On January 1st Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese Prime Minister, will become the new United Nations Secretary-General. He will inherit an organization alarmed by the prospects of a hostile Trump administration in the United States that could threat its financial survival and hollow out crucial global achievements.
Guterres led and overhauled the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 2005 to 2015, building a reputation as an efficient manager able to respond to displacement crises in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic and Sudan, many times simultaneously.
Trump’s “America First” rhetoric during the campaign has probably kept Guterres on his toes. Many of Trump’s stances conflict with the values and positions of the United Nations (UN), be it climate change, refugees, the Iranian nuclear deal, or human rights.
The United States is the UN’s largest contributor providing about 22% of the organization’s regular budget and 28% of its peacekeeping’s. “We get nothing out of the United Nations. They don’t respect us, they don’t do what we want, and yet we fund them disproportionately,” said Trump in March. It is safe to assume that the new administration in Washington will not hesitate to use its enormous leverage to pressure Guterres when it feels the world body does not go its way.
The U.S. is also the biggest donor to UN aid programs. United Nations efforts on poverty reduction and humanitarian relief are likely to feel the pinch during the Trump era—the UN has just launched a $22.2 billion appeal to cover humanitarian projects next year, the largest ever. In particular, and judging by the President-elect’s discourse over the last months, plans promoting democracy, family planning, LGBT rights, and efforts to address climate change may be the worst affected.
When announcing his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States, Trump said the U.S. should “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us.” Later Trump contradicted himself when he stated that his country “will always help save lives and indeed, humanity itself.” It is anyone’s guess what the President-elect’s policy on international aid will look like. Yet, and in spite of growing humanitarian needs, the upcoming UN chief could see cuts to Obama’s 2017 foreign assistance budget of almost $34 billion, much of it channeled through UN funds and offices via the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Trump’s geopolitical instincts, guided by interests rather than values, will be a departure from the importance that Obama has given to multilateral foreign policy. At least during the next four years, Guterres will be dealing with a reluctant America when it comes to use UN venues to address the mayhem in the Middle East and to help untangle other global trouble spots like Ukraine, North Korea, and Palestine.
Trump’s notorious skepticism of global warming (he has picked a climate contrarian to lead the U.S. environmental agency) along with his resulting hostility to the Paris Treaty on climate have made headlines all around the world. Even if the U.S., the world’s second biggest polluter, does not withdraw from the Paris climate accord, it could ignore key commitments, including cuts in carbon emissions and billions of dollars in contributions to help poor countries deal with the damage caused by climate change.
And it does not end here. An America reluctant to act on global warming would encourage other countries to rethink their own climate pledges. Guterres’ leadership skills will be exhaustively tested in what seems long years of efforts to safeguard the most significant achievement of the United Nations in recent years.
Before the U.S. elections Guterres acknowledged that his biggest challenge would be to put an end to Syria’s civil war, the deadliest conflict of the 21st century. The Portuguese will inherit a paralyzed Security Council unable to stop the carnage in the country, in which Russia, one of the Council’s veto-wielding members, is a major actor.
In a lesser-evil-against-the Islamic State policy, Trump is expected to support Moscow in wiping out all armed groups—both extremist and moderate—fighting the Syrian regime regardless of the human cost. If this occurs, Guterres and his envoy would be dealing with an even more dysfunctional Security Council with the U.S. and China likely to condone Russia’s military backing of the Syrian government while the UK and France, the Council’s remaining two veto-powers, would become an isolated minority in their opposition to the regime of al-Assad.
If this happens, Guterres would have to focus on making sure that, in spite of possible Washington-induced funding shortages, sufficient humanitarian aid reaches the millions of Syrians affected by the war.
The world that will see António Guterres taking up the UN’s reins is critically volatile. In all likelihood, the rise of Trump to the White House will make it even more unpredictable. As researchers from the United Nations University put it, the new United Nations Secretary-General has to be prepared to protect the institution from beginners’ mistakes all around.
Photo Caption: António Guterres, Secretary-General-designate, on his way to the plenary of seventy-first session of General Assembly to adopt his appointment as the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations. UN Photo by Eskinder Debebe.