TSG IntelBrief: The United Nations and a Divided World
September 19, 2017

The United Nations and a Divided World


Bottom Line Up Front

• This week marks the opening of debate at the United Nations General Assembly’s 72nd Regular Session in New York.

• World leaders will speak and hold sideline meetings on topics from North Korea to climate change.

• All eyes will be on U.S. President Donald Trump, whose open disdain for the U.N. and multilateralism has been a foundation of his campaign and presidency.

• Reforming the UN internally while it confronts massive challenges and conflicts will require sustained cooperation and focus.


At his United Nations debut on September 18, U.S. President Donald Trump urged the U.N. to reform its bureaucracy and cut costs, adding the U.S. was ready to be a partner in helping the world body become more effective and focused. The annual convening of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) is among the largest gatherings of world leaders, and this year it comes amid deep concerns over the organization’s lack of progress in ending conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and other persistent disputes. The UNGA is also marked by unprecedented tension between the Trump Administration’s “America First” foreign policy and the multilateralism that defines the U.N.’s mission.

President Trump campaigned on a clear message of disdain for international organizations, claiming past administrations had allowed erstwhile partners to take advantage of Washington in terms of overall funding and capabilities. The President has slightly modified his rhetoric since taking office but the underlying dismissal of cumbersome multilateral approaches to solving complex problems—from climate change to Syria—is still a hallmark of his young administration. 

President Trump is on solid ground in criticizing the U.N.’s sclerotic internal functioning and bloated bureaucracy. While the U.N. was designed to be slow and methodical, the organization must address its inability to resolve conflicts where actors routinely ignore its declarations or statements, such as Syria and Ukraine. While the U.N can’t force unwilling parties to stop fighting, it needs to adapt its procedures to wars and conflicts which defy traditional approaches to conflict resolution. Regrettably, the U.N is doubly handcuffed when dealing with Syria and Ukraine since Moscow and Washington are usually at odds on both conflicts and Russia can use its veto in the Security Council. A rare bright spot, at least in terms of positive and unanimous action, was the recent Security Council vote for increased sanctions against North Korea, which is another of the most pressing and potentially dangerous challenges the U.N faces.  

The U.S. pays 22% of the U.N.’s core annual budget and a quarter of its peace keeping budget, an imbalance President Trump apparently views through a transactional lens, where the costs and benefits of funding a large share of a cumbersome organization seem less than clear. The U.N is considering large-scale reforms, particularly in its peace- keeping missions; it currently has 16 such operations with an annual cost of over $8 billion. These don’t include what’s expected to be a truly massive endeavor and expenditure in Syria, when that conflict subsides sufficiently to allow wide-scale peacekeeping and reconstruction. As seen in Afghanistan and elsewhere, U.N. peacekeeping operations can drag on for years if the underlying conditions that led to the original conflict aren’t measurably improved. U.N. peace keeping missions have also been plagued by criminal behavior by some peace keepers and the spread of cholera in Haiti after its 2009 earthquake—for which the U.N. only recently acknowledged its culpability. This week will see the United Nations and the United States seek to better assess each other in speeches and meetings as both work to resolve ongoing bloody conflicts in a divided world.


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