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Will Trump’s first UN assembly put 'America First'?

United States President Donald Trump at the airport in Morristown, New Jersey, on 15 September 2017, wrapping up a weekend of golf ahead of this week's United Nations General Assembly. Reuters/Yuri Gripas

As United States President Donald Trump attends his first United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, member states will be scrutinising for signs of the US’s commitment to the multilateralism the UN embodies - especially when it comes to the tensions with North Korea.

Since entering office in January, Trump has shown by pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change that he is willing to follow through on promises to back away from international engagements.

“The US President is always carefully watched, and it’s even more the case with Trump, given his lack of taste for multilateral engagements and formats,” says Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “So there’s a lot that people will be expecting to hear from the US position.”

But Trump’s team has also scaled back on its most scathing criticism of the UN in recent months, and its requests for reform and budget cuts of the UN’s expensive peacekeeping missions are expected to be less severe than what earlier comments may have suggested.

“If you look at deployment of US troops worldwide, they are in a lot of the world’s trouble spots and likely to stay there, and the last couple of months of the Trump presidency hasn’t brought about a radical change in that regard,” says Sijbren de Jong, strategic analyst with the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies.

“And, if you look at the relative strength of the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, compared to for example [Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson, then one has to say that between these two, Haley has actually been doing a better job. So I do think they take the UN quite seriously, yes.”

Macron's UN debut

The 72nd GA is also the first assembly for new French President Emmanuel Macron, who, in contrast to the uncertainty around Trump, has made it clear that he will openly defend the UN and its mission.

“Macron did not shy away from saying how much he disagrees with Trump on the Paris Agreement, so it’s not likely he’s going to try to appease Trump,” says Manuel Lafont Rapnouil with the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“But we’ve also seen that Macron’s idea is not to antagonise Trump. He invited him to the Bastille Day parade in Paris and had a long bilateral meeting with him.”

North Korea standoff shows divide between US and UN

Tension over North Korea’s atomic weapons programme perhaps most clearly displays divergences between the US and other UN members, and tatements from the Trump administration in recent days suggest those tensions are rising.

“The fact that they’re conducting this kind of messaging will be of greater concern to many members, particularly from East and Southeast Asia,” says Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford.

“The worry always in these cases is that, when you have a high state of tension between two states, something untoward can spill you over into a crisis,” Rogers says. “And I think the attitude of the Trump administration suggests that they’re willing to see an increase in tension because they think that might put pressure on the North Korean regime.”

So it’s on this point that members will really be looking for sign of the extent the US is going to work with or beyond the UN institutions.

“One of the problems of course is most of the member states, particularly in the Security Council, will be going for a diplomatic solution,” says Sijbren de Jong.

“And any additional rhetoric bordering on the belligerent from Trump is probably not going to help much, knowing that at some point these threats are going to be perceived as hollow, and that’s something UNSC members wish to prevent.”