Starting Monday, world leaders will gather for their annual U.N. meetings in New York, where President Donald Trump will make his debut on the U.N. stage and the North Korean nuclear issue is poised to top the global agenda.
The U.N. Security Council adopted additional economic sanctions on Pyongyang last Monday, the second round in just five weeks, in response to the regime’s Sept. 3 underground nuclear test of a possible hydrogen bomb.
While the United States drafted, negotiated and pressed for the resolution’s swift adoption, Trump dismissed the outcome as “not a big deal.”
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He has said repeatedly that he will keep the military option on the table, and his United Nations ambassador and National Security chief echoed that Friday during a briefing to White House reporters.
North Korea and military option
“What is really important with North Korea is that we try and push through as many diplomatic options as we have,” said Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. She added that if international economic pressure does not work and North Korea continues to be defiant, there would be little else the U.N. could do.
“So, having said that, I have no problem kicking it to General [James] Mattis because I think he has plenty of options,” Haley said, referring to the U.S. defense chief.
“For those who have been commenting about the lack of a military option, there is a military option,” said National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. “Now, it’s not what we prefer to do, so what we have to do is call on all nations to do everything we can to address this global problem, short of war.”
“A lot of leaders are really very scared that the U.S. could blunder into war pretty much by accident on the Korean Peninsula,” said Richard Gowan, an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “And so there is going to be a chorus of voices both from Asia and beyond arguing that we still have to give talks a chance,” he said of the New York gathering.
“But of course, this will almost [certainly] figure in every conversation that leaders have here during the next week,” a senior European diplomat said. “This is clearly very, very high if not at the top, of leaders’ concerns these days.”
Urgency aside, expectations are low for a major diplomatic advance, in part because Chinese President Xi Jinping will not be attending the gathering.
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Trump’s first general assembly
In office since January, this will be Trump’s first U.N. General Assembly gathering, but as a native New Yorker, he is returning home, albeit for only the second time since his inauguration.
The president is fond of political rallies where he is clearly comfortable among the affection of his base of supporters. It is harder to predict how he will be received and behave at the United Nations. He has threatened to pull substantial U.S. funding from the organization and dismissed it as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”
His Tuesday morning speech will undoubtedly be widely watched, not least of all by the North Korean delegation, which, because of the seating rotation in the hall, has drawn a front row seat this year.
“There is a chance that he will have a very strong America First’ message, equally there is a chance he will enjoy all the attention from other leaders and be quite emollient,” Gowan of the European Council said. “But the next morning he may send out a bunch of tweets attacking the U.N.”
Leaders and analysts will also be listening for his views on several issues, including climate change, the war in Syria, whether the U.S. will pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and his strategy for countering Islamic State terrorists.
On Monday, Trump will chair a meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly on reforming the U.N. management system.
The U.S. has asked countries to sign on to a declaration supporting cutting bureaucracy and making the world body more efficient and nimble. Ambassador Haley said Friday that 120 countries have signed on. Reform is also a flagship issue for new U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who will speak at the meeting.
Pressing global Issues
There are numerous meetings planned in the margins of the general debate, covering pressing global issues from conflicts in the Middle East and Africa to gender equality to famine response.
In recent weeks, a military crackdown in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has sent 400,000 minority Rohingya Muslims fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh. The U.N. chief and his human rights commissioner have both warned that the actions of the military could constitute ethnic cleansing. The humanitarian situation for the refugees is dire.
The Security Council has discussed the matter twice in as many weeks. The Organization for the Islamic Conference (OIC) has planned a meeting for its members Tuesday, while the British foreign secretary has also scheduled a smaller gathering of concerned countries.
Natural disasters have quadrupled since 1970, and Hurricane Irma, which devastated parts of the Caribbean and Southern Florida this month, has hastily been added to the agenda. Meetings on the weather event will focus on the response and building communities that are more resilient to natural disasters and climate change.
The U.N. says the United States, followed by China and India, have experienced the most natural disasters since 1995.
Some wonder if Irma and Hurricane Harvey, which flooded southeastern Texas last month, will persuade Trump to reverse his decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, which more than 190 other countries have signed on to.
“Those that don’t believe in climate change are a residual species that will soon disappear,” Secretary-General Guterres told a group of students at the United Nations on Friday.
Analyst Gowan said Trump has hinted he might reverse his decision to withdraw from the deal and if he announces that in New York it would be “a big diplomatic win” for him.
“But if President Trump continues to attack the Paris deal, if he manages to embarrass himself by questioning climate science at the U.N., then you are going to hear a lot of other leaders directly or indirectly criticizing his administration and his policies,” Gowan warned.