NEW YORK — This week the United Nations is hearing for the first time from a U.S. president who called the organization weak, incompetent, antithetical to freedom, anti-American and hostile to democracy.
Donald Trump said all that in one campaign speech.
Now the “America First” president is speaking for the first time to the world body at the UN General Assembly, and his first comments suggest he’ll sound a constructive note, rather than an epic nationalist smackdown upon global diplomats.
Trump opened his remarks at a panel on UN reform Monday in characteristic fashion — by bragging about his Manhattan skyscraper across the street. But then he did something a little more surprising: he praised the UN.
“The United Nations was founded on truly noble goals,” Trump told a roundtable discussion Monday.
“The United Nations has helped advance toward these goals in so many ways: feeding the hungry, providing disaster relief, and empowering women and girls in many societies all across the world.”
He praised the reform efforts of the new secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, and promised to support them: “(Things at the UN are) changing and changing fast … we pledge to be partners in your work.”
More than 128 countries have signed onto the reform initiative, with Canada joining their ranks last week and co-sponsoring the reform event Trump addressed Monday.
The new secretary general is aiming at changes in areas ranging from development to peacekeeping.
The peacekeeping plans include focusing on where the UN has had success.
A report to the secretary general this year heralded UN work in clearly defined conflicts where there are two combatants who want peace — citing Nepal, Sierra Leone and Timor as examples — but lamented failures in more complex battles and in counter-terrorism, citing Mali, Congo and Darfur as cautionary tales.
It would avoid counter-terrorism operations, or complex disputes where the UN is under-equipped or ill-equipped to help. It also calls for faster deployment, modernized technology, new regional offices closer to trouble spots and more focus on conflict-prevention.
“Someone recently asked what keeps me up at night. My answer was simple: bureaucracy,” Guterres said Monday.
“Fragmented structures. Byzantine procedures. Endless red tape. Someone out to undermine the UN could not have come up with a better way to do it than by imposing some of the rules we have created ourselves.”
Canada has yet to announce its plans for upcoming peacekeeping missions and will not do so this week, officials say. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives in New York on Tuesday.
Trudeau will promote multilateralism in his speech Thursday, including co-operation with international forums and with other countries on efforts like climate change.
“We’ve demonstrated a willingness to be more involved in these institutions — to achieve solutions together,” said Trudeau spokesman Cameron Ahmad.
“Obviously the prime minister will reiterate Canada’s approach to multilateralism and to working within multilateral institutions.”
Last year’s message was in lock-step with the one from Barack Obama. Both urged their fellow leaders to pursue broad-based prosperity, lest the working classes get angry, revolt against the global economy and back nationalist-populist politicians.
The events they were referring to were Brexit and the campaign of Trump.
On Monday, Trudeau met with British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is leading the U.K.’s departure from the European Union, and they discussed the possibility of a Canada-U.K. trade agreement.
North Korea will also loom large.
Trump’s UN ambassador has warned that the time for non-military solutions is running out. Nikki Haley applauded the UN for its latest sanctions, but suggested there are few political actions left available.
“If (this) doesn’t work, Gen. Mattis will take care of it,” she said of the U.S. secretary of defence in a CNN interview.
“If North Korea keeps on with this reckless behaviour, if the United States has to defend itself or defend its allies in any way, North Korea will be destroyed…. None of us want that. None of us want war.”