Top 3 development takeaways from Trump's UN address

U.S. President Donald Trump in his first address before the U.N. General Assembly. Photo by: Cia Pak / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — U.S. President Donald Trump delivered his debut speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday and came out swinging against everyone from Venezuela and North Korea to the U.N. itself.

The address was a mix of a classic Trump campaign speech in its use of undiplomatic language and promotion of “America First” nationalism and a more traditional diplomatic address, in which he paid tribute to the founding ideals of the U.N. and lauded key American aid and development projects and policies.

It also offered some insight into the Trump administration’s take on the U.N. and its development agenda. Here are three top takeaways for the development sector.  

1. Global development, for the Trump administration, may often come down to global health.

Development didn’t feature prominently in the speech, in which he shocked even seasoned U.N. observers by threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea. Human rights were only mentioned as it applied to a few other nations’ records — not the U.S.’ own record, or engagement in diplomacy. There was also no mention of climate change, as some noted.  

But a few U.S. health programs and initiatives, such as PEPFAR, got a shout-out, as Trump briefly mentioned efforts to invest in “better health and opportunity all over the world.” The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, as Devex reported, announced this week it will launch a new strategy in 13 high-burden countries. The President’s Malaria Initiative, the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery — which recently received a U.S. government grant of $25 million — and the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative were also mentioned in Trump’s speech. The latter project was lauded by Trump as “part of our commitment to empowering women all across the globe.”

Meanwhile, some groups including Oxfam were quick to question the sincerity of this public display of support, noting that the Trump administration has been working to slash funding to these very initiatives.

2. Trump isn’t happy with much of the U.N.’s operations and wants reform according to a U.S. vision.

The U.S. president amped up his criticism of the U.N., following a diplomatic exchange with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres yesterday over a need for reform of the organization: something the two men agree on. “We… thank the secretary-general for recognizing that the United Nations must reform if it is to be an effective partner in confronting threats to sovereignty, security, and prosperity. Too often the focus of this organization has not been on results, but on bureaucracy and process,” Trump said.

UNGA will show development community rising to the challenges

President Trump might create most of the headlines at UNGA, but he is unlikely to be the real story. At a time of multiple global crises and fierce political backlash, a different narrative is set to emerge: the story of the global development community stepping up in a time of trouble.

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He launched some specific criticisms of U.N. bodies. “It is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council,” he said. But he also praised the U.N. for its work on migration, and noted the African Union’s work for “stabilizing conflict in Africa.” In broad strokes, he brushed over some of the major humanitarian issues the U.N. is up against, saying that the U.S. continues to lead the world in assistance for famine prevention and relief in South Sudan, Somalia, northern Nigeria, and Yemen.

The main thrust of Trump’s speech, however, was urging the U.N. and its members to prosper by looking after their own national interests more and by focusing on the needs of their own citizens. “If we are to embrace the opportunities of the future and overcome the present dangers together, there can be no substitute for strong, sovereign, and independent nations, nations that are rooted in their histories and invested in their destiny, nations that seek allies to befriend, not enemies to conquer,” he said.

3. The Trump administration wants other nations to contribute more to the U.N. and to regional stability.

Trump was blunt about wanting other nations to pay more to keep the U.N. running. “The United States is one out of 193 countries in the United Nations, and yet we pay 22 percent of the entire budget and more,” Trump told the General Assembly. “In fact, we pay far more than anybody realizes. The United States bears an unfair cost burden, but to be fair, if it could actually accomplish all of its stated goals, especially the goal of peace, this investment would easily be well worth it.”

Such rhetoric is a regular complaint of the Trump administration, and Trump himself, but the reality is more complicated. While the U.S. is the single largest contributor to the U.N., paying about 22 percent of its $5.4 billion core budget — and also supporting the largest bulk sum of its peacekeeping operations — the funding is set on a sliding scale, proportionate to a country's wealth. This year, the U.S. has also scaled back on its funding to U.N. peacekeeping by $600 million, as well as entirely slashing funding to the U.N. Population Fund.

In a signal that this attitude is unlikely to change and that America would expect other countries to increase their international contributions, Trump added: “We believe that no nation should have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, militarily or financially. Nations of the world must take a greater role in promoting secure and prosperous societies in their own region.”

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About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.