WASHINGTON — President Trump heads to the United Nations this week to meet with world leaders, and many of them are anxious — not just about global national security challenges, but about Trump himself.
While the still-new president hopes to use his first appearance before the U.N. General Assembly to rally other countries against North Korea’s nuclear threats, some world leaders are still reeling from their last interactions with the somewhat testy Trump at global summits earlier this year.
Administration officials said Trump will arrive in New York with multiple missions, including trying to convince other countries to help the U.S. pressure North Korea into giving up nuclear weapons. He plans to criticize the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran and address the economic meltdown in Venezuela and the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, puts it simply: The president “slaps the right people, he hugs the right people, and he comes out with the U.S. being very strong in the end.”
Trump will also pursue what his aides call “U.N, reform,” another way of calling on members to pay for United Nations projects.
U.N. members, meanwhile, will be be watching the president’s tone, some foreign policy analysts said, given Trump’s aggressive performances at this year’s NATO meeting, Group of Seven and Group of 20 summits.
There, Trump “came off as boorish and money-grubbing, and often unresponsive to the concerns of partner nations,” said Stewart Patrick, senior fellow with the Council of Foreign Relations.
“At the U.N,” Patrick said, “Trump can win by surpassing expectations about what he is going to say.”
Richard Gowan, a United Nations expert with with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Trump “performed poorly” at previous international meetings, and diplomats are concerned about a rerun.
“The swirl of minor leaders and frazzled diplomats around U.N. headquarters can be quite disconcerting, even for relatively calm leaders,” Gowan said. “Trump may become irritable.”
The U.N. activity comes in the shadow of Trump’s previous international meetings, and the flaps that ensued, including:
• The Article 5 affair: At his first global summit, a May meeting of NATO members in Brussels, Trump annoyed some allies by declining to specifically endorse the organization’s mutual defense commitment, known as Article 5. The tepid remarks on the treaty prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to suggest that Europe could no longer count on the United States for defense — even as Trump called for them to spend more money on their own defense. Only after returning to Washington did Trump reaffirm the alliance’s commitment to treat an attack on one ally as an attack on all.
• The shove seen ’round the world: Also at NATO, Trump set the social media world ablaze when he appeared to shove Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic out of the way in a team photo op. Markovic said that incident was “inoffensive” and no big deal, noting that Trump was assigned to be at the front of the picture anyway.
• The Sicilian golf cart: Tensions followed Trump from Brussels to the Italian island of Sicily, where Trump clashed with leaders of the Group of Seven nations over trade and climate change policy. The body language between Trump and other leaders also drew stares; at one point other G-7 members took a walking tour of the ancient mountain village of Taormina; Trump followed behind in a golf cart.
• The Putin parlay: Delegates to the Group of 20 nations summit in Hamburg, Germany, looked on wide-eyed as Trump spent hours talking with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A formal meeting set for 30 minutes ran for more than two hours and the pair also spoke at length at a G-20 dinner. All this came as a U.S. special counsel is investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion with Trump associates.
But Trump’s aides say the president was pleased with his earlier summit meetings. Trump is proud of commitments by NATO members to spend more on their national defense, as one example. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump has developed good relations with world leaders “so they can focus on big problems like North Korea.”
Yet Trump’s behavior at the U.N. will be highly scrutinized, especially given how he has also criticized the body over the past year.
During the presidential transition in December, the recently elected Trump criticized a U.N. vote condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In a tweet, Trump said the world body has become “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”
In another post, he said, “as to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” but did not elaborate.
Some potential flash points may be avoided, at least this time.
At least two key world leaders won’t be at the U.N. this year: China’s President Xi Jinping, whom Trump is lobbying especially hard to pressure North Korea, and Putin, who is also involved in disputes over North Korea and Syria, whose relationship with Trump is especially controversial.
Merkel, who has clashed with Trump over trade and refugee policy, is also not expected to attend, as she is locked in a re-election campaign.
Trump’s trip to New York City opens Monday when he and more than 120 world leaders attend a meeting on United Nations reform.
After that, Trump meets separately with French President Emmanuel Macron and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. One of their topics: Iran and the nuclear agreement reached by President Obama and U.S. allies in 2015.
The Trump administration has re-certified the Iran agreement, but Trump himself continues to claim that Tehran is violating “the spirit” of the agreement in which the Iranians give up the means to make nuclear weapons in exchange for reduction of sanctions by the U.S. and its allies.
On Monday evening, Trump will host a working dinner with Latin American leaders, with Venezuela’s problems as the main topic. As the chaos in Venezuela, including a government crackdown on civil liberties, threatens to spill over into neighboring countries, Trump has even spoken of “a military option.”
The president’s major speech to the general assembly comes Tuesday morning.
Over the course of U.N. week, Trump will also host a diplomatic reception have lunches with African leaders and U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres. He also has roster of bilateral meetings with leaders of Slovakia, Qatar, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan and Ukraine. He is also expected to meet with the president of South Korea.
Trump and aides said he represents an “America First” foreign policy, claiming that other countries have taken advantage of the United States with bad trade deals and agreements that force Americans a disproportionate share of the costs.
Other countries have accused Trump of abandoning U.S. leadership. The president’s trip to the U.S. could present what Patrick, from the Council on Foreign Relations, called “a juxtaposition of America First with folks who are dedicated to international cooperation.”
Richard Fontaine, president of the Washington-based Center For a New American Security think tank, said the United Nations is a “world forum,” and other members are asking “what kind of picture is the president going to paint on what he wants to see the United States do in that world forum?”
One big thing other countries want to know, Fontaine said, is: “How much does he value allies?”
Gowan, who teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, also noted that the president is notoriously difficult to predict.
“To be honest,” he said, “nobody is really sure what Trump is going to do at the U.N.”
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