UNITED NATIONS — President Donald Trump on Monday opened his first visit to the United Nations since taking office with a polite but firm call for the 72-year-old institution to overhaul itself and a veiled threat to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement.
In a meeting with counterparts from around the world, Trump said the U.N. had grown too bureaucratic and ineffective and should reorient its approach. He complained that spending and staff at the U.N. had grown enormously over the years but that “we are not seeing the results in line with this investment.”
“That’s why we commend the secretary-general and his call for the United Nations to focus more on people and less on bureaucracy,” Trump said, with Secretary-General António Guterres sitting beside him. “We seek a United Nations that regains the trust of the people around the world. In order to achieve this, the United Nations must hold every level of management accountable, protect whistleblowers and focus on results rather than on process.”
He added that any reform should ensure that no single member “shoulders a disproportionate share of the burden, and that’s militarily or financially,” a sore point for many American conservatives who bristle at the share of U.N. costs borne by the United States. Trump said nothing about whether he would pursue his proposal to radically cut U.S. funding for the organization.
He later met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, in the first of a string of sessions he will conduct with counterparts during four days in New York, and used the occasion to once again hint that he could pull out of the Iran deal negotiated by President Barack Obama along with the other four permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. Netanyahu planned to press Trump to either revise the agreement or scrap it.
Asked by reporters whether he would withdraw, Trump said, “You’ll see very soon. You’ll be seeing very soon.” He added: “We’re talking about it constantly. Constantly. We’re talking about plans constantly.”
The president has until mid-October to certify under a U.S. law whether Iran is complying with the deal, a certification he has grudgingly made twice already this year but that he has told advisers he does not want to make again. If he were to refuse to do so, it could potentially unravel the agreement.
In a harsh message to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors compliance with the nuclear agreement, Trump on Monday warned that the United States could withdraw if the accord is not properly policed. “We will not accept a weakly enforced or inadequately monitored deal,” Trump said in a message read by Rick Perry, the energy secretary, at the agency’s annual meeting in Vienna, according to news reports.
Iran has accused Trump of failing to comply with the deal by undercutting it and slapping sanctions on Tehran for other activities, like ballistic missile tests, an assertion it repeated in Vienna on Monday.
“The American administration’s overtly hostile attitude and actual foot-dragging policies and measures aim at undermining the nuclear deal and blocking Iran’s legitimate benefits from its full implementation,” said Ali Akbar Salehi, the country’s vice president and head of its atomic energy agency, according to news reports.
Iran has suggested it may pull out, but analysts are skeptical that it would do so because it has benefited from the agreement that lifted international sanctions in exchange for temporarily curbing its nuclear program.
At the same time, Iranian officials have continued to make hostile threats toward Israel. “We will destroy the Zionist entity at lightning speed, and thus shorten the 25 years it still has left,” said Seyyed Abdolrahim Mousavi, commander in chief of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army, according to Iranian media outlets quoted by the Jerusalem Post.
The meeting with Netanyahu focused on Iran, although Trump also repeated his commitment to finding peace between the Israelis and Palestinians despite growing doubts about his initiative. “I think there’s a good chance that it could happen,” he said. “Most people would say there’s no chance whatsoever.” He will meet with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday.
The meeting with Netanyahu was followed by another with President Emmanuel Macron of France where the two traded warm words and recalled Trump’s visit to a Bastille Day military parade in Paris in July. Trump will also host a dinner Monday night with Latin American leaders that could focus on Venezuela’s increasingly harsh domestic crackdown and economic crisis.
The president’s comments to the U.N. meeting on Monday morning lasted only four minutes and included none of the bombast he had directed at foreign institutions in the past. As recently as December, after winning the presidential election but before being sworn in, Trump dismissed the U.N. as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.” As president, he announced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations.
The tension has gone both ways. Last month, the U.N. human rights chief chastised Trump for his repeated attacks on the news media, saying that they could incite violence and set a bad example for other countries.
At a news conference at the French mission on Monday, Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, described the context in which Trump arrived.
“There’s a worrying degradation of the international environment,” he said. “Never since the end of the Cold War have dissensions, tensions, the level of conflict been so high in a world that is more interdependent than ever.”
“And what is worse is despite globalization, cooperation has become less easy with increasing questioning of the roles of the multilateral game and with a temptation of withdrawal out of fear or selfishness,” Le Drian added.
No mention was made during Trump’s opening appearance Monday of the global crises that the U.N. has rung alarm bells about: attacks on the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, climate change, the nuclear threat in North Korea, and a record 65 million people displaced from their homes.
Trump’s main message to the visiting heads of state and government will come Tuesday when he addresses the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly. Aides have said he will stress “sovereignty and accountability,” a contrast to his predecessors who used the annual occasion to rally joint action on issues like terrorism, weapons proliferation and climate change.
The president began his remarks Monday with a compliment to the U.N. — and to himself. He cited his days as a real estate developer and his decision to build Trump World Tower opposite the organization’s headquarters, a building where several foreign diplomats working at the United Nations have their official residences.
“I actually saw great potential right across the street, to be honest with you, and it was only for the reason that the United Nations was here that that turned out to be such a successful project,” Trump said.
The event, organized by Trump’s envoy to the U.N., Nikki R. Haley, was part of a still-vague effort to revamp the U.N. system.
Haley’s overhaul blueprint contains proposals that have been circulated for years. Its significance lies in its support for the United Nations’ very existence rather than bludgeoning it, and Haley said 128 countries had backed it so far. Her blueprint was also an unequivocal show of support for Guterres, who would be granted chief-executive-style power to make fixes that he deems necessary.
Guterres showered Trump with gratitude and went on to cite his own frustration with the system. “Someone recently asked what keeps me up at night. My answer was simple: bureaucracy,” Guterres said. “Fragmented structures. Byzantine procedures. Endless red tape.”
Trump offered words of support. “We pledge to be partners in your work,” he said, “and I am confident that if we work together and champion truly bold reforms, the United Nations will emerge as a stronger, more effective, more just and greater force for peace and harmony in the world.”