President Trump made some interesting comments on the United Nations today. He opened with criticism but ended on a more upbeat, if somewhat vague note. Speaking to a group of UN officials at the White House, President Trump said the UN Security Council had “failed again” to deal with Syria, adding that he was “very disappointed.” He added that the situation in North Korea was also “unacceptable.”
Trump also suggested, as he has done in the past, that the UN’s budget needed a close look. He went on to note that the United States pays a disproportionate amount of the UN budget, especially the peacekeeping budget.
But amid the criticism, the President also offered some praise for the UN’s work. “If we do a great job I care much less about the budget because you’re talking about peanuts compared to the important work you’re doing,” Trump said.
After finishing his prepared remarks, the president added, “I have long felt the United Nations is an underperformer but has tremendous potential.” He continued, “There are those people that think it’s an underperformer and it will never perform…I think the United Nations has tremendous potential, tremendous potential.”
“I see a day when there’s a conflict where the United Nations, you get together and you solve the conflict,” Trump said. He added, “You just don’t see the United Nations solving conflicts. I think that’s going to start happening now.”
So the early part of the speech was Trump’s usual take on the UN. The line about it being an “underperformer” seems like the kind of blunt candor Trump is known to engage in pretty often. But I’m not sure what to make of that last bit about the UN getting together to solve conflicts in the future. What does that mean? What does he see changing in the structure of the security council that is going to stop Russia (or China) from blocking everything the U.S. seeks to do?
There has been an ongoing debate in the media over whether Trump’s pronouncements should be taken literally or figuratively. My own view is that they are often best taken tonally, i.e. Trump may not have any policy changes or real specifics in mind at all but he has a gut feeling about what he wants to see happen. In this case, I think he’s trying to read the UN the riot act but also make it clear that all of that is negotiable if the UN will work with him on some of his foreign policy priorities.