Trump’s UN Reform Plan Is All About The “Lead From Behind” Strategy

Trump’s UN reform agenda aims to institutionalize the “Lead From Behind” stratagem under UN legitimacy by depriving Russia and China of their Security Council veto over future “Coalition of the Willing” operations.

UN reform has emerged as one of Trump’s pet projects over the past week as he sought to hype up his first-ever appearance at the opening ceremony for the General Assembly. The President spoke about the need for changing the order of business at the United Nations many times while on the campaign trail, but the moment has finally arrived for him to turn his words into action. As is typical of his no-nonsense business style and the self-appointed leadership position of the country which he represents, Trump has taken upon himself the decisive role in dictating what needs to be done in order to avoid never-ending debates and ultimately watered-down proposals which detract from the changes that the US is trying to implement through the President’s 10-point proposal.

Trump is strategically using UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as his proxy for giving the US’ initiatives the cover of apolitical neutrality, and has thus far convinced nearly 130 countries to sign onto his proposal for supporting the UN leader’s vague reform agenda which is being advanced at Washington’s behest. Neither Trump nor Guterres have put forth any concrete ideas yet for how this would look, but a closer reading of the President’s 10-point proposal, his remarks at the document’s official unveiling, and his opening ceremony speech suggests that the whole purpose is to institutionalize the “Lead From Behind” stratagem under UN legitimacy by depriving Russia and China of their Security Council veto over future “Coalition of the Willing” operations.

The dead-giveaway is Point 9 of Trump’s proposal, which states that “we support the Secretary-General in making concrete changes in the United Nations system to better align its work on humanitarian response, development, and sustaining peace initiatives.” This is a euphemism for legitimizing multilateral military operations (“Coalitions of the Willing”) outside the aegis of the UNSC under the pretext of “humanitarian response” and “sustaining peace” initiatives. These arguments have previously been abused by the US in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and it looks like the Trump Administration intends to continue the pattern, albeit devolving responsibilities to the US’ regional allies which have a shared interest in partaking in these operations. None of this can be “legitimized” so long as Russia and China enjoy their UNSC veto power, which is why one of the reforms will be to water this down or get rid of it entirely.

How Broken Is The UN Really?

Vasily Nebenzia
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzia

Before explaining how the US plans to attempt this, a few words should be said about the other aspects of Trump’s proposals. Truth be told, Trump is right about a lot of things – the UN is indeed broken, bloated, and full of bungled opportunities. It desperately needs reforms at all levels in order to streamline its effectiveness, which Russia’s new UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia seemed to agree with when he said that “the organization needs reform, even if not a fundamental overhaul”, though qualifying his remarks to importantly add that “the reform itself should not come through a declaration, but through inter-governmental negotiations between members” in criticizing Trump’s unilateral approach to this agreed-upon end. Ambassador Nebenzia’s statement prompts one to think about just how broken the UN really is, but upon further contemplation, the answer might be surprising.

Apart from promoting socio-humanitarian projects in the Global South and serving as a discussion forum for the world’s nations, the UN pretty much only has three purposes as viewed from an cynical Neo-Realist perspective.

Peacekeeping:

The first is to engage in peacekeeping operations, which it’s done on dozens of occasions all throughout the world. There are legitimate questions about each deployment’s mandate and the tangible objectives that it’s supposed to accomplish, both of which need to be addressed in the future, but all in all, it’s rare for the decision to commence peacekeeping operations in the Global South (where most of them have taken place) to be politicized at the Security Council level. It’s another story when it comes to places like Yugoslavia and Ukraine, but these are more the exception than the rule, and in any case, it’s difficult to imagine what solution could realistically be proposed for fixing this.

Sanctions:

The second purpose that the UN has come to have in today’s world is the implementation of Security Council sanctions, such as the ones which were recently promulgated against North Korea and the prior measures taken against Iran, for example. These are generally more politicized than peacekeeping missions, as the cases of Myanmar and Zimbabwe prove, but in these instances the pro-sanction party usually undertakes unilateral measures on its own or in conjunction with its “Coalition of the Willing” partners to sidestep the UN in doing this anyhow. The UNSC generally only agrees to sanction a country if all five members have a confluence of geostrategic interests in doing so, or if some sort of backroom arrangement has been reached between them in advance.

Preventing And Stopping Wars:

The third and last role that the UN serves in the world is supposed to be its most important one, and that’s to prevent wars or immediately stop them after they begin. Thus far, the UN has an abysmal track record with this, and there’s no conceivable scenario whereby it will ever truly succeed with this noble but utopian task. The examples of the US’ 2003 War on Iraq and 2011 War on Libya are telling, since Washington went ahead with its plans anyway despite not having UNSC authorization to do so, international “normative legitimacy” be damned. All that the US did was assemble some countries to join it in “Coalitions of the Willing” to both provide Washington with a thin veneer of “multilateralism” and to share the burden in these conflicts, respectively.

From the above, it’s evident that the UN has failed in its original goal to preserve and promote peace in the world, but that the stigma of “Coalitions of the Willing” acting outside of UNSC authorization inflicts major damage on each member state’s soft power.

From the American perspective, the solution is to creatively “legitimize” a workaround that manipulates the optics of the situation in such a way that the UNSC veto-holders voting against the prospective “humanitarian response” or “sustaining peace” initiative are made to look like the problem, and not the aggressive state or coalition thereof which is preparing to launch a war in contravention of the UN’s founding purpose in preventing these sorts of conflicts in the first place.

The Plot To Remove The Veto

The US knows that there is no way that Russia or China would ever cede their veto rights, so it’s decided to take up the cause of expanding the Security Council with the ulterior purpose of watering down the group’s existing consensus-driven decision-making process through forthcoming “reforms” which do away with the “liberum veto”. This historic concept is being used ironically to refer to the right of any noble in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to veto any government decision, and as could have been expected, it led to utter dysfunction and is attributed by some as being the reason why the country was so internally divided prior to the three partitions and “easy picking” for its neighbors.

In this context, the “liberum veto” is being applied from the American perspective in describing how Washington already views the UNSC, to say nothing of how it would feel about it if the organization was expanded to include aspiring permanent members such as Brazil, Germany, South Africa, India, and Japan. The US believes that Russia and China regularly deprive it of the much-needed international legitimacy it desires in carrying out international military action, so there’s no way that it would want to risk another country being added to the Council which could possibly do the same at any time. The end result, as the US sees it, would be the type of institutional dysfunction which plagued the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth right before its final demise.

Bearing in mind Trump’s ambitious agenda to reform the UN in a way which streamlines decision-making and essentially hands the US a carte blanche to do as it pleases without the soft power consequences that it’s experienced over the years, it’s extraordinarily unlikely that he will allow the “liberum veto” to continue in its present one-veto-stops-all form if the Security Council ever expanded. The aspiring permanent members, all of whom are either under American military occupation (Germany and Japan) or are “compromised” BRICS members subject to  heavy American influence (Brazil, India, and South Africa), might even be encouraged to agree amongst themselves that they’d be in favor of doing away with the prior approach in favor of a different system which might necessitate two or three vetoes instead, for example.

The problem is that Russia and China are in a Catch-22 situation because they can’t openly refuse their fellow BRICS members’ requests to join this exclusive club, yet at the same time they don’t want to lose their “liberum veto” rights because this could lead to the US and its allies manipulating the internal politics of the Security Council in such a way as to one day “legitimize” military action against Moscow and Beijing’s partners, or even sanctions against these two Great Powers themselves. Standing in the way of Trump’s vague 10-point proposal that nearly 130 countries already signed onto, including fellow BRICS and G-20 members, could predictably produce negative optics for Russia and China, so it’s uncertain how they’ll proceed in trying to extricate themselves from this dilemma with the least amount of diplomatic-soft power damage possible.

A UN Rebranding For The “Lead From Behind” Strategy

To bring everything together and reiterate the main point of Trump’s UN reform proposal, the President wants to legitimize the use of military force outside of the existing “liberum veto”-dependent UNSC structure (international law), and to this end he’s seeking to craft a creative workaround solution which overrides Russia and China’s rights through the Catch-22 position that the two Great Powers are now forced into regarding the expansion of the Security Council’s permanent members to include some of their BRICS partners. Neither Moscow nor Beijing wants to lose their “liberum veto”, though at the same time they don’t want to lose the trusted standing that they enjoy with their BRICS and G-20 partners by obstructing some of their ascensions to the UNSC.

The ideal scenario would be if Trump agreed to preserve the “liberum veto” after admitting more members to the Security Council, but that’s unrealistic to expect given how much he’s staked his legacy on making the UN more efficient through the streamlining of its decision-making processes regarding “humanitarian response” and “sustaining peace” initiatives. Moreover, approximately 130 countries, or roughly 2/3 of the entire UN General Assembly, have agreed to support Trump’s reforms, and there’s the non-binding legal principle of the “two-thirds rule” which grants normative legitimacy to measures which generate the support of 2/3 or more of their governing bodies. This places Russia and China in a very uncomfortable position, and it’s one which the US masterfully arranged in advance.

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution. 

2 Comments

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