Bashing the United Nations is a popular sport for politicians, presenting a quick way to appear tough. Many American leaders—on both the left and right—dabble in nationalist rhetoric, posing as unconstrained by global norms and institutions. Usually, however, the bipartisan consensus holds firm, as policymakers understand how crucial the U.N. is to American national security and foreign policy priorities.
The Trump administration has escalated the bombastic anti-U.N. fringe to new levels. As president-elect, Trump tweeted that the U.N. “is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” New U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley introduced herself to the diplomatic community by vowing to “show our strength” by “taking names” of those “that don’t have our back.” Leaked draft executive orders—though currently on hold—seek to slash U.S. funding to the U.N., marginalize other international organizations, and withdraw the United States from certain multilateral treaties.
If the Trump regime follows through on these threats, it will seriously damage American credibility and capacity. The U.N. is crucial for resolving complex transnational problems, ranging from the refugee crisis to nuclear proliferation and global pandemics like Zika. The U.N. enables international peace and security by providing a forum for communication between states. It helps the United States stabilize insecure regions through the legitimating and cost-sharing systems of peacekeeping, conflict resolution and counter-terrorism cooperation.
As we saw so tragically in Iraq, when the United States goes it alone, there are disastrous consequences. Global solutions advocated by the United States are more successful when they are endorsed by international institutions. If the United States attacks the U.N., the countries that are part of the U.N. still exist.
The United States will still have to deal with them, and not necessarily in more favorable forums. Given the pivotal role played by Americans in establishing the U.N., it is a forum sympathetic to American values of freedom, openness, democracy, and human rights.
All these benefits come with a remarkably low price tag. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. support to the U.N. is less than 0.25 percent of the federal budget. The Pentagon’s budget is about 75 times the size of the U.S. contribution to the U.N.
Given the clear benefits of the U.N. to Americans interests, some commentators have dismissed the new regime’s anti-U.N. moves as another case of populist saber-rattling that will eventually defer to Beltway conventional wisdom. This complacency is dangerous.
Trump’s moves against the U.N. are part of a broad sweep of executive orders, statements and appointments that threaten to unravel the institutions that enable America to talk to the world, protect its interests, project its values, and maintain relationships with other countries.
Trump’s executive order on immigration imperils precisely those people, including interpreters for the U.S. military, who want to cooperate with American foreign policy. Concerns from career U.S. diplomats have been met with contempt from White House spokesman Sean Spicer, who warned that “they should either get with the program or they can go.” Meanwhile, the senior management of the State Department has been cleared out, with no replacements yet named.
Trump has also booted the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, director of National Intelligence and U.N. ambassador from National Security Council leadership, replacing them with his chief ideologue and propagandist Steve Bannon. This is consistent with Trump’s attacks on the intelligence agencies and his claim to know “more about ISIS than the generals do.”
Trump supporters claim his dust-up with the foreign policy experts is needed to protect national security. Spicer claimed the immigration order was “about the safety of America.” But even staunch Republicans who served in the George W. Bush administration aren’t buying it.
A graduate school professor of mine often warned students not to be distracted by what advocates for a policy claimed it intends to do. Policies that fail at their stated goals may serve unstated interests. We should not dismiss the new regime as bumbling amateurs. Too many people have underestimated Trump. The sophisticated analyst must examine how policy functions and who it benefits.
I fear we are seeing blueprints for the systematic gutting of institutions that provide the White House with independent information, professional analysis, and checks and balances. I worry that Trump and his inner circle are scapegoating the U.N., diplomats, intelligence officers, immigrants, soldiers, and the media to score political points with their base while preemptively delegitimizing potential obstacles to their agenda.
While attacking the U.N. and American diplomacy may be in Trump’s interests, it is not in the national interest, never mind the rest of the world. This is a dangerous moment for U.S. foreign policy, a rejection of the vision of America as a beacon for freedom and democracy around the world. Those of us who still believe in that America—across the political spectrum—must lend our solidarity to all those endangered by abandoning the bipartisan foreign policy consensus since 1945.
Matthew Bolton, Ph.D., is associate chairman of political science at Pace University in New York City. An expert on the United Nations and multilateral diplomacy, he addressed the U.N. General Assembly on disarmament and humanitarian issues in 2013. He previously served as an aid worker in Iraq, Bosnia, Haiti, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda.
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