Beyond poetic appeals for universal justice, global support for the United Nations is built atop the assumption that every nation can be more secure and prosperous only in a more peaceful world. The U.N. has a poor track record of preventing individual crises, but its investments in health and education promote international development in measurable ways, and its agencies continue to limit the human cost of conflict.
President Donald Trump sees things a little differently. He may have paid tribute to the “beautiful vision” of the U.N. in his first address to the General Assembly on Tuesday, but there’s little to suggest he has changed his views of an institution he once derided as “a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”
As he made clear in his speech, Trump doesn’t accept that investment in international peace and development will make his country safer or wealthier. Noting that the U.S. pays the lion’s share of the U.N. budget (22%), he declared that “no nation should have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, militarily or financially.” As with NATO, he doesn’t oppose the U.N.’s useful work. He just doesn’t believe the U.S. is getting good value for its money, and he wants other governments to pay more.
Yet on climate change, cybersecurity, public-health crises or other problems without borders, the world needs a convening power to bring decision-makers together. Trump doesn’t believe in multilateralism, and has no interest in this responsibility. The E.U. can’t do it alone, and China doesn’t yet have the global standing. These and other governments need the U.N. to play this role.
In António Guterres, who has been Secretary-General since January, the U.N. has the right person for the job. He is the opposite of Trump. He is analytical rather than forceful. He avoids the political bombast that makes lasting friends and enemies. As the former socialist Prime Minister of Portugal, he embraces the European value of collective decisionmaking. As a former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, he understands the human cost of the world’s conflicts. He has good relations with both the U.S. and China. He has brought a new (much needed) emphasis on transparency to the U.N. bureaucracy.
That won’t be enough to reform the dysfunctional U.N. Security Council, where veto-wielding members force watered-down solutions to intractable problems. Only Kim Jong Un, not Guterres, can force the U.S. and China to work together on North Korea. But on other important issues, the U.N. offers the best hope for managing global crises in the age of Trump.