Over the past week we have watched with increasing alarm as the Trump Administration pursues policies that show a complete disregard for multilateralism, a retreat from US global leadership, and a disdain for institutions like the United Nations. President Trump has put the UN—a forum he called “just a club for people to get together, talk, and have a good time”—on notice.
In her first remarks as US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley rejected the long-standing US approach to foreign policy: to value collaboration and international engagement. Instead, her first remarks centered on the idea of US “strength” and made clear that the United States would be keeping a tally of friends and enemies in the international sphere. Haley promised that the country would “have the backs of our allies” and that “[f]or those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names; we will make points to respond to that accordingly.”
But we know that’s not how the UN works. It’s not an arena where scores are kept, ledgers are tallied, and where the flexing of muscles yields results. The UN is the place where, in our increasingly complex and interconnected world, governments come together with civil society, experts, and public voices. Collectively, they meet some of the most critical challenges of our world—from epidemics to climate change to natural disasters. The commitments contained within the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals—which aim to achieve gender equality, end poverty, and promote peaceful societies, among other things—are a testament to how powerful the UN can be, both as a force for good and for advancing US interests and values. For women and girls, the UN and its agencies have been critical to advancing their human rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights.
US global interests are promoted at the UN not through punishing countries that do not side with American positions, but through true collaboration and multilateral action. Under the Obama Administration, skilled US negotiators worked to embed US development priorities into the Sustainable Development Goals, ensuring that the entire international community is working together in pursuit of the common objective of improving the health and wellbeing of people and the planet.
We’ve seen this before. During the Bush Administration, the US government tried to strong-arm governments into rolling back reproductive rights. Not content to simply export conservative American views through negotiations, the US threatened to withhold funding from foreign governments who did not fall in line with US views. They did not succeed. But Haley’s threats last week suggest a return to these bygone bullying tactics.
The United States cannot, and must not, abandon its role as a global leader, and it cannot step away from its UN responsibilities.