On Tuesday, UN Secretary General António Guterres will travel to Washington, D.C. and will meet this week with Members of Congress and administration officials. He will be in Washington in the wake of an extraordinary press conference he held at the United Nations in New York on June 20, in which he urged the Trump administration to stay engaged on global issues.
In particular, Guterres declared, “it’s possible to have [a] vacuum in nature but not in international relations.” He added that if the United States disengaged from the world, others would take its place, and concluded that this would be good for neither the United States nor the world. He went on to say that “[t]his is true from Syria to Libya, from South Sudan to any other crisis in the world.”
We’ve certainly come to expect this kind of talk from many U.S. politicians. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has complained that the rest of the world is “not sure of American leadership, whether it be in Siberia or whether it be in Antarctica.” And on issues such as promoting human rights, U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sustaining foreign aid and others, members of Congress have bemoaned what they see as an absence of U.S. world leadership.
But what to make of a UN Secretary General imploring the United States not to walk away from the responsibilities of global leadership?
For one thing, the Secretary General’s comments reflect the fact that the post-World War II international political, security and humanitarian institutions of which the United Nations is a part were largely an American creation, and they have served the United States and the world well. To be sure, the rise of other world powers is changing the character of that system, and the Secretary General’s comments reflect a plea for the United States to sustain its presence as that global conversation unfolds.
Americans owe the UN Secretary General their thanks for his wise counsel, and the president and members of Congress would be very well advised to take it quite seriously.
For decades, the U.S. government has enjoyed enormous goodwill and influence in world affairs, sustained by a broad network of friends and allies. That was obvious, for example, when the United States was able to rally UN members in support of the removal of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. It was apparent not only in the outpouring of support from friends, allies and even adversaries after the 9/11 attacks, but also in the subsequent efforts to forge common global cause against terrorism. And it was obvious in the context of recent U.S. efforts to spur greater commitments by governments of the world for support of peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.
Remarkably, even in those areas where there has been strong opposition to U.S. geopolitical objectives at the United Nations – such as in Kosovo in 1999, Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 – U.S. adversaries have been prepared to accept U.S. positions on issues the U.S. government believed were critical to peace and security.
President Trump and his administration need to appreciate that this goodwill and influence did not come free of charge and is fragile in a world in which power dynamics are shifting at a dizzying rate. In short, the willingness of the United States to assume political, financial and moral leadership on any number of issues worldwide – from human rights to trade to non-proliferation to peace and security – has been critical to U.S. capacity to drive international action like no other government in the world. This is an extraordinary asset that must not be squandered.
So what can the President do?
First, he ought to make a point to see the UN Secretary General in Washington, and signal U.S. support for United Nations efforts to address some of the world’s most intractable conflicts. The president should also make clear his intention to reconsider the dramatic cuts his administration has proposed for funding of critical United Nations humanitarian and peacekeeping operations.
Of course, some White House advisers may suggest that such outreach to the United Nations hardly matters to the president’s most ardent supporters. But President Trump could then remind them of the dramatic successes of one former U.S. president – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – whose most ardent supporters also felt grave uncertainty about their economic futures. After all, it was Roosevelt who provided hope and opportunity domestically while ensuring strong support for multilateral institutions that shaped so much of the post-War era. And that former president is widely credited for defeating forces of intolerance and aggression at home and abroad, and enabling a brighter future for untold millions.
That seems like a valuable lesson for this president, and for us all.
Eric Schwartz is president of Refugees International. This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post website.
Top photo: UN/Evan Schneider