The United Nations is facing multiple stressors, but among the largest is the new President of the United States, Donald Trump, who has expressed hostility toward the organisation. What does the future hold for the United Nations? What does it mean for the programmes it sponsors? Maria Armoudian discusses the possibilities with Stephen Hoadley and Mark Amsler.

Stephen Hoadley is an Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in international relations and diplomacy.

Mark Amsler is an Associate Professor of European Languages and Literature at the University of Auckland and Director of the Europe Institute. He is an expert in critical theory and semiotics.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: We want to understand what exactly we’re facing, particular over the next four years, but really beyond the United Nations and Donald Trump’s election. But let’s start with a historic context to understand where we’ve come to at this point in time. Steve Hoadley, what background do we need to know about the UN to understand what’s at stake? 

Stephen Hoadley: We have to go back to the League of Nations debate after World War I when the Republican irreconcilables in the Senate were very sceptical about the United States joining, at the behest of President Wilson, the League of Nations. And the upshot of this long debate was that the League of Nations treaty could not be passed by a two-thirds majority. Consequently, the United States stayed out, and this allowed the paralysis of the League of Nations’ underfunding and the rise of the aggressors in Germany, Italy, and Japan. This is a profound lesson that Franklin Roosevelt learned during his time as Secretary of the Navy, and then his period in the wilderness, and then eventually his rise to the Presidency in 1932. And he undertook in the late 1930’s a determined campaign to bring around first the American people, and then the Republican Party – represented by the senator from Michigan, Vandenberg, who was a sceptic and then was persuaded to back the United Nations by 1943, and in 1945 eventually the UN was founded as the charter was approved.

However, the point that I think needs to be made when you look at the history of the UN is this undercurrent of American scepticism that their constitution is second-to-none. No international organisation can trump it, no pun intended. The constitution, that the United States is sovereign in international organisations, is certainly very useful, but the feeling is that any organisation that countered US interests was looked at with some suspicion, particularly by Republicans – as shown by polls, particularly by people of lower educational achievement, and certain parts of the country that voted for Donald Trump in the last election.

So there has been, through public opinion polls, a general feeling in the public that a slight majority have favoured the UN. Although approval has gone up and down with various events, there has been a divide within the American public that appears now to be exacerbated by the Trump phenomenon, so that what was a difference of opinion is now deep polarisation. I think if you went to Democratic voters, those who would vote for Hillary Clinton for example, you would find a clear majority saying that the UN is useful. It performs a great function. But it’s a political divide between the Republicans, people of lower socioeconomic status, lower educational achievement that are now providing the uplift for the Trump presidency. I think we have to recognise that there are two Americas. One is the Trump America and the other is, well I think what we would all agree, a more sensible America that is more committed to international stability and continuity.

MA: It seems to me that despite the divide and scepticism particularly among Republicans, that historically there’s been more bluster among Republican presidents, but they still continued legitimate support for the United Nations and its projects in recognition of what the United States gets out of it. Is that an accurate assessment?

SH: No president up to now has talked about expelling the United Nations from its headquarters at Turtle Island in Manhattan. No president has cut off the principal funding sources. No president has ever criticised (except John Bolton under the Bush presidency) the UN in a direct way because they all recognise that the UN performs many services. The Trump utterances recently are almost without precedent. Now it is true that President Clinton did reduce funding for peacekeeping. After the collapse of the Soviet Union peacekeeping proliferated, the Black Hawk down Mogadishu syndrome set in, and it was a great disillusionment particularly amongst Republicans. And the Republicans in the Senate led by Jesse Holmes were able to force a reduction of the peacekeeping budget. The United States fell into arrears and was highly criticised for not bearing its fair share. The United States did re-negotiate with the UN to reduce the assessment more in proportion with its proportion of the GDP in the world economy, and fair enough.

The UN undertook many reforms to reduce bureaucracy, to improve cost, took on board an American accountancy firm to conduct efficiency surveys amongst the secretariat, and all of these reforms were made at the behest of the US. They were all carried out. And then Jesse Holmes was actually invited to address the UN General Assembly, and he turned right around, like Vandenberg did in 1943, and the United States paid up all of its arrears and things turned out in the 2000’s much better. Now of course we may want to talk about John Bolton, former national security adviser, who was a rather strange choice for UN ambassador, but yeah, there was some scepticism. But the bottom line is that the US presidency and the executive generally, and the American people generally, and even the Republicans grudgingly have acknowledged the fact, the UN, as they say, if it didn’t exist we would have to invent it again.

Mark Amsler: One of the things about the United Nations is that it’s fundamentally a supra-national organisation committed to the importance of multilateralism. And as the Cold War declined and then sort of disappeared or disintegrated in various ways, the bipolar relationship became a unipolar relationship. However, since that time and with the changes that occurred in the 1990’s in the United States with their relationship to the UN, there has been this other rise, this new rise of a multipolar world with a resurgent Russia, China, the increasing sort of presence as a global actor of the European Union and so forth.

So the unipolar world of the US, and then everybody else, has been shifting quite dramatically, I would say, in the last fifteen years or so. That said, then the United States has always had, as Steve was pointing out, this problem with the multilateralism and the internationalism of the United Nations. Because you can’t have a policy of America first on the one hand, and as people point out, all presidents have had that policy. It’s not unique to Donald Trump. But then if you have a policy of America first, and the constitution first, where does the United Nations fit into that? Is it their plaything? Is it their avenue for foreign aid and policy-making, or is it something that goes alongside of and actually brings the United States into the world in a more general forum? And I think that’s really an interesting point. Too often in the discussion about the United Nations, the range of activities that the UN does and is involved in, and has been involved in, gets reduced to something like peacekeeping and policing. Never mind health and education. Never mind hunger and poverty. Never mind social development across the board. Never mind human rights or changing the inequities among genders and sexuality, the support for women’s reproductive rights, tons of things.

The Declaration of Human Rights courtesy of Eleanor Roosevelt and company is still a fundamental document for any socially progressive movement in the world. They appeal to the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, Malcolm X for heaven’s sake. One of the things that was happening in the mid-60s was that Malcolm wanted to take the civil rights struggle in the United States onto the international stage, connect it to international decolonisation movements. He wanted to do so specifically by invoking the Declaration of Human Rights. So that’s part of the ongoing legacy and also the momentum of the United Nations beyond peacekeeping and money sucking as a bureaucracy.

And it does get a bad rap. Steve is right. It has reformed itself and still has this bad rap of being a money-sucking bureaucracy, just like the EU. These are massive supra-national institutions that are extraordinarily well-funded. The budget, I think, this year for the UN is about 5.8 billion. The US [portion], based on the GNP calculation and assessments, are roughly 21-22% of that. So the US has a fairly big economic stake in that, but it’s not, in terms of assessment, it’s not disproportionate to the size of the economies. So Germany pays 6%, France pays 6%, China pays 10%, all based on a single ratio assessment across the board. So nobody’s being treated specially or unfairly, according to the assessment rate. So given that, the US should have and does have a pretty big say in what goes on.

On the other hand, where else do you get 193 individual nations participating in collective decision making? Sometimes that can be really slow. I think the Balkan crisis was a good example in the 90s, and it really dragged on the Clinton administration. It was a good example of the slowness and the cautiousness of an administrative agency like the United Nations, where NGOs have moved pretty quickly into a situation and been much more effective, in a broad sense of the term perhaps, than the United Nations has been. On the other hand, the United Nations is always there; they do the work. All nations contribute. And also with the allied groups, the WHO, the programme for economic and social development which New Zealand has had a big stake in, of course, and so on.

So I think that in that respect, from my perspective, the multilateralism and the larger humanitarian, I don’t just mean special aid, I mean larger [issues]. What is humanity up to? And where are we going? The role that the UN plays is really crucial. And frankly, the Trump administration, he’s not the only one doing this. The Trump administration wants to basically pull the rug out from as much of that as they possibly can. And what we don’t have is a clear statement to this point of why and what they think the outcomes will be. Now maybe we might learn a bit more about what that might be. I don’t think so, frankly, because I don’t think that they fully understand what the implications are. I think they have a rhetoric, a discourse of take away, get free sovereignty, which was the discourse of the Brexiteers. They don’t have a follow-up plan, which is what’s driving Theresa May’s government crazy, and I think it’s going to be the same problem for Donald Trump’s.

MA: Steve, what would you like to add?

SH: The budgetary assessment of the UN is something on the order of one four-hundredths of the federal budget, and this is about one-hundredth of the Pentagon’s budget so the point Mark made, it’s not a great burden on the American people. We’re talking about a dollar or two per capita in the US. So any accusation that the UN is draining money in large amounts from the United States is simply wrong. The second point, I think, that should be impressed on the Trump people is all the things that the UN does that the United States would have to do by itself.

However, let’s just start with the latest WHO discussion of penicillin-resistant bacteria. Now, WHO is conducting research. It’s going to coordinate national research agencies on what could be a pandemic threat. Can the United States do it all by itself if the WHO is cut back in funding? What about the world food programme? Are generous Americans going to stand by and let people starve in South Sudan or many other places without the world food programme giving assistance? And what about peacekeeping? Are you going to link with the Russians and bomb volatile areas into submission? Something like one hundred thousand peacekeepers are deployed at the present time. Not a single one is American. This is something the UN does for the United States. The United States certainly provides a quarter of the budget, but it gets enormous benefit in social and political stability in faraway places.

I’d like to make a special mention of the United Nations Human Rights Council, because I teach this particular subject, and there is a move to remove the United States from the Human Rights Council. And New Zealand, some years ago, when the United States was voted off of it because of President Bush’s policies, New Zealand stood aside when it was its turn to bid for membership, and encouraged the United States to come back to the table, which it did. And it has performed a number of very useful functions, and one of these is to bring charges against President Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka for alleged violation of laws of war and near genocide, and I think, reproductive rights, although this is a red flag to the Trump people. But it has been supportive of the equality of women, the benefit of children, the resistance to child soldiers, human trafficking all of those things have been supported.

Now certainly the United States has found the Human Rights Council flawed. They repeatedly pass resolutions condemning Israel and ignore the gross human rights violations of dozens of other countries, some of which have representatives on the Council. It was revised about a decade ago at the United States’ insistence, and it’s operating slightly better than its predecessor, but nevertheless, for the United States to withdraw entirely from that would be a signal that the United States doesn’t take human rights seriously any longer, that it will allow human rights violations to take place, and this of course would rebound on the United States itself as standards went down, then the human rights standards domestically would be affected by the erosion of international standards.

Mark mentioned that Malcolm X brought the attention of the international community to United States discrimination against African Americans. That’s exactly why Trump wants to abolish the UN or cut it way back, because he is intolerant of criticism. A reasoned debate is beyond his capability. ‘My way or the highway’. And consequently, the robust debate that does take place in the UN, in the General Assembly, in the Security Council, in various councils and commissions, is intolerant [to Trump]. Now this is not a very good look. I think we would all agree it would violate what we think are good academic principles of honest debate amongst people who honestly disagree but are willing to put their facts on the table and argue from logic and that it makes the United States look somewhat petulant and juvenile, as one commentator put it.

MA: Mark, you had mentioned earlier that Trump is not the only force that is really whittling away at the United Nation’s ability to continue doing all of these services that it provides. That administration is particularly hostile to the aims that you were describing. From the European perspective, how do you see this?

MA: The comparison between the United Nations and the European Union both in terms of structure and in terms of social position, and as actors on the global scale is an interesting one. They’re not the same, but they raise some really interesting and comparable issues. Just as Trump trashes the United Nations in many ways, he trashes the EU, and I think for the same reasons. One of the things about the European Union is after June 23rd last year, and the success of the Brexit referendum, is a strengthening and a kind of amplification of the critical voice, or the voice of sovereignty in Europe that we want our borders back. We want our country back. We don’t want the European Union and those unelected officials and bureaucrats in Brussels and Geneva, and so forth, to be telling us what to do in setting rules and regulations and standards, and punishing us with taking funds from our national treasuries and using it for all of this administrative apparatus and so forth and so on.

It’s a very similar kind of discourse in that respect. And similarly, as I was talking about, like the EU, the UN stands for, or has stood for what I think of as admirable and aspirational goals, not only economic and political, but also social, humanitarian and ethical [ones]. So the EU has a set of aspirational goals and set of standards, which are confirmed by things about human rights, about the non-discrimination of anyone in the EU, that is to say an EU citizen, a category of person that didn’t exist before there was a European Union. No discrimination on the basis of language, religion, sex, gender or race. The point is that there’s a number of aspects of the EU’s aspiration for human rights, for non-discrimination, for economic and social equality, and so forth and so on, which are quite consonant with the United Nations and with a whole number of what I would take to be progressive movements and positions worldwide.

So the European Union has similar problems with its audience, so to speak, as the United Nations does, although maybe on a slightly smaller scale because it is a regional organisation, rather than fully international. However, the same issue of multilateralism and a multipolar sense of power relationships operates. The rise of Russia has really challenged the enlargement programme in Eastern Europe. Turkey still remains in that kind of ‘never never land’ of being in and out of Europe simultaneously, even as Putin interestingly is promoting the resurgent Russia as a Eurasian power. He wants to be a Eurasian power-maker and player across borders, and so forth and so on, so there is quite a complex set of relationships there.

And likewise, compared with the United Nations, in the EU there’s the whole Germany and France and Italy, three of the six founders of the European Union, and their central role in organising and keeping focused the activities of all of the twenty-eight member states. And likewise, there is this kind of inequity, or this asymmetry in terms of financial contributions. But more importantly, the way in which the International Monetary Fund, which is interesting given its relationship to the United Nations, the way the IMF is operating as a kind of benchmark and proposes standards or criteria for resolving debt, sovereign debts and so forth and so on.

So they have a number of internal issues in Europe, which are somewhat different than the United Nations in that respect, but I think politically, and in the larger framework of the political economy, there are some interesting comparisons.

Trump uses the same discourse as the anti-EU group, the Eurosceptics. It’s no surprise that Farage was literally standing in the wings on election night in the United States. They were going back and forth, and this was very much a transatlantic experience. Similarly, the chief financial officer of JP Morgan directly said, ‘We think that the banking industry is in a position now where we need to pull back on the regulations. We need to go looser on the criteria for solvency and things like that, things are better now, they’re sustainable, it’s rational’. These are quotes, ‘It’s rational, it’s normal, it feels right’. This is the same language that was used in the Brexit vote: ‘This is the rational thing to do’. The ‘irrational’ people are the multi-nationalists, the ‘rational’ people are the sovereigntists.

MA: In the language?

MA: In the discourse of Eurosceptics. I think it’s important to understand who’s talking and how. You have to be able to somehow quote and think about the language that is being used, and what it means. You know everybody is having a field day with alternate facts, but it already has become a term, like just within a couple of months, already a term in the international discourses, not just in English. And the speed with which some of these kinds of ways of talking which are consonant with ways of thinking, or acting, or being affected, are really striking in the new political environment. And I think that we’re seeing that on both sides of the Atlantic, Europe and the United States. I think we’re seeing it north and south as well. I think it’s an international phenomenon.

SH: To the extent that the United States withdraws from active role internationally and in the UN, and to the extent that the European Union is weakened by the [possibility of an] alt-right vote, what does that do to the international balance of power? What I fear it does, it has the initiative to set the agenda to Russia on the one side and China on the other without a countervailing balance. We classical realists, in the study of international relations, would say the vacuum of power will be filled by the least scrupulous actors, so the United States, one would argue, is acting against its own interests. And if Trump can realise that to make America great again, America has to stay engaged, and he has to support the Europeans to remain engaged, because the alternative is to surrender the field of rivalry to less savoury actors. So from a purely rational point of view, Trump’s proposals are counterproductive to what I believe he wants to achieve.

MA: I think that’s right, Steve, and what I think of as an example of that, is something going on right now. The United Nations has been instrumental in getting various sides in the Syrian civil war to sit down and talk to each other. Staffan de Mistura is the negotiator for the United Nations. He is an experienced negotiator. He has had a number of successes. He’s got Assad’s government and Russia and Iran on one side, and he’s got the rebels and various supporters, Saudi Arabia and various Arab countries specifically, on the other side. And his pitch was very specifically, ‘I ask you to work together, I know it’s not going to be easy to end this horrible conflict and lay the foundation for a country at peace with itself, sovereign and unified, but the Syrian people desperately all want an end to this conflict, and you all know it’. Interestingly of course, no one in the room clapped when he made that declaration, but the point is that’s the UN. They are the only ones doing that.

So if Russia, for example, were to move into an even stronger role than they have been able to attain in the last five or six years in the Middle East, that kind of negotiation wouldn’t be happening. Similarly China, they play a somewhat different game with their foreign policy and money and aid and so forth, but they would not be at all involved in that kind of negotiation. They pretty much stay out of that kind of stuff as far as I can tell. So, in a sense, that negotiation by the United Nations shows up to an extent, the EU’s inability to successfully come to terms with or be able to broker any kind of a deal or relationship that would alleviate their own perceived problem of migration and border access. However you feel about that particular crisis, you would think it would be in Europe’s self-interest to be able to move in that direction. But they can’t. They haven’t. They haven’t been able to. The UN has, and I find that an interesting study in contrast at this particular point. And as Steve said, all of that is in the United States’ best interests. Not to see that, I think, is a big political blunder.

SH: Returning to the Middle East again, the major actor is Iran at the moment, with potential to achieve nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems. Now if that happens, two reactions will be set in motion. One is that Saudi Arabia, which, as the chief rival of Iran, will also begin to explore the nuclear option. The Israelis already do have a nuclear option, and they may make that more explicit. So without the restraining hand of either the EU or the United Nations, the United States is going to be forced to make some very difficult choices in an increasingly volatile and dangerous neighbourhood.

Shifting over to Asia, something similar is happening. Fortunately Abe and Trump get along pretty well, so Trump has indicated he will continue to support US troops being based in Japan. But if the Japanese were to feel that China was overshadowing their interests, the Japanese could probably go nuclear within two years. They’ve got the technology. They’ve got the money. They’ve got the know-how. And this, again, would complicate the balance of power. So what Trump wants to achieve is stability. He wants to achieve US prosperity through better trading relations, more advantageous to the United States. But without the US geopolitical presence that has kept stability in the Asia-Pacific since World War II, and to some extent in Europe as well, now shared with the European Union. Without that political stability, how can economies prosper? How can the world economy continue to provide more and more welfare to more and more people? So it seems to me that the more sensible figures in Trump’s cabinet, we see the Secretary of Defense saying some fairly sensible things in contrast to Trump, and even his appointee as ambassador to the United Nations has indicated that she doesn’t believe that funding should be cut. Let us hope that when Trump sits down with his advisors he begins to listen rather than talk, and maybe, as one observer indicates, he may moderate after he has made his political points.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Photo Credit: United Nations

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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