WASHINGTON — Some of President George W. Bush’s advisers used to mock the annual General Assembly of the United Nations for producing mostly “small talk in big rooms.” One national security aide to President Barack Obama once described a typical presidential schedule of back-to-back-to-back-to-back meetings with other world leaders on the sidelines of the gathering as “diplomatic speed-dating from hell.”
Next week, President Trump will make his first appearance at the annual meeting, which sometimes grips Manhattan’s grid in motorcade-lock, and give a speech to his largest-ever audience of presidents and prime ministers. No one expects a diplomatic breakthrough — they’re rare at what official Washington calls “UNGA.” But every country in the world, including America’s rivals and foes, will be listening.
In Tuesday’s address, Trump “slaps the right people, he hugs the right people,” his ambassador to the world body, Nikki Haley, told reporters in a briefing at the White House on Friday. Haley was sidestepping the question of whether the president would use his remarks to directly confront North Korea and Iran, two of his most difficult foreign policy challenges.
Trump’s national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, warned at the same briefing that when it comes to North Korea, “We’re out of time. … We’ve been kicking the can down the road, and we’re out of road.
“And so, for those who have said and have been commenting about the lack of a military option, there is a military option,” McMaster said. “It’s not what we would prefer to do. So what we have to do is call on all nations, call on everyone, to do everything we can to address this global problem short of war.”
Two major players in the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs — Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping — are skipping the meeting.
“I think the fact that President Xi and President Putin couldn’t be there is not going to change the effect of the talks that we have next week,” Haley said. “That’s their choice to not show up.”
“The U.N. General Assembly’s not a substitute for bilateral relationships with any nations,” McMaster said.
In fact, Trump will meet — individually, and in groups — with a string of global decisionmakers while in New York. On Monday, he’ll hold talks with leaders of France and Israel, and he’ll have dinner with Latin American counterparts. On Tuesday, he will meet with the emir of Qatar, currently embroiled in a volatile diplomatic spat with fellow U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. Trump will also hold talks Wednesday with leaders from Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Britain and Egypt and have lunch with African leaders. On Thursday, he will meet with leaders from Turkey, Afghanistan and Ukraine, then a joint lunch with leaders of South Korea and Japan.
“No one is going to grip-and-grin,” Haley insisted. “The United States is going to work. And I think with all of the challenges around the world, I think the international community’s going to see that. This is a time to be serious, and it’s a time for us to talk out these challenges and make sure there’s action that follows it.”
Trump will try, however, to avoid Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
“He victimized his own people, denied them their rights under his own Constitution,” said McMaster. “And I think that the president’s made clear he’s willing to talk at some point in the future, but it would have to be after rights are restored to the Venezuelan people.”
In the past, Trump has not shied from suggesting improvements to the U.N. headquarters on the East Side of Manhattan. In 2012, he described the marble wall that will serve as a backdrop to his speech as looking cheap, and offered to replace it with “beautiful large marble slabs.”
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