What could the US election results mean for the UN?

By Sarah Cliffe

The election of Donald Trump as US president was a seismic event for Americans – those who celebrated and those who wept – and for the rest of the world.   The currents that underpinned the result are neither new nor confined to the US: discontent with politics and economics as usual, lack of trust in elites and populist nationalism have been on the rise in many parts of the world. These were clearly expressed through the Brexit vote but also in social protests and electoral upsets worldwide, from the Philippines to South Africa to the Colombia referendum. For the United Nations, an organization that is in some ways both the elite club to end all elite clubs and the global voice of “we the peoples”, the new administration is likely to bring significant change. 

There is much that we still do not understand about the new administration’s intentions.  But irrespective of how the appointments and the new policy positions of the US play out at the UN, we argue that it is important to focus on action rather than reaction.  This should include listening to the underlying messages of recent votes – in the US and elsewhere - not just focusing on which side won. 

Here are four shifts we see coming at the UN because of the US elections, and two thoughts on how to navigate the coming stormy seas for all those who want to protect the values for which the UN stands: 

Key shifts:

  • Expect a return of 2003-6 divisions, but with important new twists
  • Brace for the need to bring climate change rapidly back up the international risk agenda
  • Get ready for unpredictable dynamics on the highest profile cases in the security council, and all too predictable approaches on the lower profile situations
  • Wait to see if pressure on the UN’s budget offers opportunity for positive reform

Thoughts on navigation:

  • Recognise that elite conversations have their value but also their limits, and that this is a time for the UN to turn outwards;
  • Reconnect with the intentions of the UN’s founders in delivering tangible results to address the aspirations, discontents and fears that fuel international instability.
  1. A return of 2003-6 divisions? – yes and no.  This period saw deep contestation at the UN over the occupation of Iraq and the subsequent oil for food scandal, followed by an escalation in divisions over many political, security, economic, social and managerial issues after President George W. Bush appointed John Bolton as US Permanent Representative to the UN. On the one hand that era is likely to return even more strongly: Mr. Bolton’s policies were constrained by other countervailing forces in the Bush administration who saw value in multilateral diplomacy, whereas this time around most (although still not all) of the figures apparently under consideration for senior foreign policy and national security positions share a deep-seated antagonism to multilateral cooperation.  Mr. Bolton himself is again one of their number. On the other hand, President-elect Trump’s professed admiration for President Vladimir Putin and other foreign leaders outside the normal orbit of US alliances, while auguring great risks on the human rights front in particular, may also create a fluidity internationally that can enable new agreements to emerge. The “Art of the Deal” as applied to the Security Council may send shivers down diplomatic spines, but it could open up avenues for action to break the impasse that has reigned since 2012 (if, and it is a big if, this does not become a new axis for encouraging increased authoritarianism worldwide under the guise of protecting US interests).
  1. A shift from seeing agreements on climate change and development as successes under the UN’s belt that free up time for the incoming secretary general and member states to work on failures in the peace and security arena - to a rapid risk of unravelling of the Paris Agreement.  The measures in President-elect Trump’s 100 day plan include lifting regulations on shale, oil, natural gas, clean coal, approving the Keystone pipeline, and withdrawing “billions” of dollars in UN climate change funding. The domestic measures would surely make it impossible for the US to meet its 2025 climate change commitments and certainly to scale up 2030 targets – and while the billions of dollars in reality do not exist, there are short-term measures the US could take to damage the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Whatever the upshot of these campaign pledges, it seems likely that Secretary-General designate Antonio Guterres will need to spend more time defending and keeping alive the Paris agreement than he would have anticipated before last Tuesday night. The mood in Marrakech this week seems to have been strong and steady from other countries in maintaining commitments, including India and China, and this is crucial. But voices within the US will be as important as steadfastness from the rest of the world, with the key being that Paris is seen as key to the national interests of all its signatories. Here approaches worth trying are working more closely with US business to convey the growth and job opportunities from the climate change agenda, from a combination of the infrastructure stimulus proposed by the president elect with technologies that could maintain the US’s leading climate change role; as well as focusing on the links between climate change and global security.
  1. A shift in Security Council dynamics on specific country cases that is unpredictable for the highest profile countries, only too predictable for the rest. For Syria, the most obvious implication of the various statements President-elect Trump made during the campaign would be for the US to pivot towards much closer collaboration with Russia, abandoning what remains of its support for the opposition and carrying out joint attacks with Assad’s forces under the banner of “bombing the s--- out of ‘em…”.  But this would also require the US to explain why it is in effect collaborating with Iran and Hezbollah (the third leg of the Assad-Russia alliance against the armed groups fighting the regime), as well as to square off the considerable differences within the Republican Party on these issues.  At least until the new US cabinet appointments are known and perhaps still thereafter, this balance remains highly unpredictable, as does the fate of the other traditional US alliances in the Middle East. For the lower profile cases the Security Council deals with, the stance is surely more predictable.  The administration is likely to follow a similar tack to that in 2005 – pressurize for early drawdown of peacekeeping operations and to limit new operations, and dilute support for protection of civilians or human rights components.   
  1. Blocks to major new initiatives, and pressure on the UN’s budget.  It is not known to what degree SGD Antonio Guterres had been considering new initiatives to reform the UN’s structures.  Much of his own background speaks to a focus on results on the ground, and a skepticism of headquarters-led grand plans on reform.   However, the independent panels, advisory groups and other reviews commissioned by SG Ban Ki Moon had left a number of structural recommendations to be addressed by the incoming secretary general, on peace and security, peacebuilding and development – and there is general consensus amongst member states that the current structures are not delivering on new challenges and priorities. What is almost certain is that rapid, consensus-based plans have now become more difficult to pursue. Yet the likely upcoming pressure on the UN budget, while it will be painful, may produce openings. The new administration is likely to press for cost efficiency across the UN, as well as to shift the composition and probably reduce in aggregate its voluntary funding. This will probably play out gradually during 2017. It may provoke a crisis, but it may also be an opportunity: the UN is rife with duplication in its functions, and if the new administration focuses not on saving costs alone but on increasing efficiency and effectiveness, there are areas where they may find common interests with other member states.

How to navigate the rapids ahead?  The main key here, we believe, is to listen to the underlying messages of voters in recent elections, not just to who got elected.  For the UN, this has perhaps two main messages.

  1. A wake up call that conversations amongst elites have their value, but also their limits. A reassuring element for the UN in the aftermath of the US election is that other member states  are not powerless: now is a time to rally round the multilateral system and show how important this is to stabilize an uncertain world. But that commitment is unlikely to be successful if it simply plays out as an arcane and bureaucratic bit of infighting between the new US elite and its allies, and the elite of the rest of the world. The UN is a club of member states and some hard-headed, pragmatic negotiations amongst countries are part of its purpose and its strength. But in addition the UN needs to focus now on its role as the leading voice of “we the peoples”, and all the outreach, public communication and partnership that go along with that. The many member states who want to protect it need to overcome the petty divides that often characterize UN debates, and focus on delivering results that demonstrate the UN’s values in action.
  1. Renewing the UN’s potential to link to popular aspirations and fears, and focus on tangible results. Some initiatives should be low hanging fruit even in the new environment. Humanitarian action, for example, has never really been opposed by the US, even in 2005-6. Humanitarian action is also an entry point to broader issues: it inevitably means a link to preventing and ending the conflicts that cause the majority of internal displacement and refugee flows, as well as in the longer term addressing the pressures for forced migration caused by underdevelopment and climate change. More ambitiously, there is a chance to renew the intentions of the UN’s founders in the aftermath of World War II, in acting as a platform to address all the underlying factors - whether political, social, or economic - that fuel instability. The 21st century version of these factors found their most dramatic expression to date on the evening of November 8.  The UN’s values and programmes are in fact well placed to address them. It is the only international organization that combines tools to address peoples’ political and security fears with tools to address their economic, social and environmental concerns. The UN has been a consistent voice of criticism of the unintended effects of trade and technology on jobs and inequality; its development framework exactly reflects the concern that global growth which leaves major communities without jobs and dignity is unsustainable. This does not mean pandering to anything in the new administration’s policies that go against the UN’s norms and values, but it can and should mean identifying where the UN’s core values are in line with the concerns of the voting public, in the US and around the world, and finding opportunities to act on that.

There is much that we still do not understand about the new administration’s intentions at the UN: the first priority needs to be to understand these before we withdraw in despair or fall into purely reactive mode. The coming weeks will likely make the choices clearer, for all supporters of multilateralism and the norms and values that the UN stands for. Are there openings for constructive international action on the real world problems that angered many of President-elect Trump’s voters? These are not dissimilar to those facing many millions of people around the globe for whom the issue is their own dignity, physical and economic security, and opportunities for their kids – coinciding with many of the UN’s core values. Or in contrast are we looking at rising isolationism and a rolling back of international progress across the board, with no silver linings in sight? 

For related commentary on this issue see Donald Trump and the U.N.: Signs of Clashing Views on Many Issues and Sharing the costs and the benefits at the UN by CIC Director Sarah Cliffe

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Nov 14, 2016
Sarah Cliffe
United States
United Nations