By Nahal Toosi
NEW YORK — In his first public outing at the United Nations, President Donald Trump seized on a topic likely to please his domestic political base as much as the “global elite” they despise.
Reforming the United Nations, Trump declared Monday to an audience of dozens of diplomats, is crucial to helping the world body achieve its “full potential.”
“We seek a United Nations that regains the trust of the people around the world,” Trump said. “In order to achieve this, the United Nations must hold every level of management accountable, protect whistle-blowers and focus on results rather than on process.”
Trump is hardly the first U.S. president to call for shaking up the United Nations. But he’s fortunate in that the still-new U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, has made U.N. reform a top priority, raising the odds that some genuine changes are on the way.
For Trump, the momentum behind U.N. reform is a political gift on multiple levels.
He can point to the reform push — being spearheaded on the U.S. side by his popular U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley — to assuage his nationalist-leaning base, which views multilateral institutions with suspicion. And he can do so without spurning the U.N., whose help he is counting on to tackle crises such as North Korea’s nuclear threat.
“It’s a really natural priority for President Trump given his base’s skepticism of the U.N. and given Republicans’ frustrations with the U.N.,” said Alex Conant, a Republican media strategist. “There’s so much room for improvement at the U.N. Just adding transparency and better financial controls could be considered a significant reform.”
Never mind that at this stage, “U.N. reform” remains as ill-defined and confusing as the U.N.’s organization chart. Guterres wants big changes, including less confusing lines of authority and more accountability. But specifics are few, and it could be years before the full impact is clear.
“It’s a huge uphill climb,” said Stewart Patrick, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Sovereignty Wars.” “The biggest obstacle is likely to be the crazy-quilt pattern of governance that U.N. member states have set up to supervise the various parts of the U.N.” — a set up that often empowers developing countries loathe to give up authority.
Still, to attend the Trump-hosted session on U.N. reform, fellow member states had to sign on to a vague, but sweeping 10-point declaration of support for Guterres’ vision, and dozens did so, reflecting broad support for the long-term vision.
The supportive countries include some whose governments had tense relationships with former President Barack Obama’s administration and which are now eager to ingratiate themselves with Trump. Among them is Hungary, which critics say is sliding into autocracy under prime minister Viktor Orban. Orban’s government is much happier dealing with the new U.S. commander-in-chief, who has hinted at a fondness for strongmen.
“If we speak about the effectiveness of the United Nations, it will definitely not happen without a deep involvement and encouragement of the No. 1 superpower in the world,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó told POLITICO in a brief interview. “We have to really satisfy the demands of the U.S. regarding the U.N. if we would like to see an effective United Nations.”
Notable skeptics on the American drive for U.N. reform include China and Russia.
Like the U.S., both hold vetoes on the U.N. Security Council, and so are wary of any potential reforms that might dilute their powers. Earlier this month, an influential Russian senator was quoted as slamming the U.S. 10-point declaration, suggesting that it was “a diktat, not a discussion.”
The U.N. reform push also benefits Haley, a rising star in Republican circles considered a potential future secretary of state and presidential candidate. A savvy operator well-regarded in U.N. circles for her forthright approach, Haley can also reap the domestic political benefits of pounding the U.N. to change.
Past pushes to reform the United Nations, including under Obama, had limited success. If Trump and Haley are serious about bringing change to the world body, analysts say, they can play the bad cop to Guterres’ good cop — and even saying that they tried can make them look strong to their domestic political supporters.
“Trump can signal that while U.S. wants to see U.N. work, its patience is not infinite,” Patrick said. “This threat has to be veiled and subtle … to work, however.”
Trump is likely to mention the reform project during his highly anticipated Tuesday speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
Asked by reporters what he will focus on, Trump said Monday: “I think the main message is ‘Make the United Nations great. Not ‘again.’ ‘Make the United Nations great.’”