The election of Donald Trump poses grave challenges to the core principles of the United Nations (UN). The timing of his ascent to power comes when a new secretary-general also begins his term on January 1, 2017. This only multiplies the uncertainties surrounding the transition in the UN and the impact of US foreign policy on the UN.

“All we have to go on for now are the president-elect’s own words.”

First, let me stipulate that no one knows what Donald Trump’s foreign policy will be, even Donald Trump. Second stipulation: virtually everything is up for negotiation. A man who has changed his political party affiliation seven times is clearly ready to change or even reverse course. Yet all we have to go on for now are the president-elect’s own words and his appointments to head the CIA and to be the national security advisor and attorney-general. Neither his words nor his nominees to these key posts are reassuring for the United Nations.

UN founding principles

Trump has made statements that directly undermine all the core missions of the United Nations. The UN Charter, now 71 years old, states that the organization was created for three reasons: to promote international peace and security, to ensure economic development, and to protect and promote human rights. Trump’s positions contradict each of these founding principles.

International peace and security

On international peace and security, the UN’s principal body is the Security Council. As a permanent member of the Security Council, the United States holds a veto, along with Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom. Trump has famously declared his admiration of and willingness to work closely with Russian president Vladimir Putin. While on the surface better relations with Russia might alleviate the logjam currently facing the Council on many issues, when one probes more deeply, this alignment will pose significant threats to international peace and security.

The most prominent item on the Council’s agenda currently is Syria. Putin’s aggressive support of the Assad regime, now likely to be supported by a Trump administration, will mean an end to any meaningful role for the United Nations and the likely continuation of fighting. Within hours of Trump and Putin speaking for the first time, Russia launched intensive air strikes from an aircraft carrier on rebels in eastern Aleppo. Meanwhile, President Assad welcomed Trump as a “natural ally” in the fight against terrorism, something he never would have said about Hillary Clinton.

ISIS will use all this as a recruiting tool, and the few moderate Syrian rebels left will almost certainly be driven into the arms of ISIS. A total military victory by the Assad/Russia/Hezbollah/Iran coalition in Syria will dramatically increase the threat of terrorism in the region, Europe, and elsewhere, as disenfranchised and marginalized Sunnis will not go quietly. Trump’s appointment of retired general Michael Flynn as his national security advisor, a post that does not require Senate confirmation, will give ISIS recruiters plenty of fodder for their efforts. Flynn has stated that Islam is “a cancer” and “a political ideology” that “definitely hides behind being a religion.”

“All this is extremely destabilizing for an already volatile region.”

Ironically, by supporting Putin on Syria, Trump will also be helping Iran achieve one of its core foreign policy goals of keeping a solid link to fellow Shia in Syria and Lebanon. This in turn will infuriate Saudi Arabia, which views any advance by Iran as a setback for the kingdom. Turkey will also be emboldened to continue its crackdown on Kurds on both sides of the border while stifling civil liberties at home. All this is extremely destabilizing for an already volatile region. Authoritarian regimes like the ones in Egypt, Bahrain, and Sudan are pleased with the US election result. Reportedly, the first head of state to reach Trump to congratulate him on his victory was Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Russia in particular will feel less pressure concerning its occupation of the Crimea and ongoing support for and fighting alongside rebels in eastern Ukraine. While little action was possible by the UN given Russia’s veto on the Security Council, with tacit support from the United States for its actions in Russia’s “near abroad,” the UN faces further marginalization in this crucial area.

While Trump has excoriated China on some issues, particularly on trade and climate change (he maintains it is a hoax cooked up by the Chinese to make American manufacturing noncompetitive), one of his first post-election conversations was with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Trump has frequently had business dealings in China and many products in his various “lines” are made there, despite his protestations against exporting American jobs overseas. Again, while better relations with China superficially could be positive, this is not true regarding the Security Council.

China is a reluctant participant when it comes to imposing economic sanctions, and while China has increased its participation in peace operations, it frequently opposes UN interventions and broad mandates from the Security Council as interference in internal affairs. China shows great deference to national sovereignty and resists criticizing even gross violations of human rights. Russia also lines up with China when these issues are raised. For example, on Syria, both countries have exercised their vetoes three times (very rare “double vetoes”) on relatively mild resolutions. So if the United States will now be joining Russia and China to oppose sanctions or strong mandates for UN peace operations or authorizing UN peace operations at all, the UN’s ability to prevent conflicts and maintain international peace will be further weakened.

“It is not certain that the United States will continue to maintain this level of financial support.”

A more passive US approach along with aligning more closely with Russia and China in the Security Council will also undermine many of the recommendations made by two recent panels commissioned by the current secretary-general to review peacekeeping and the UN’s Peacebuilding Commission. Both reviews emphasized the importance of preventing conflict and addressing root causes of conflicts along with greater capacity to protect civilians. A Trump policy emphasizing a new form of American isolationism would not support proactive measures to prevent or end conflicts or to grant the UN more robust authority and capacity to engage in what are really state-building exercises in Haiti, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The United States is the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping, and it is not certain that the United States will continue to maintain this level of financial support when Trump and his foreign policy advisors deeply suspect the legitimacy and effectiveness of UN peacekeeping. Although the review of peace operations decried the chronic underfunding of UN peace operations, the current level of support may well be remembered fondly if the budget is cut as a result of falling US contributions.

The new secretary-general may find that the necessary steps identified by the 2015 reviews of the UN’s work in peace operations and post-conflict reconstruction are dead in the water as of January 20, 2017.

Sustainable economic development

Another recent UN milestone put at risk by the election of Trump is the effort to reach the recently established Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals are a follow-on to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that expired in 2015; the SDGs run to 2030. Unanimously approved by UN member-states, the SDGs focus on maintaining momentum on ending poverty, reducing child and maternal mortality, improving access to health care and adequate education, and making clean water and sanitation more available, among other goals.

An important innovation of the SDGs is that they introduce the principles of accountability, rule of law, and access to justice to development goals. These were all missing in the MDGs, which was seen as a weakness. In particular, SDG 16 commits the international community to “promote a peaceful and inclusive society for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.” Already, some UN member-states are showing “buyer’s remorse” about SDG 16, saying that it is intrusive and is receiving too much attention precisely because SDG 16 will focus on governance issues like transparency, anticorruption, integrity of government officials, and accountability for results.

Yet nothing Trump has said indicates he supports aid for international economic development or even less any efforts to improve governance and create more accountability. He has shown almost no interest in the continent with the worst human development indicators, Africa. His attention has been exclusively on the US economy. His opposition to NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is based solely on his assessment of their impact on US jobs, not on any benefits that would accrue to trading partners who might then be able to buy more goods from the United States.

“It appears that US investments in multilateral institutions like the UN and the World Bank will fall.”

The United States is the largest donor to international development funding ($31.08 billion in 2015, which is only 0.17 percent of US GDP), but this too could change. In fact, Trump said during the campaign that the US should “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us and use that money to rebuild our tunnels, roads, bridges and schools.” “America First” aptly sums up his position. Some in the aid community fear that Trump might abolish or severely diminish USAID.

In short, it appears that US investments in multilateral institutions like the UN and the World Bank will fall. Likewise, programs on good governance, the rule of law, democracy, women’s rights, LGBT rights, girls’ education, strengthening civil society and fighting authoritarian regimes, ending extreme poverty, and promoting and protecting human rights are not going to be high on the Trump administration’s agenda.

Human rights

Trump has stated throughout the campaign that torture “works” and that he would allow and even order the US military to use methods like waterboarding and worse. The vice-president-elect Mike Pence has refused to rule out waterboarding, and both he and Trump favor maintaining the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Pence has said when asked about torture and waterboarding, “We’re going to have a president again who will never say what we’ll never do.”

Trump has also said he would intentionally order the killing of the relatives of suspected ISIS members. “We’re fighting a very politically correct war,” Trump answered in response to a question about avoiding civilian casualties. “And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. They, they care about their lives. Don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.”

Of course, we don’t know if Trump will actually order the US military and/or the CIA to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, which systematic torture and the intentional targeting of civilians would be, but once again, for now we are left with what Trump has said many times. Moreover, his nominee to head the CIA, Kansas representative Mike Pompeo, has often argued for using harsh interrogation measures and criticized the Obama administration for outlawing torture techniques like waterboarding.

“Authoritarian leaders around the world will take all these statements as a license to torture.”

Authoritarian leaders around the world will take all these statements as a license to torture and commit other violations of human rights and the laws of war. Many have reacted positively to Trump’s victory. The Philippine president’s response was revealing. Rodrigo Duterte, following his congratulatory phone call to Trump, said: “We don’t have any quarrels. I can always be a friend to anybody, especially to a president, a chief executive of another country. He has not meddled in the human rights.” That last sentence is key: do business with us, but don’t raise pesky questions about our human rights record. None other than Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe has said he is now looking forward to reestablishing diplomatic relations with the United States.

Trump famously holds grudges and remembers his “enemies.” One person likely to be on the list is the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. In a speech in The Hague in September the high commissioner said: “if Donald Trump is elected on the basis of what he has said already—and unless that changes—I think it is without any doubt that he would be dangerous from an international point of view.” He also accused Trump of spreading “humiliating racial and religious prejudice.”

On cue, Moscow’s man in Russia’s Mission to the UN in New York, Vitaly Churkin, filed a complaint with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon over Zeid’s statements. “He should stick to human rights […] He should not be criticizing foreign heads of state and governments for their policies.” This is exactly what the high commissioner for human rights should be doing. The UN human rights officials are going to be in for a tumultuous time with a Trump presidency.

“The danger to human rights within the United States should not be underestimated.”

The UN, as the guardian of human rights, must confront the US president-elect and insist that torture and intentionally or recklessly killing civilians is simply unacceptable. The UN special rapporteurs on torture and summary or arbitrary executions and killings are likely to be extremely busy over the next four years. While the United States has ratified the UN Convention against Torture and the four Geneva Conventions and Protocol I, trying to ensure that the US follows its legal obligations under these binding treaties will not be easy.

The danger to human rights within the United States should not be underestimated. Trump’s nominee as attorney general, Alabama senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, is no friend to civil liberties. Sessions could not even get approval from a Republican-dominated Judiciary Committee in 1986 when President Reagan nominated him to the Federal District Court. Sessions had made racist statements about blacks and tried to joke about the Ku Klux Klan. He later declared that the ACLU, the NAACP, and Planned Parenthood are “un-American.” He has defended Trump’s ban on Muslims and opposes any efforts at immigration reform. Faced with crucial human rights questions like police use of deadly force, torture, gender and racial equality, prolonged use of solitary confinement (which the UN special rapporteur on torture has found is a form of torture), affirmative action, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, marriage equality, and housing discrimination, just to name a few, human rights advocates in the United States and abroad will not find a friend in Jeff Sessions, assuming he is appointed by his Senate peers.


Trump’s words and a few of his actions—the four appointments discussed above, for example—give us some clue about what his actual policies will be. But as George Orwell warned many years ago, we all must pay continuing and close attention to Trump and his team’s language. As Orwell noted:

“Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”1From Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Languages” (1946).
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From Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Languages” (1946).
Read online →