WASHINGTON — President Trump declared Monday he wants to Make the United Nations Great.
“Not ‘again,’” the president stressed, riffing on his 2016 campaign slogan. He just wants to make it “great.”
“Such tremendous potential,” Trump told reporters in New York as world leaders gathered there for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. “And I think we’ll be able to do this.”
The international community is getting the Trump treatment this week. The sloganeering. The policy shifts. Even the nicknames. (He labeled North Korea leader Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” over the weekend.) And on Tuesday when Trump offers his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, the world is expected to get a taste of Trump’s inconsistencies as he edges closer to what appears to be an increasingly internationalist approach.
That seemingly newfound tone is a marked shift for Trump from his isolationist campaign promises and his history of deriding the United Nations as merely a “club.” The evolution may be rooted in the realities of governing: Trump sorely needs foreign allies as he confronts threats such as North Korea and Iran, and he can both woo and exert leverage through the United Nations — especially the Security Council.
But squaring his new attitudes with his old ones is proving to be a tall order for some foreign policy specialists.
“It seems to be a bit like multilateralism a la carte,” said Alex De Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation, when asked to describe the Trump foreign policy doctrine. “You can pick and choose from the menu.”
De Waal said that he’s listening closely to see if Trump provides a nod to “collective security” — a principle on which the United Nations was founded. So far the Trump administration has focused more on creating a network of individual deals, he said, that are intended to protect US security.
In preliminary remarks Monday, Trump criticized the UN bureaucracy and suggested the United States was paying more than other countries in UN dues.
‘‘In recent years, the United Nations has not reached its full potential due to bureaucracy and mismanagement,’’ said Trump. ‘‘We are not seeing the results in line with this investment.’’
Trump’s debut address Tuesday to the UN General Assembly is billed by aidesas a major foreign policy speech and among the most important he’s given as president. He’s expected to outline his “principled realism” approach to global affairs.
That involves taking “a clear-eyed look at the world and make[ing] decisions based on outcomes, to act in the best rational interest of the US,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters Monday on the condition that his name would not be used. “But to do so in a manner consistent with our values and our traditions.”
Trump is “not interested in nation-building, not interested in creating democracies through the use of the US military,” the official said. “But he is interested in creating stability in the world and that’s accomplished though countries that are more secure, more prosperous, and countries that are more sovereign.”
In other words, the United States is not going to help build strong countries under Trump. But America will clearly benefit from them.
‘It seems to be a bit like multilateralism a la carte. You can pick and choose from the menu.’Alex De Waal, of the World Peace Foundation, on Trump’s foreign policy doctrine
Two countries that will be mentioned in the speech, according to the official, are North Korea and Iran. “The North Korean menace is one of the biggest issues that the world community faces,” said the official. “We will speak in extremely tough terms.”
The White House is drawing a new line with Iran — suggesting that there’s a difference between what the Iranian government and Iranian people want. Such a distinction would seem to be a departure from Trump’s promise not to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries.
“One of the greatest threats . . . to the endurance of the status quo in Iran is the Iranian people themselves,” said the official. The official noted there’s a “tension” between “the direction the country is being run in and the desire of the people and what kind of country they want to have.”
President Obama confronted a similar dynamic in Iran in 2009 during the so-called Green Revolution, when protesters filled the streets of Tehran to challenge the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obama initially offered a muted response, which drew criticism from his Republican opponents who wanted a more forceful rebuke.
In recent days the Trump administration has floated the idea of reentering the Paris Climate Accords, an international agreement Trump said he was pulling out of this summer to the delight of his base.
The Trump administration has sent mixed signals about the importance of the annual General Assembly gathering in New York. Though Trump’s speech is being touted as “a huge event” by the White House, the State Department has sent only a fraction of the staff to the event compared with previous years.
And in the not-so-recent past Trump has been quite dismissive of the United Nations, which is viewed with deep suspicion by the nativist, anti-globalist faction of his base.
In December, Trump predicted that the United Nations would be “a waste of time and money” if it didn’t improve. He also called it “just a club for people to get together, talk, and have a good time.” The White House backed up that anti-UN sentiment by slashing funding to the body by 40 percent in its first budget. Congress has rejected most of those cuts.
Other presidents have also scored political points by beating up on the United Nations or taking a selective approach to the body’s authority.
The Trump administration now appears to see some benefit in the United Nations. US-drafted resolutions slapping sanctions on North Korea have passed the Security Council.
And on Monday as Trump cycled through meetings with various foreign leaders, he seemed downright giddy.
After sitting down with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel, Trump predicted a breakthrough in reaching an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, one of the world’s thorniest dilemmas.
“There’s a good chance it could happen,” Trump said. “Most people would say there is no chance it could happen. . . . We’ll see what happens. Historically people say it can’t happen. I’d say it can happen.”
After chatting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump became wistful about his summer trip to France, where he watched a parade for a Bastille Day celebration.
“We may do something like that on July 4th in Washington, down Pennsylvania Avenue,” Trump suggested. “We’re going to have to try and top it. But we had a lot of planes going over and we had a lot of military might, and it was really a beautiful thing to see.”Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.