The address made by US President Donald Trump on September 25 to the General Assembly of the United Nations was not what members of the world body were used to hearing. Traditionally, presentations to the UN by chiefs of state sought to underline the importance of multilateralism, global governance and collective action.

But not Donald Trump. For him “national sovereignty” comes first, “global governance” is the designated enemy, and “patriotism” is the guiding force that should inspire any nation’s foreign policy. And as for foreign aid, he stated, the United States would henceforth provide it only to nations that Washington considered friendly and subservient to America’s interests.

What appeared to be a deliberately contrary approach was taken by French President Emmanuel Macron. Addressing the world body, he called for an international order based on regional and international cooperation with no single stakeholder and a global commitment to common trade rules.

While modern communication ensured that both leaders could cater to their respective core audiences from literarily any forum, the fact that both presidents chose the General Assembly of the United Nations as the platform from which to express their visions of a world order was not totally incidental. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, the United Nations has no equal both as a world forum and as an organization with a global impact.

Conflicting visions

Granted, both presidents appeared to have conflicting visions on how the organization should operate and what its scope should be. But beyond the rhetoric and the genuflection to the well-worn clichés of “patriotism” versus “globalization,” what both presidents actually articulated was the same policy, albeit by different means. And, ultimately, if push ever came to shove, neither president would be in the least tempted to change the ground rules of a 73-year-old organization that goes under the name United Nations.

The United Nations Organization, which was created on October 24, 1945, in San Francisco, was the product of a dream, nurtured by illusion but grounded in reality. The dream was that of universal peace. The illusion was that an organization could succeed in enforcing it. The reality was that no state was willing to relinquish its national sovereignty.

Conceptually, the UN was a two-headed beast. While its primary function was the promotion of peace, its members created, in parallel to the “Political UN,” a number of support organizations, which would be of service to them.

This “Service UN” covers a wide spectrum of specialized organizations such UNICEF, which was created to take care of children, UNHCR for refugees, UNESCO for education, ITU telecommunications, WMM meteorology, ICAO civil aviation, WHO health, and the like.

Operating in essence outside the limelight, these organizations, over the decades, fulfilled their missions, and it is thanks to them that, for instance, street signs are the same all over the world and civilian aircraft can communicate with one another. The end result is that there is practically no component of everyday life throughout the world that has not been impacted in one way or another by the United Nations.

Much as the founding member states of the UN claimed to believe in universalism, none were ready to surrender their right to exercise national power to an international body

Conversely the Political UN, that is, the component that was to ensure universal peace and security, has fared somewhat less well.

Much as the founding member states of the UN claimed to believe in universalism, none were ready to surrender their right to exercise national power to an international body.

The format chosen by its Charter for the Political UN provided for the parallel existence of a General Assembly in which all the members had one vote and a Security Council of 10 members elected on a rotation basis in addition to five permanent members, namely China, France, Russia, the UK and the US.

Contrary to the General Assembly, whose resolutions were not binding, those adopted by the Security Council were. And the Security Council also had the authority to authorize the use of force against a member state, but with one caveat. Not only did the relevant resolution require a majority of the votes to be adopted but also each of the five permanent members had a right of veto. Thus the Permanent Five ensured that the United Nations would never be in a position to impose on them a decision that they felt was substantially against their interests.

Over the following 70 years what came to be termed “peacekeeping” fitfully congealed between two defining bookmarks: Korea and Iraq.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea, armed by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. Two days later the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 83 requesting that military assistance be provided to South Korea to repel the invasion. The Korean War had begun, pitting, at least on paper, the United Nations against North Korea.

That some 90% of the forces engaged against North Korean were American was not incidental. In substance, it was an American war, but having been endorsed by the UN Security Council it became a UN operation to which 21 countries contributed some troops.

The only reason the Korean War was fought under the UN label was the fact that the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council and was not present to cast its veto when the decision to intervene was adopted. It was an oversight that the Soviets, and their Russian successors, were never to repeat.

The only reason the Korean War was fought under the UN label was the fact that the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council and was not present to cast its veto when the decision to intervene was adopted

For the subsequent 53 years, from Suez to the Falklands to Vietnam, the UN member states refrained from attempting to obtain Security Council endorsement of their military interventions because it was a given that at least one of the permanent five would use their veto power.

The one deviation from this modus operandi occurred in early 2003 when the administration of US president George W Bush set out to overthrow Saddam Hussein and bring about a “regime change” in Iraq. Initially, Washington attempted to obtain Security Council endorsement to use force against Iraq. However, when it became clear that the US would never receive it,  Washington decided to go at it alone. On March 20, the United States invaded Iraq.

That the UK, Australia, Poland, Spain and Denmark contributed some token troops to the endeavor did not make a dent in the cosmetics of the operation. It was the unilateral use of force by a UN member state against another one without Security Council endorsement. As such it was not a first, by far. But what was a first was the fact that the United States initially tried to obtain UN Security Council endorsement and only proceeded to use force when such an endorsement was denied it.

The US invasion of Iraq, which a member of the Bush administration qualified as “illegal but justified,” proved a seminal moment for the UN; when push came to shove it was the power of a member state and its willingness to use it rather than the provisions of the UN Charter that carried the day.

The invasion of Iraq did not spell the demise of “peacekeeping” that is the use of force by the UN but it reduced it to the sidelines. There are currently 15 such operations involving a total of some 110,000 troops in the likes of Darfur, Cyprus, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Mali.

The first requirement for what the UN defines as “peacekeeping” entails a resolution from the Security Council. This ensures that no such operation can be undertaken if one of the five permanent members objects. The resolution will state that a peacekeeping operation should be undertaken in a given part of the world and that a military force under the UN umbrella should be deployed.

Second, a peacekeeping operation requires funding. On paper, all member states should contribute an assessed sum to peacekeeping. In practice, however, contributions are voluntary, with the US contributing 28% followed by China with 10% and Japan with 9%.

Third, assuming that funding has been obtained, troops are needed to implement the peacekeeping function. In practical terms this is more a police action than a combat operation and peacekeepers, by their visible presence, are expected to have a stabilizing effect on what is generally a situation of internal disturbance.

Industrial democracies with vocal parliaments and a free press are casualty-shy and, as a rule, are loath to contribute their troops to peacekeeping operations. Conversely, given that the UN pays peacekeepers more than their cost, peacekeeping has become an industry, and the largest contributors of troops are currently Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

The end result is that, over the years, UN peacekeeping has morphed into the rich paying the poor to discipline the dispossessed.

During the Cold War years, the UN served the United States well and became a major conduit for American assistance to its allies both operationally and cosmetically

Against this backdrop, what stands as the contrasting visions of international relations as expressed by US President Trump and French President Macron have more to do with their respective clout in the international arena than with an ideological vision.

In terms of global military supremacy, economic clout and industrial power, the United States has no equal. Granted this power is not unlimited but it is still matchless. Conversely, France is a regional European actor with little global economic clout and even less military reach. Being part on an international system of mutual alliances and set rules will not give France more bite. But it will give President Macron the satisfaction of having more bark.

During the Cold War years, the UN served the United States well and became a major conduit for American assistance to its allies both operationally and cosmetically. Operationally, channeling aid through the UN system was often more cost-effective than doing so through the American assistance mechanisms. Cosmetically, providing US$100 million of aid to Afghan refugees in Pakistan could appear as aid to the resistance. Alternatively, channeling the same sum through the UN refugee agency acquired a veneer of humanitarian assistance.

Ultimately, for the United States providing international aid, and thus intervening abroad, through the UN system assumed the dimensions of a massive money-laundering operation.

The end of the Cold War and the waning of Russia as a worldwide competitor to the US rendered this style of operation obsolete. With no need to sugarcoat its aid any longer through international mechanisms, the US could be more selective in providing its international assistance and ensure that it would correspond more closely to US interests.

In this respect, all Trump did was articulate out loud what all the previous US administrations had practiced. For decades they had expertly navigated among the web of constraints, obligations and treaties that are part of the international system and had successfully either used or manipulated them to serve their interests.

Using this system requires some savvy. Trying to abolish it does not.

Ultimately, both President Trump and the administrations that preceded him had the same ambition. To put America first. As of today, the only difference lies in the spelling.