The UN is anxious and apprehensive about the new US president, his secretary of state, and his UN envoy, not just in terms of the relationship with the UN general secretariat under Antonio Guterres, but also in terms of the impact of bilateral US-Russian and US-Chinese relations on regional issues being examined by the international organization. The reactions, based on interviews with a number of ambassadors of key states who asked not to be named, underscore the divisions among them regarding the new US president, and divisions within the blocs that had been aligned together during the Cold War era. UN envoys and the general secretariat’s observations focus on a new pattern in the relationship between the US, China, and Russia, the key poles of the coming era, which will undergo a sea change amid untraditional modes of alliance and divergence, respectively.
«One feels sorry for the United States, because it is its loss,» remarked the ambassador of one key Asian state. It will be the US global influence and leadership that will be lost, he added, as the price of policies such as the ones planned for China, and it will be the US that will pay the main economic cost. «US isolationism does not harm us, because the world can cope with that. It will primarily harm America, which will lose rather than win.» The ambassador of the Asian nation, which is heavily impacted by Chinese policies, argued that America’s retreat would fuel China’s ascendancy, saying Beijing is ready to fill the vacuum. «However, our biggest fear is for US economic woes, as a result of foolish policies by Trump, to worsen prompting him to believe he needs a war somewhere to offset the loss.»
The ambassador of a key Arab state, meanwhile, predicted that Trump’s relationship with the UN would be «stormy». His statements, he remarked, indicate that Trump gives no importance to the international organization whatsoever, expecting that the UN would be easy prey for the American president to achieve some «victories», including on the issues of the UN budget and Israel. The veteran diplomat added that the difficult relationship in this present turbulent time «constitutes a major challenge for the new secretary general,» but everyone is betting on the personality of Antonio Guterres to contain the storm, he emphasized.
Nevertheless, the Arab ambassador expects a positive development in American attitudes on Palestine, Yemen, and Syria, in the context of a shift in Iranian-American relations. Palestine could see a positive development because it is an attractive issue for making a historical achievement, the diplomat said, «and there is a direct interest by President Trump in the issue,» while his secretary of state is well familiar with the region, and he has tasked his own son-in-law to lead efforts on his behalf. Furthermore, always according to the ambassador, Trump is not beholden to the pro-Israel lobby, and has a bigger ability to take firm decisions and actions compared to his predecessor. The ambassador said the Obama administration had laid down the groundwork for such actions with the recent UN Security Council resolution, and judged the rhetoric from Trump and his candidates on the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem as «presidential posturing» while actual policy at the decision time would change, as he said.
Another ambassador interested in the repercussions of US policies on Jerusalem expected that the Trump administration would make some kind of move towards Israel on this issue, because he could not fully backtrack from his pledge to relocate the embassy, but said this could take a form that distinguishes between West Jerusalem and Arab East Jerusalem, suggesting that «we should wait and see».
The Gulf diplomat expects relations between the US and Washington to improve, both on the personal and diplomatic levels. This can have an impact on Yemen, Syria, and general relations with the Gulf nations. The diplomat explained that the view Trump and his team have of Iran’s role in the region is closer to that of the GCC, and this will impact Yemen primarily.
The ambassador continued: «The Trump administration will adopt different positions from those of the Obama administration, because it has a different view towards Iran and relations with Saudi Arabia are friendlier.» The Obama administration, he added, has put huge pressure to pass John Kerry’s roadmap via international envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, while finding excuses for Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis, leading to further intransigence on their part, but this will change under Trump, always according to this diplomat.
On the Syrian issue, the diplomat argues that the improvement in American-Russian relations puts Russia in a more comfortable place following its victories in Syria, and thus makes it more able to show flexibility vis-à-vis the US. «Russia is keen to stop the bloodletting in Syria,» he stressed. Regarding the talks in Astana and their link to the Security Council, he said: «The recent Security Council resolution affirmed the primacy of the Geneva [outcomes] and placed Astana under the umbrella of the UN. They are tantamount to a prelude to negotiations in Geneva under the supervision of the international envoy on February 8.»
The optimism of this Gulf diplomat does not blind him to the negativities that could come from the Trump administration. «Given that it has no track record that could help predict its actions, the unknowns are more than the knowns, and more uncalculated moves could occur.» He concluded: «This is a jump into the unknown, which could cause more tension and anxiety.»
Interestingly, European diplomats are more concerned about the Trump-Putin rapprochement than their Gulf counterparts. Britain decided to scramble to build a good relationship with the Trump administration after Brexit. However, one of the calculations behind this has to do with its concern that Vladimir Putin would replace the British prime minister as the other counterpart in the ‘Special Relationship’. France for its part has sent a message to Washington to the effect of: We want you to return to global leadership, and we offer our loyal friendship and advice, as well as our counterpoint, if that is seen to be in the common interest. This is the gist one comes out with after meeting with British and French diplomats at the UN.
Other European diplomats also spoke and stressed the following issues of concern:
One, their concern of an emerging axis comprising two strongmen, Trump and Putin, that would disregard humanitarian law and humanitarian considerations, and focus on the battle with ISIS in Syria. The world, they say, needs an America that defends international law and stands up to Russia if it breaks it. The world also needs a strong America that can stand up to Russian violations in Syria and Ukraine.
Two, Europe is worried about the lack of engagement between the EU and Donald Trump, and concerned about his remarks on NATO, in which he suggested the military alliance is futile and obsolete. This, they say, serves Russia’s goal of dismantling the alliance directly.
Thirdly, one European ambassador, addressing the Americans, said: «Beware! If you decide to withdraw from the UN, then China is willing to fill the vacuum and ready for the job. Beijing is taking practical measures in preparation for a softer approach than Russia, but it is pursuing similar actions. In Africa, China has been buying loyalties for a while, and it is willing to do the same at the UN by increasing its contributions to replace the United States if it chooses to stop its contributions.»
This week, in the wake of the Astana meetings, the Syrian issue will return to Security Council, and so will the Yemeni issue. It might be too early to assume any change in US policy under Donald Trump. However, the ambassadors at the UN are in a state of apprehension. Jumping into the unknown is a very scary prospect for them.
The Security Council has proven its abject failure and moral bankruptcy on Syria. The main cause has been the Russian-Chinese veto against five resolutions, according to Western diplomats. However, this is not enough to explain what happened. There is admission that Europe has done nothing beyond rhetoric, and that the US under Obama has helped Russia and China through its passivity to disrupt the work of the Security Council.
Translated by Karim Traboulsi http://www.alhayat.com/m/opinion/19795557