At UNGA, President Trump Fails to Demonstrate U.S. Leadership on Global Humanitarian Assistance

Refugees International is deeply disappointed by U.S. President Donald Trump’s failure to credibly demonstrate U.S. leadership on global humanitarian assistance in his speech to the UN General Assembly today. Refugees International in a briefing yesterday outlined ways that the president could restore U.S. leadership during his speech to the international forum. However, the president’s comments were ultimately concerning in at least five key areas.

First, President Trump said we should help refugees “as close to their homes as possible.” His message was clear. At a time of unprecedented need with over 25 million refugees across the globe, the United States is turning its back on the world by slashing the refugee ceiling and shirking its own responsibilities on refugee resettlement.

Second, the president continued his unilateral disengagement from international human rights institutions. In attacking the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court, President Trump undermined two central tools for upholding human rights and holding perpetrators of abuses – including war crimes and genocide – to account.

Third, President Trump announced that the United States would cut its assessed contributions to UN peacekeeping from 28 percent to 25 percent. He argued that slashing U.S. funding would force other states to step up and fill the gap. Instead, U.S. pressure to cut the peacekeeping budget has forced UN missions to downsize and thereby expose civilian populations to greater risk in some of the world’s worst conflicts. This is a trend we can now expect to continue.

Fourth, the president derided the Global Compact on Migration – the outcome of two years of international negotiation to make migration safe, orderly, and regular. Instead, he called for nations to adopt polices based on a misguided notion of self-interest – one that ignores both the complexity of the inherently global challenge and a respect for human dignity. President Trump has moved aggressively to close the door to migrants and asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border. These policies are to be condemned – not held out as an example for other nations to follow.  

Fifth, RI is particularly alarmed by the president’s announcement that the United States would now give foreign assistance not to those in greatest need, but to those who “frankly are our friends.” For decades, the United States has distributed humanitarian aid based on need, not politics. President Trump foreshadowed this policy last month by cutting aid to the Palestinians. Today, he signaled that this decision to break with a core bipartisan tenant of U.S. foreign policy will now become the rule, not the exception.

At UNGA, President Trump took another dangerous step away from the international humanitarian system. It is true the United States will likely remain a leading donor of international relief. But humanitarian leadership is not just about dollars. It requires robust diplomatic engagement, a recognition of the importance of multilateral cooperation, and a willingness to fight for the world’s most vulnerable populations. What we heard today was a fundamental misunderstanding of what leadership means.