For the second time in less than one year, members of the United Nations Security Council met President Trump at the White House during a special visit to Washington yesterday. This was an important moment for the United Nations in general and the Security Council in particular. In recent weeks, certain divisive issues have threatened to drive a wedge between the US and the UN. But despite these pressures, everything seemed fairly copacetic — with president Trump even heaping praise on the Security Council.
Just one month ago, there were signs that relations may be fraying between the US and the UN. UN Members States, including nearly every country on the 15 member Security Council, voted overwhelmingly voted to to rebuke the United States for unilaterally declaring Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel. The votes were caste despite a sharp warning from Nikki Haley that the United States was “taking names” and that Donald Trump took this vote “personally.” Meanwhile, the Trump administration cut off funds to the UN humanitarian agency that provides for the social welfare of Palestinians, sending that agency scrambling to make up for the shortfall.
Well, if there were any lingering hard feelings they certainly did not show during the public portion of a working lunch at the White House. On the contrary, Trump’s remarks indicated that he believes the Security Council to be an institution key to the security interests of the United States. “We’ve already done a tremendous number of coalition-building, and the United Nations SecurityCouncil, in particular, is very important to us,” Trump told members of the Council ahead of a working lunch. “The power and the respect that it has all over the world is very, very excellent.” [sic]
On the agenda for the lunch was a wide range of security issues, including terrorism and Afghanistan. Top US officials also attended, including Secretary of State Tillerson and the National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.
The meeting comes at an important time for the Security Council–and for US relations with the United Nations. US Ambassador Nikki Haley has been trying to rally support in the council for a tougher line against Iran. In addition to the meeting at the White House, the council toured the remnants of a downed Iranian missile that the US claims was fired by Iran-backed rebels in Yemen into Saudi territory. (Here, the US might find itself isolated as other members of the council are loathe to adopt a harder line against Iran for fear of scuttling the Iran nuclear deal which they vigorously support, but the Trump administration does not.
On other key issues, like North Korea, the council remains largely unified. And here, the Trump administration does deserve credit for maintaining the unity of the council, despite the occasionally bellicose rhetoric from Donald Trump himself.
To be sure, differences are sure to arise between the United States and members of the Security Council. But this meeting was an important demonstration that when it comes to confronting some of the toughest global challenges, like non-proliferation and terrorism, the United States still believes it is in its best interest to work with the Security Council, and not around it.
Not all recent US presidents have come to the same conclusion early in their term. The George W. Bush administration sought to circumvent the United Nations and undermine its influence in pursuit of its most important foreign policy goal at the time: the invasion and occupation of Iraq. But by its second term, the Bush administration came around to seeing the necessity and value in working cooperatively to confront global challenges.
It would appear that the Trump administration may have also learned from the Bush administration’s stumble. One year in, it seems the administration has learned from the outset not to dismiss the importance of working through the Security Council. In fact, when it comes to the single most urgent global security challenge — confronting North Korea — the Administration has shown a determination to work hand in hand with the council.