Trump and Guterres -- a diplomatic odd couple

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the World Government Summit_00001830
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the World Government Summit_00001830

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Story highlights

  • Stewart Patrick and Megan Roberts: Donald Trump, for all his anti-UN sentiment, could connect with the secretary-general
  • Trump and Guterres are both invested in reforming the United Nations, which could provide common ground, they write

Stewart Patrick is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and author of "The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World" (Brookings Press). Megan Roberts is associate director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at CFR. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN)When Donald Trump takes the podium at the United Nations on September 19, one bet seems safe. Like umpteen US presidents before him, he will insist that the UN reform itself. But will he fare any better than his predecessors, who saw their best laid plans sink into the bureaucratic quicksand and diplomatic muck of UN headquarters?

Stewart Patrick
Megan Roberts
The outlook certainly seems grim. President Trump, an outspoken critic of the UN, is entering enemy territory. He will enjoy none of the goodwill that greeted the multilaterally-inclined Barack Obama. Indeed, he could well be tempted to throw some red meat to his populist base, which would be delighted if the world body disappeared into the East River.
If there are modest grounds for hope, they lie in the overlap between US aims and the practical reform agenda of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. On Wednesday, Guterres announced two initiatives linked to his broader agenda for reform: a high-level advisory board on mediation and a strategy to achieve gender parity at the UN by 2028.
    Like Donald Trump, the former Portuguese Prime Minister took office in January, and he has made good faith efforts to engage both the Trump administration and Congress. If the President can stay on task -- often a challenge for him -- he and Guterres could find common cause on UN reform.
    One key to this alliance will be Nikki Haley. The US envoy to the United Nations has positioned herself as the most distinctive voice in US foreign policy, filling the vacuum left by the taciturn Rex Tillerson. She has struck a careful balance between endearing herself to UN skeptics in Washington by demanding spending cuts and accountability and working pragmatically with foreign diplomats to achieve US goals like UN sanctions on North Korea. Importantly, she has also cultivated a decent working relationship with Guterres.
    When it comes to reform needs, the United Nations is a target-rich environment. But some worthy objectives are simply impractical. One is the perennial effort to expand the UN Security Council to include major established and emerging powers. While a laudable aspiration, divergent member state preferences and the procedural obstacles to amending the UN Charter make it a Sisyphean task. Instead, the Trump administration is wisely seeking incremental gains on pressing matters, aligning itself with Guterres to achieve them.
    On September 18, the President himself will chair a high-level meeting to promote the US reform vision in New York. In advance of that meeting, the United States has circulated a 10-point declaration to other member states outlining its priorities.
    The administration's reform goals can be can be grouped into four categories:
    Organizational reform: A major US priority is overhauling the flawed Human Rights Council, not least by tightening its membership criteria to prevent the election of abusers. Haley has also demanded that the body reduce its focus on Israel, or risk US withdrawal. The United States is also insisting that the UN streamline and diminish overlap in its many mandates. Realizing these reforms will require empowering the secretary-general to operate less as a "secretary" and more as a "general." To that end, Haley earlier this year circulated a letter urging Guterres to make full use of his authority, including by "reclaim[ing]... powers that have been eroded over time."
    Management reform: The United States also wants to enhance Guterres' managerial role, while ending micromanagement by the UN General Assembly. In a scathing New York Times op-ed last year, departing UN Assistant Secretary-General Anthony Banbury explained the urgency of this goal. "If you locked a team of evil geniuses in a laboratory, they could not design a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex, requiring so much effort but in the end incapable of delivering the intended result." Beyond fixing the UN's dysfunctional and rigid personnel policies, Washington should push the UN to give real power to its beleaguered Office of Internal Oversight Services, which has too often failed to hold staff to account. Guterres is already on board, and is taking steps to safeguard whistleblowers.
    Budgetary reform: The size of the UN budget and the US share of its funding are perennial thorns in US-UN relations. In the past, Washington has sometimes pursued counterproductive strategies to reduce its rate of payments and impose UN reform, including by withholding its assessed UN contributions. The Trump administration's proposed budget risks repeating such mistakes, envisioning deep, unilateral cuts in US contributions. The White House has also hinted that it may declare even its assessed (and legally-binding) contributions to the United Nations to be "voluntary." Such misguided steps would have the United States slice off its nose to spite its face, by alienating other member states and complicating relations with Guterres. Fortunately, Congress is likely to restore much of the UN funding, sparing Americans a self-inflicted wound.
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    Peacekeeping reform: The administration also seems prepared to make common cause with secretary-general on the UN's flagship enterprise -- peace operations. Guterres campaigned for his job on a platform of prevention, hoping to shift the UN away from expensive peacekeeping missions and toward more flexible capacities (like mediation) to avert full-blown crises. Such instincts appeal to the cost-conscious White House. While Trump's initial budget proposal envisioned halving US contributions to UN peacekeeping, the administration has since agreed to more modest, but still significant, reductions. Guterres, meanwhile, is seeking to shave budgets around the edges, for instance by imposing more restrictive measures for UN flights. Such economizing does entail risks, of course. Were the UN to downsize its large mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, it could see violence in that country spiral out of control, destroying a fragile peace accord.
    For Donald Trump, ever the showman, the opening of the UN General Assembly offers an irresistible global stage. It could also provide him with a "Nixon-goes-to-China" moment, in which a nationalist US president unexpectedly joins hands with the UN's chief globalist in pursuit of a more effective world body.