UNITED NATIONS — When Donald Trump steps up to the podium Tuesday during the UN General Assembly, the real estate tycoon-turned-reality show celebrity and 45th U.S. president will hold sway on the diplomatic world’s biggest stage.
Trump is scheduled to be the second speaker Tuesday. He is likely, scholars said, to use the opportunity in his first General Assembly address to spell out his priorities — and to say how, or whether, he thinks the multilateral organization that he called in a December 2016 tweet “a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time,” will help or hinder American interests.
He is one head of state in a long line of leaders to speak during the General Debate, which lasts for nearly two weeks and is as famous for featuring soaring rhetoric as it is notorious for giving international pariahs a global audience.
It also symbolizes, perhaps like no other address in Trump’s eight-month tenure, a milestone in which all eyes focus on the leader of the world’s most powerful nation as he talks directly to the rest of the world.
Several scholars predict Trump’s appearance will be among the most closely watched, as it poses an opportunity for the new president, who ran on an “America First” platform, to outline his foreign policy.
“One of the biggest questions with President Trump in general, in the way that he enunciates foreign policy, is there hasn’t been so far a major foreign policy speech where he in a sense explains what the United States is for or what the place of the United Nations is within the instruments of, or vehicles for, advancing U.S. foreign policy goals,” said Stewart Patrick, director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World.”
Previous U.S. presidents came to the UN prepared to deliver speeches that often echoed comments they had made elsewhere, and emphasized the U.S. role as a leader in the world and the UN’s function in furthering it, Patrick said.
Barack Obama praised the institution for its multilateral might, while his predecessor, George W. Bush, questioned its “relevance,” famously bypassing the UN’s consensus in order to launch a war in Iraq in 2003.
Bill Clinton, however, spoke of expanding the world’s democracies, and George H.W. Bush mapped out a “New World Order” after he sought and received UN approval for a multinational force to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in January 1991.
“Speeches like the one Trump will give at the UN are a typical forum for U.S. presidents to lay out their views of international relations and U.S. policy, and this would typically be a time when a president will try to fit his various ideas into a coherent world view or ‘doctrine,’” said Julian Ku, who teaches courses including U.S. foreign affairs law at Hofstra Law School in Hempstead.
Trump “has done some of this during his speeches in Saudi Arabia and Poland, but this will be an opportunity to do so in the global as opposed to just the regional context,” Ku said.
The White House website describes Trump’s “America First Foreign Policy” succinctly but ambiguously as “focused on American interests and American national security,” with the destruction of the Islamic State group as the top priority and better trade deals a close second, but the document is short on details.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, has been a vocal proponent for the Trump agenda, at times being more hawkish than her boss — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — and Trump himself. For example, she has scolded Russia’s ambassador at Security Council debates over the country’s stances on Syria and North Korea and its intervention in Ukraine, despite Trump’s favorable view of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Haley also has criticized the nations comprising the UN Human Rights Council for the body’s many resolutions condemning Israel.
Her pro-Israel positions are consistent with those of many former ambassadors, including Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who served under Obama, observers said.
Arriving at the UN in January stating there was a “new sheriff in town,” Haley has emphasized several issues as Trump’s voice at the UN: reforming the UN itself by slicing its peacekeeping and general budget, changing the UN’s “anti-Israel bias,” calling out human rights violators and international aggression, and giving U.S. taxpayers “value” for their money, a return on investment so to speak.
The United States, as the world’s largest economy, is responsible for $611 million, or 22 percent, of the UN’s general budget and about $2.2 billion, or more than 28 percent, of its peacekeeping budget.
Trump’s relationship with the UN thus far is hard for analysts to assess, and they hope for more clarity when he speaks at the General Assembly.
Patrick called Trump’s assessment a “transactional” approach to the organization, the financial lens through which he sees much of his job. Indeed, the bulk of Trump’s website description of the America First Foreign Policy focuses on trade deals that benefit Americans so they have greater consumer power — not on engaging the international community toward a common goal of a safer and kinder world through collective action.
That vision also may be at the heart of a move away from the internationalism of his predecessors.
“Trump many years ago was a friend to the UN, and had to build goodwill to build his condo tower that dwarfs the iconic UN buildings,” said Katie Laatikainen, professor of political science at Adelphi University in Garden City. “His approach toward the globally oriented multilateral environs appears to have shifted with his presidential ambitions.”
Ku said the UN offers an opportunity for Trump to engage the world.
“His audience at the UN is not the American people, but foreign governments and their populations,” Ku said. “It is an important platform for reaching those groups and shaping his image.”