(World Government Summit, Dubai) — This is the first major international conference since the election of Donald Trump and it is clear that the shifting political landscape in the United States is shaping the conversation here in the Middle East.

In a keynote address Secretary General Antonio Guterres implicitly referenced the political upheaval in the United States and elsewhere citing what he called a “deficit of trust” between people and their institutions.

“Reform is needed to reconcile people with political establishments,” he said. “We need to be able to empower citizens and young people.” Globalization, he said, had created a gap of confidence between governments and people left behind in a changing world. “Globalization’s losers” he called them, “in the rust belts of the world.” 

This, of course, is not limited to the United States. And indeed the Secretary General pointed to challenges of confidence in the United Nations itself as a profound cause of concern. 

But it is clear that there is immense curiosity about how Guterres will relate and interact with the government of the United States. For the first time as Secretary General he articulated in front of a global audience how he intends to engage productively the Trump administration. 

Moderator Becky Anderson of CNN cited a very public rift that emerged last week between the United States and the Secretary General in the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salim Fayyad as the UN Special Envoy for Libya. According to reports, Guterres nominated Fayyad with the understanding that he had American support, only to learn later that the US objected to the nomination because the Trump administration did not want a Palestinian hold a senior post at the UN– despite his qualifications.

Guterres, for the first time, directly addressed this incident. “I believe he is the right person for the right job at the right moment,” he said. “He has a competence that nobody denies. It is a loss for the Libyan peace process that I am not able to appoint him. I deeply regret this opposition and I see no validity in it.” 

This incident indeed lays down an important marker for how the Secretary General can navigate global politics and develop a productive relationship with the United States in an era in which “America First” serves as the government’s organizing principle. Still, despite this fray, Guterres expressed optimism that the United Nations and the United States will engage each other productively.

“Let’s do everything possible to make this relationship a constructive relationship,” he said. “Having said so, we need to respect our values and we need to make sure a multilateral approach to global problems is valued.”

 

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