights. We also suggest a few concrete recommendations for the new Secretary-General (SG) on how he can best prepare the UN for a very different US government and protect the institution from beginners’ mistakes all around.

As others have already noted, many of the statements Mr Trump made as a candidate are at odds with the positions of the UN – on issues from human rights, refugees and climate change, to the Iran deal, the Middle East Peace Process. Mr Trump’s often vague and sometimes inconsistent foreign policy statements on the campaign trail make any predictions on how a Trump presidency will impact the UN difficult. Richard Gowan has presented both pessimistic and guardedly optimistic scenarios, each of which are within the range of the possible, although the former seems more plausible.

The seeming absence of a fixed and detailed foreign policy programme on the part of the President-elect suggests that appointments for key posts in his administration will significantly shape his approach to the UN. His picks so far hail from a variety of schools of the remarkably heterogeneous field of Republican foreign policy. They are divided by markedly differing positions on key issues, especially relations with Russia.

Mr Trump and some of his closest advisers – including his National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and General Flynn’s deputy, K.T. McFarland, as well as some names being floated for Secretary of State (e.g. John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani) – are part of the self-described “America First” camp of Republican foreign policy. Like traditional realists (nowadays an endangered species in the Republican party), America Firsters think US foreign policy should be guided by interests rather than values - but they tend to define those interests in more nationalist and nativist terms and, unlike realists, display little appreciation for alliances. They share with neoconservatives (who dominated US foreign policy during the first term of President George W. Bush) a keen desire to maintain US primacy in international affairs and readiness to act unilaterally, but reject neoconservatives’ idealistic streak and penchant for interventionism in the name of democracy. They have in common with isolationists (who live on among Congressional Republicans and the party’s libertarian wing) an anti-globalist outlook and discomfort with foreign entanglements. But, in contrast to isolationists, they emphasise their readiness to use force abroad in defence of US interests (about which Mr Trump himself, on the campaign trail, expressed considerable reticence).

All of these elements may at times inform the approach to the multilateral sphere of the America Firsters - sovereignty hawks who are generally sceptical of international norms and law, and tend to see international institutions, including the UN, in narrow transactional terms. According to this view, the UN is at best a sometimes-useful tool to serve US foreign policy interests. At its worst, it is inimical to US interests and undeserving of US support.

The America First group’s views on foreign policy could be moderated by possible additions of mainstream figures to the new administration. The foreign policy paper trail of Nikki Haley, Mr Trump’s pick for US Ambassador to the UN, is virtually non-existent, but she is backed by mainstream Republican figures like Senator Lindsey Graham. James Mattis, reportedly a leading candidate for Secretary of Defence, has spoken out against torture and said the next president should strengthen and broaden America’s foreign alliances. Mitt Romney, a contender for Secretary of State, expresses realist-pragmatist views well within mainstream Republican foreign policy thinking. This, however, offers the UN only a small comfort. While mainstream Republicans tend to be less instinctively disdainful of the UN than America Firsters, many - including Mr Romney - have rebuked the world body and threatened it financially.

Tensions within the new administration on foreign policy are likely to emerge. A major event – such as a terrorist attack – could propel one group’s influence on the President over another’s, in ways reminiscent of the marginalisation of pragmatic realists like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in favour of neoconservatives like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz after 9/11.  Given Mr Trump’s America First platform, there is a significant risk that the more moderate voices in his administration – in particular Mrs Haley who, unlike Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s first pick as UN Ambassador, does not enjoy a long-forged relationship of trust with the president – could be drowned out.

Permanent Five (P5) Dynamics

While President-elect Trump may be sceptical of the UN, he will probably soon discover that the Security Council can be a useful forum in which to pursue US interests and to engineer burden-sharing, as President George H. W. Bush demonstrated so skilfully on Iraq in 1990-91. As we have seen in the case of Iran and North Korea, sanctions against rule-breakers in the international system tend to gain bite once they are multilateralised through the Security Council. Meanwhile, many Republicans will remember that ignoring the Security Council has at times proven costly for Washington, as in 2003, when the US invasion of Iraq absent UN authorisation prevented many US allies from supporting the endeavour.

Equipped with the veto power that allows it to preclude any outcomes that run counter to its interests, the US will remain engaged in the Security Council, even if its enthusiasm for other parts of the UN diminishes. Dynamics within the UNSC are, however, likely to change under a Trump administration, creating new opportunities and risks for the Council’s work.

There is likely to be an initial effort to pursue US rapprochement with Russia within the UNSC and beyond. Mr Trump has expressed admiration for President Vladimir Putin and apparent eagerness to work with Russia against ISIS in Syria. General Flynn has similarly proposed US-Russian collaboration against terrorism, and his obsession with “Radical Islam” aligns with fears of the Kremlin. Moscow, for its part, made no secret of its delight at the outcome of the US election, and after the first telephone call between Mr Putin and Mr Trump, the Kremlin declared that the two share “phenomenally similar” views on foreign policy.

With President Trump in the White House, US-Russian cooperation in the Security Council on terrorism is likely to strengthen. The first place this will be felt and tested is probably Syria, where Presidents Putin and Trump may agree on backing Assad as the lesser evil against ISIS (notwithstanding the fact that Iran would emerge as a main beneficiary). Washington and Moscow could reinforce each other’s take-no-prisoners approach to terrorism, to the detriment of respect for human rights and due process. Already, the UNSC has a dire human rights record in the context of its counter-terrorism work.[1] These human rights deficits have undermined the legitimacy and effectiveness of the UNSC’s counter-terrorism effort, which may suffer further as a result of a growing perception that it is directed against the Muslim world.

With the America First crowd’s prioritisation of a narrowly defined “national interest,” a convergence of views on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) may well emerge between the US on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other. The latter two, despite their rhetorical endorsement of the concept in 2005, have always seen R2P as a smokescreen for the pursuit of Western interests. UN-authorised use of force principally for humanitarian purposes may well be a thing of the past – at least for the foreseeable future.

That said, the US-Russian honeymoon period is unlikely to last, as the interests of the two countries are not aligned on a number of regions and issues, from Eastern Europe to missile defence. The Republican establishment remains largely anti-Russian and is likely to pressure the administration to respond forcefully if faced with Russian moves to expand its influence in its near-abroad and, possibly, countries that are NATO allies. It is worth remembering that the “reset” policy, actively promoted by President Obama after entering the White House in an effort to enlist Russian cooperation to address the Iranian nuclear crisis and other security challenges, was a short-lived one.

Meanwhile, intra-P3 (US, UK and France) relations may well suffer as a result – at least temporarily. As Jeremy Shapiro has written, Mr Trump’s transactional view of alliances, his belief that the US has come out on the losing side of free trade, and his admiration of authoritarian strongmen, are all “fundamentally at odds with the decades-old principles of transatlantic relations.” Some of Mr Trump’s stated positions – from conditioning US support to NATO and renegotiating the Iran deal to undoing the Paris Agreement – have distressed committed transatlanticists. Within the Security Council, US-Russian collusion may replace P3 collusion on counter-terrorism and Syria, while the P3’s common front on issues such as peacekeeping, human rights, democracy promotion, protection of civilians and humanitarian access, is likely to face heavy weather, at least early on.

US leadership on strengthening peacekeeping, manifested in the 2015 peacekeeping summit hosted by President Obama, will almost surely end, even if the Trump administration comes to recognise UN peacekeeping’s usefulness as a cost-effective burden-sharing tool, including, as Richard Gowan suggested, “for backfilling U.S. retrenchment” from foreign trouble spots. US-Russian collusion is also likely to result in a greater focus of peace operations on counter-terrorism, and a de-emphasis on the seemingly ever-expanding mandates that have justified very large peacekeeping operations that have nevertheless failed to shift realities on the ground.

Finally, a breakdown in the Iran deal could create new tensions between the US and the other four permanent members. The latter are satisfied with the implementation of the agreement thus far, and Europeans are particularly eager to profit from the new business opportunities that the deal has created.


The UN system is already under pressure of declining European contributions to some of its programs, a trend unlikely to change until EU countries experience sustained economic growth (if then). For instance, the amount available under the UN Peacebuilding Fund for allocation at the beginning of each year reached an all-time low in 2016, at less than half of what was available just three years ago. Contributions to UN development agencies are increasingly earmarked at the expense of core contributions. Under the new US administration, the UN’s financial problems may intensify.

During the campaign, Mr Trump complained that the US funds the UN disproportionately without getting anything in return. Congressional Republicans, who maintained their majorities in both houses, have a long history of seeking to de-fund the organisation selectively and, at times, extensively, thereby creating problems for the secretariat and for other member states. Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, when serving in the House of Representatives, co-sponsored two radical bills – the 2005 Hyde Act and the 2011 Ros-Lehtinen Act – which proposed to withhold half of US dues unless the UN were to meet extensive demands, including that the world body shift to a largely voluntary funding model. If Mr Bolton, who wrote a book arguing that voluntary funding is the “only meaningful UN reform,” is offered a major role in the new administration, such legislation could soon enjoy unprecedented support in the White House. In the new political dispensation, the UN should thus brace for two possible trends: a decline in US contributions to the UN; and an increase in the strings attached to the surviving funds. Indeed, in light of past Republican performance on UN dues, these can be considered quite likely.

A 2015 version of the Ros-Lehtinen Act is currently pending in the House and likely to be re-introduced next year. Despite having 141 all-Republican co-sponsors, it had no chance of ever becoming law under President Obama, who has, largely successfully, pushed back against Congressional attempts to limit and condition UN funding.[2] Come January, a Republican-controlled Congress may encounter a White House more sympathetic to such efforts.

Recalling the funding battles of the mid- to late-1990s may prove instructive. Back then, a Congressionally-imposed funding cap on the US dues for UN peacekeeping (pegged at 25% of the overall peacekeeping budget - almost 6% short of what the US was then supposed to pay) led US arrears to grow so large that Washington came close to losing its vote in the General Assembly. The Clinton administration helped narrowly avert this outcome by pushing for a congressional compromise, ultimately produced in the form of the 1999 Helms-Biden agreement, which tied payment of around $1 billion in US arrears to reform benchmarks as well as to a reduction of the US regular budget assessment and of its peacekeeping assessment to, respectively, 22% and 25%. The following year, the General Assembly agreed to the former but only to a gradual and limited reduction of the US’s peacekeeping assessment, which is renegotiated every three years and today stands at 28.57%. Meanwhile, the 25% spending cap remains in force and must be revisited every year by Congress, which can aim to waive or enforce it.

During the last period of Republican control of the White House and Congress (2003-2007), US arrears built up again, partly because Congress refused to waive the peacekeeping cap, and partly because the Bush administration’s appropriation requests to Congress fell short of the US assessment. When President Obama assumed office in 2009, with Democratic control of the House and Senate things turned around: the US raised the peacekeeping cap in order to enable payment of arrears that had accumulated from 2005-8 and fully funded the US’s share of the UN’s regular and peacekeeping budgets for 2010-11.

This legislative background suggests that peacekeeping may once again be hit by congressional cost-cutting efforts. At the UN’s current assessment rate and budget, a Congressional refusal to waive the peacekeeping cap would produce annual shortfalls of nearly $300 million.

But other parts of the UN may be at even greater risk. The UN’s humanitarian entities have much to lose if USAID, the biggest donor to their efforts, suffers cuts under the new administration. The World Bank, too, is likely to find itself in some distress in light of the fact that Jim Kim, an Obama pick, was just re-elected for a second five-year term in an accelerated process that discouraged rival candidacies. And the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) may be a particularly soft target, due to the perception among many Republicans that UNFPA’s family planning work is linked to abortion.

Climate change

Withdrawing the US from multilateral efforts to combat climate change was one of Mr Trump’s most prominent campaign promises. On the first page of his “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again”, he commits to “cancel billions in payments to U.N. climate change program.” He has called climate change a “hoax invented by the Chinese,” threatened to “cancel” the Paris Agreement, and installed as head of the US Environmental Protection Agency a well-known climate sceptic. Though Mr Trump has backtracked somewhat in recent days, telling the New York Times that he will maintain an “open mind” to the Paris Agreement, multilateral consensus on climate change now faces new risks.

Many countries consider climate change to be the defining challenge of our age, and SG Ban Ki-moon made the issue his top priority throughout his term. A US rejection of the Paris Agreement would be seen by many countries, not least China and EU members, as a major provocation and would widely undermine belief in the multilateral system’s ability to address global challenges. President George W. Bush’s decision to walk away from the Kyoto Protocol shortly after taking office led to an outcry among US allies threatening to harm multilateral cooperation in other areas.

While, as Nathan Hultman has pointed out, the new administration would find it difficult to unwind Obama’s regulatory actions on climate change, and cannot “cancel” the Paris Agreement, Mr Trump could take actions that would undermine and potentially derail the process. Withholding US support to the UN’s Green Climate Fund would provoke a backlash from developing countries, some of which, such as India, only ratified the Paris Agreement on the understanding that developed countries would provide climate financing and technology. While Mr Trump cannot immediately withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement – that would take four years[3]early reports suggest his team is considering withdrawing the US from the Agreement’s parent treaty, the UNFCCC, which could be achieved by Executive Order within just one year, thus annulling US participation in both.

Even if the Trump administration were to refrain from such a radical step, it is safe to assume that the US will withdraw from its multilateral leadership role on climate change. China, the biggest greenhouse gas emitter, seems eager to step in to fill the US’s spot if this happens, burnishing its soft power credentials. In the long-run, this could give China freer rein to dominate in renewables and invest in more resilient, state-of-the-art infrastructure. However, China’s capacity to take on a share of US burdens as well as its own existing obligations and pledges is limited.

Human rights

Though Trump recently backtracked on calls he made during the campaign to torture terror suspects, his appointment of Mike Pompeo, an avowed supporter of torture methods, as CIA director raises doubts about his commitment to human rights. Promoting human rights and democracy abroad are unlikely to be priorities of his administration. In the best-case scenario, the UN should expect US leadership on these issues to decline. In the worst-case scenario, the UN’s human rights machinery may face outright US hostility.

The UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC), which replaced the largely discredited Commission on Human Rights in 2006 and with which the US has a convoluted history, could be among the new administration’s first targets. The US, then under Bush, was one of only four countries that voted against the General Assembly resolution establishing the HRC, arguing that the resolution did not include sufficient assurances that the new body’s membership would exclude the worst abusers of human rights. Upon assuming office, the Obama administration changed course by seeking – and winning for the first time on the HRC – a US seat, which it saw as “a key forum for advancing human rights.”

With Republicans in control of the White House and Congress, the US may return to its pre-2009 policy of cold-shouldering the HRC, which is unpopular among mainstream Republicans but especially loathed by the America First crowd. Whether or not the administration will relinquish its seat on the HRC, to which it was just recently re-elected for a three-year term starting on 1 January 2017, remains to be seen. One factor weighing in favour of the rest of the Council is the continued US interest in directing the attention of HRC-mandated fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry towards regimes inimical to the US.

US leadership on human rights is likely to recede in other areas as well, even when compared with administration of George W. Bush, during which US support to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights actually increased. We can expect Trump’s attitude towards OHCHR to be much cooler, if only because he will surely remember the public warnings of the sitting High Commissioner for Human Rights, a month before the US election, of the dangers of a Trump presidency.

As Alex Thier has noted, women and girls internationally have much to lose under a Trump presidency. Although Mr Trump has expressed an array of contradictory views on family planning, his Vice-President-elect is strongly opposed to women’s rights and abortion, and spearheaded Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. Similarly, LGBTI rights could slide off the UN’s agenda without an outspoken American advocate. Though Nikki Haley has expressed moderate views on same-sex marriage, she has not exhibited the activist streak that outgoing US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power has on LGBTI rights.

Finally, the US may be headed toward a new showdown with the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC is reportedly poised to launch an investigation into possible war crimes in Afghanistan that could include acts of torture committed by the US military from 2003-14. The Obama administration has already spoken out against the prospect of an ICC investigation involving American citizens, but the incoming one is likely to react much more strongly if the investigation proceeds. Combined with a recent exodus from the ICC (including a pull out by South Africa, Burundi, Gambia and an “unsigning” of the Rome Statute by Russia), a defensive and hostile US position toward the ICC would be a further blow to an already weakened court.

Implications for the new Secretary-General

Incoming SG António Guterres will likely find himself in a difficult position come January. On the one hand, the US remains an indispensable power whose support and buy-in is essential for the UN’s relevance. The SG depends in large part on the US not only for funding, but also for its unique power to mobilise the international community behind UN objectives and implementation of its mandates. On the other hand, he is also expected to be the UN’s guardian of human rights, protection norms and UN principles. The sovereignty-conscious “America First” camp will look unfavourably on a SG who acts as a moralising secular pope imbued with policy-autonomy or norm-entrepreneurship. What they want is a Secretary rather than a General.

All of this could at times put Mr Guterres on a collision course with Washington. Striking the right balance between often competing imperatives will prove a tricky challenge for the new SG. Adopting a confrontational approach to Washington is neither wise nor desirable. The SG will surely need to seek constructive and action-oriented cooperation with the US on issues of mutual concern, like human trafficking and modern slavery, a longstanding bipartisan worry in the US. Such a relationship will require confidence building over time.

At the same time, the SG must speak truth to power when necessary, in defence of UN principles and fundamental norms. Kofi Annan risked tensions with the US by condemning torture in Abu Ghraib, but in hindsight this may have helped salvage the UN’s – and his own – credibility.

Mr Guterres should also seek to frame critical issues in ways that resonate with the new US administration. On climate change, for instance, the UN could place more emphasis on the opportunities that climate action in the US and abroad would present for job creation and innovation. With regard to peacekeeping, the UN should copy from the script of the Obama administration, laid out in his Presidential Directive, that peacekeeping is a burden-sharing tool that is in US national interests, while recognising that how the UN goes about peacekeeping can and should change (in line with future mandates granted by the UNSC). It can also frame peacekeeping operations – which are eight times less expensive than a comparable US force – as a potential bargain deal for the US.

To engage constructively, Mr Guterres will need to build channels of communications into the new administration. Since the 1990s, even during Republican administrations, senior US political advisors to the SG were largely drawn from the Democrat circles, from John Ruggie and Michael Doyle to Bob Orr and Jeffrey Feltman. Mr Guterres needs a senior advisor who shares UN goals but can reach into the Trump administration, and thus help him navigate relations with Washington.

In order to pre-empt and mitigate the risk that the US will use funding as leverage to force the UN to comply with US demands, Mr Guterres will doubtless craft an image as a reform-minded SG, open to doing things differently, not necessarily “more with less”, but more likely “less with less, managed skilfully.” This strategy is inevitable and perfectly possible in the peacekeeping sphere, which has produced mainly very negative headlines for the UN in recent years.

Pushing early in his term for tangible improvements in critical areas that have proven to be lightening-rod issues for Congress, such as sexual abuse by peacekeepers, protection of UN whistle-blowers and independent oversight (especially for corruption) would help Mr Guterres build credibility in Washington. The SG should also try to engage Congress directly, as Kofi Annan successfully did in the 1990s with Jesse Helms and other Republican representatives at the time of the most intense battles over UN funding. If the US does threaten to slash its contributions to the UN’s budget, Mr Guterres could try to make a silk purse of a sow’s ear, using these threats as leverage to push through much-needed bureaucratic, human resources and structural reforms.

Finally, Mr Guterres must pay special attention to communicating the UN’s value to the American public. Encouragingly, he is a skilful communicator, but he will also need to place a premium on communications skills among the UN’s most-senior staff. The new SG could benefit from having in place at least two senior and close associates able to operate effectively within the US’s 24-hour news cycle and hold their own on The O’Reilly Factor.

In short, Mr Guterres is likely to enter a difficult period of US-UN relations. How this relationship is managed will likely tell the tale of his tenure as a whole. In addition, the UN could become a punching bag between contending groups of member states on emotive issues, just as UNESCO was several years ago, with financially disastrous results, over the issue of Palestinian statehood.  On that occasion, UNESCO’s host country, France, far from calming the impending storm, encouraged the champions of Palestinian full membership at UNESCO, rather than seeking to discourage an outcome that Washington had clearly stated would cost UNESCO the US’s contributions to the organisation due to American law on this sensitive issue. The UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, sought to discourage the vote but was not heeded.

Mr Guterres will need to strategise with key member states, sharing with them the burden of managing constructively the UN’s relationship with a new US administration not predisposed to support the organisation more than is absolutely necessary.  If the UN winds up caught between the major powers during the coming decade, it, like UNESCO, could emerge much diminished.  Thus, while the SG will need to focus a great deal on Washington, he can do so most successfully by also enlisting support of varying kinds from the UN membership, including a disposition to compromise with Washington whenever this makes sense.

[1] Consider the disregard of due process in the listing and delisting procedures of the Council terrorism sanctions, which were deemed by the European Court of Justice to have violated fundamental human rights, and the breadth and vagueness of the 2014 foreign fighters resolution, which raise serious human rights concerns about the potential for abuse by repressive states against separatist or opposition forces branded as terrorist.

[2] Although by UN calculations the US is still in arrears, those arrears are largely the result of a mismatch between UN and US budget cycles, as well as a debt that was accrued decades ago and that the US does not expect to pay. Interview, Peter Yeo, 21 November 2016.

[3] Article 28 of the agreement states that a Party must wait three years after the Agreement enters into force before giving written notification of its intention to withdraw, and that the withdrawal will take effect one year from that point on.

Suggested citation: Sebastian von Einsiedel, Cale Salih., "The UN in the Era of Trump," UNU-CPR (blog), 2016-11-29,

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